“Sometimes you get the bear, sometimes the bear gets you.”
This sounds like a fair fight, doesn’t it? Bears against humans; humans against bears. But if bears could talk they would be puzzled by this statement. “What are you on about?” they might ask, much as Ilan, my 15 year old does. Fair question.
Bears do not regard us as “the enemy” though well they might. Bears lack the concept of an enemy. We, on the other hand, are overloaded with concepts, in fact with concepts as off base as this. We see enemies everywhere in nature. “Man is nature’s denial machine,” said the playwright Arthur Miller, and he had a good point. It could easily be expanded, though: I would add, “Man is nature’s paranoia machine.” Delusions, we live off them! Bears don’t really want anything to do with us. Their experience at the hands of man has not been a good one. For we kill thousands of them every year, for no apparent reason. Nobody knows the exact total, of course, but the Humane Society of the United States estimates at least 33,000 bears are killed by hunters every year, and poachers kill thousands more.
Do they ever kill us? Yes, about one a year. In 2009 Kelly Ann Walz, 37, of Ross Township Pennsylvania was attacked as she cleaned her “pet” (she also had a Bengal tiger and a lion in her backyard) bear’s cage; Donna Munson, 74, was feeding bears on her property in southwestern Colorado when one ate her instead. These are the only people to have been killed by a bear in 2009.
In that very same year, in the State of California, The Department of Fish and Game reported 1,900 black bears “harvested”. In Virginia, the number was 2204.
Meanwhile, I could find no authenticated account of an adult bear killing another adult bear in 2009. I am not saying it never happens (we are not likely to be there to witness it when it does), but bear researchers agree it is rare.
Also in 2009, 15,241 people were killed by other people in the United States.
What is it with us? We kill each other; we kill bears; yet we call them top predators and act like they’ve been terrorizing us for millennia while in fact all they wish is to be left alone. So again I ask: What is it with us?
People who claim to love bears, and would not dream of killing one, have no problem though in putting them in the prisons we call zoos. And what do we believe we achieve when put a polar bear on display in a zoo, only to drive him mad? I saw this, at the London Zoo – a polar bear pacing back and forth. He looked miserable, defeated, stumped, not comprehending how he had gotten where he was. How could he? People see him there, and think: “He’s fine.” But he’s not.
Do we need proof, the imprimatur from Nature? We have it: Georgia Mason and Ross Clubb from Oxford University pointed out that in a zoo a polar bear is confined to a single one-millionth her natural range’s size. What I saw then makes sense. It also explains the strange behavior of Gus, a polar bear living in the Central Park Zoo in 1994 who incessantly swam in figure eights in his pool. Mason and Clubb conclude: “Our results show, to our knowledge for the first time, that a particular lifestyle in the wild confers vulnerability to welfare problems in captivity.” In plain English, polar bears don’t belong in zoos! (Does any animal?)
But what most people want to learn about bears is how dangerous they are.
Damn, what was that again? Play dead with a grizzly; fight a black bear (they’re just bluffing, right?)? Or the other way round? Do I run (no!) or try to look big and menacing (yes). Hence the popularity of a marvelous book: Stephen Herrero’s Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance. Don’t run!
We insist on learning whether grizzlies are dangerous. But dangerous to whom? Each other? Us? Other animals? Under what circumstances? Where? When? Consider Werner Herzog’s film Grizzly Man that recounts the true story of Timothy Treadwell. Treadwell spent twelve years with the grizzlies in Alaska, shooting one hundred hours of extraordinary footage, at close range. His own website (www.grizzlypeople.com – still up and running) warns against getting closer than a hundred yards to a bear, yet he was often right up in their face, even touching their noses with his finger. Bad idea. There is little doubt that he adored the grizzlies he knew. But it is highly unlikely that they adored him in return. This is a difficult idea for humans to swallow. If we love an animal, we expect to be loved in return.
But most animals, in fact, basically all wild animals are at best indifferent to us. That is a harsh word, and harsh judgment but it is true. The reason we cannot take this in easily is that we are accustomed to our domesticated cats and dogs, and other “pets” who do, in fact adore us in return. Dogs actually love us more than we love them, the only such instance in nature. So we falsely project dog love onto other animals. Treadwell spoke to the grizzlies exactly as we speak to our dogs. But the grizzlies were not jumping for joy. It was more like “what the fuck is he on about?” Sure enough, in 2003, just minutes after filming, Treadwell and his girlfriend (who did not want to be there) were attacked and killed by a male grizzly. Nick Jans, in his excellent book on this case, makes the point that the bears “couldn’t care less about human trust or physical affection. They’re too busy being themselves and are at best indifferent to our existence unless we insinuate ourselves into their lives.” It’s a hard lesson for any of us to learn that most animals simply want to be left alone.
In fact, though, almost no society in the past where bears come into contact with humans ignores bears. We have very strong views about them. Why? Perhaps it is because bears resemble us in many ways. As a recent article put it: “The bear is a large and dangerous carnivore. However, fear alone does not account for the rich and varied traditions linking bears and humans. Not infrequently, people have felt a kind of kinship with bears, for humans and bears share many characteristics. They live in the same regions and eat the same fish, roots, and berries. Unlike other animals, bears can stand on their hind legs as humans do and they can use their fore paws as humans use their hands. A bear’s skinned body looks human, and several bear bones resemble human bones, which lends credence to the view that the animal is really a man in disguise.” To the Native Americans, for example the Lakota, Black- foot, and Shoshone, bears occupied a special position because of these similarities. The Cherokee, Crow, Yavapi and other Native Americans thought bears and humans could be transformed into one another.
While bears resemble humans in some ways, in others they are like Über humans. Polar bears, for example, are very large. In fact, polar bears are the largest land meat-eater, three or four times bigger than a big tiger. An adult male can be nearly ten feet tall, and weigh more than fifteen hundred pounds. Slow, though, right? Alas, their top speed running on all fours has been reported to be around 40 mph currently. Usain Bolt, the fastest man on earth has a peak speed of 27 mph. You will not outrun the bear.
You don’t want to tangle with a bear like that. In a balanced world, the two species would hardly come into contact. But since humans have created climate change, the bears are not finding as much food as they need. So they come into towns, like Churchill, Manitoba in the Hudson Bay, Canada, known as the Polar Bear Capital of the World. One thousand residents, one thousand polar bears.
The town has what they call the “bear police” to protect tourists and residents. They catch bears wandering into town and put them in a ‘polar bear jail’ until the ice freezes, at which point the bear police fly them by helicopter and drop them onto the ice so that the bears can hunt and find food on their own. If there are problems with bears, we are the ones who have created these problems.
One often reads that Polar bears are one of the only animal species known in rare cases to hunt humans, especially when undernourished, frightened or provoked.
However, Tony Smith, a polar bear expert at Brigham Young University noted that if bears stalk and hunt humans, “they’re doing a pretty poor job of it.” In the 125 years prior 2008 he noted, polar bears had killed just eight people in Canada and two in Alaska.
So if bears kill humans only infrequently (on average in North America, eleven people are injured by bears and one person killed per year), how common is it for bears to kill other bears? Well, they are pretty much solitary creatures, like most of the big cats. Just as are the big cats, bears are extremely well endowed with lethal equipment in their claws and jaws. Given that both the big cats and the big bears are of uneven temperament, and can get into a bad mood faster than you can say “lets get out of here now,” it is not surprising that they tend to avoid one another. Bears rarely fight each, probably because the likelihood of mutual injury is so great. They’re not stupid. Encounters between ill-tempered bears could result in death. But in fact, “bear-bear confrontations rarely result in injury on account of a highly developed hierarchy of social interaction. Bears may turn to present their profile or stand on their hind legs in order to appear larger and more intimidating.
They hiss, they pop their jaws, they yawn, and they swing their head.” If you did not recognize these as warning signals you better learn them now. Actually, humans do not understand these signals, and bears will often charge. They normally stop short of actual contact. They just want to show who’s boss. Now we know: they are.