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Canadian Projects

Canadian Blog

by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate

Born Free USA's Canadian Representative


Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)

Soft Landing Bears Witness to Improved Neighborhood Relations

British Columbia’s Whistler Does (Almost) the Right Thing

Published 10/25/10

Mid-October is betwixt and between weather for the mountain town of Whistler, British Columbia, best known for its ski runs and charming chalets. But it is usually too soon for skiing, with the snow yet to come. For some members of the surrounding countryside, the snow has another role to play. It goads you into committing to a long, deep winter’s sleep — if, that is, you are a bear.

Sleeping is good because it is too late for there to be much food left for a bear, and a winter sleep reduces the need. The rich wild berry harvest is depleted by mid-October, and so if you are a black bear, not yet ready for the den, you may wander farther than usual searching for grub, or grubs. Insect larvae have their nutritional value, but even they become harder to find; you may even wander into town. There are some intriguing odours in towns — you don’t smell chicken frying or jelly doughnuts back in the forest!

And so it was that on Thursday, October 14, a black bear wandered into Whistler.

Oops. It didn’t take the hungry bruin long to realize that this was probably not a good idea, and so he took what is, for a bear, appropriate action. He climbed a tree. There’s nothing like being up a tree to give a bear better time to mull things over, to plan, to stay out of trouble, and perhaps to await darkness when it is easier to move unnoticed by those bipedal creatures who always seem so excitable. Trouble was, the tree was located right in town, between the Marketplace and Whistler’s Health Care Centre. The bear was, in short, noticed.

Did I mention the liquor store nearby? In most parts of most Canadian communities there is a liquor store nearby and this one played a key role in what was to unfold. What unfolded was as usual, fuss and bother. When people and bears come together, fuss and bother usually occur, and usually the bears run. People are advised not to. Bears can kill people, but they rarely do. However, they are easily fooled into thinking a running person looks like prey and such a sight can provoke a quite predatory response. We humans are advised not to do that. Mind you, people can more easily kill bears than vice versa, and often do. Both species tend to fear the other, although I would say that bears have greater cause.

The cops were called. Not just any cops, but the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who tried to do the right thing and disperse the crowd. That would give the bear room to wander back out of town, which would have been the best for bear and humans alike.

But the crowd did not want to disperse. Whistler is somewhat prepared for this sort of thing. Plan B swung into action. A conservation officer with a tranquilizer gun was called in.

Forget all those movies and TV shows you’ve seen of this or that large animal being humanely put into a groggy sleep while this or that scientific study is done before the poor animal can stagger into bleary wakefulness and wander off, unharmed. Shooting anyone, beast or human, with a tranquilizer is fraught with risks to the shootee, so to speak. In this case the biggest risk was that the bear would fall. Indeed, it was not a risk, but a certainty, once the tranquilizer took effect. What to do?

The Whistler Fire Rescue Service was next dispatched to the scene. Aren’t its rescuers used to putting nets under windows several stories high from which terrified people jump to escape burning buildings? Yes, but they did the math and decided that the strength of the net was not sufficient to ensure that it would hold when hit by the weight of a bear falling some 20 feet. I should think the more-obese citizens of Whistler might want to take note of that!

Ah, but remember that liquor store? How often have I, when needing boxes to move books or papers or many other things, gone to the local liquor stores, which pile the boxes that the booze comes in for folks to take, for free. Sure enough, there were lots of boxes available, and they were piled high beneath the tree to effectively absorb the weight of the falling bear. He was safely moved to a safer, saner place — the forest, where a bear can climb a tree with reasonable assurance he will still be awake to climb back down.

Meanwhile, the Whistler RCMP has said that it is thinking about acquiring some air mattresses. After all, as Sgt. Shawn LeMay put it, “We won’t always have a liquor store nearby.”

That bear was the fourth seen in Whistler that week, and the good folks who try to ensure that bears and people get along better reminded citizens to lock their houses, keep bear attractants (essentially anything edible) out of yards and vehicles and properly dispose of garbage, and for heaven sakes, when there is a bear up a tree in town, stay away. Because, as the RCMP very correctly said, it is best to simply let the bear climb down again in his or her own good time and leave.

But congratulations to the good people of Whistler for signing on to the Bear Smart campaign, and a tip of the wide-brimmed hat to the Whistler detachment of the RCMP.

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Barry Kent MacKay

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