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!)
Another Kinder Response to a Bear in Canada
In a recent blog (“Soft Landing Bears Witness to Improved Neighborhood Relations”) I reported about the black bear who, hungry as winter was starting to close in, wandered into the mountain town of Whistler, British Columbia, climbed a tree, and was subsequently tranquilized and removed. The cops had tried to just do what would have been better, and let the bear wander off on his own, but curious citizens interfered and finally a conservation officer had to tranquilize the bear. In the old days the poor thing would have been shot dead.
But from Ottawa, a short time later, comes another story about a bear and people interaction with an even better ending. This black bear was getting ready for its winter sleep — it’s that time of year for our bears — and had wondered into the backyard of a homeowner in Fallowfield, near Ottawa, Canada’s capital city, in eastern Ontario. This bear did not climb a tree, but did have a snack of bird seed, and then curled up for a nap, right in the yard.
That wouldn’t do, and homeowner Geoff Johnson decided to chase this most unthreatening bear by clapping his hands and shouting, “Shoo!”
Bears are intelligent, but they have rotten English skills, as Johnson’s 12-year-old granddaughter, Abigail, pointed out. “I don’t think,” she said, “he knows what `shoo’ means.”
Apparently not. Here’s where the story takes a turn for the better. Johnson called the cops. Another time, another place, another cop, and bloodshed might have ensued, but my colleagues in Ottawa have been working hard of late (after a stupidly unnecessary slaughter of coyotes) and that may help explain why the officer advised Johnson to keep the grandkids, Abigail and her 8-year-old brother, Harry, inside. He then pointed out that if the bear gave no sign of aggression, there would be no reason to remove it.
Johnson told the Ottawa Citizen, “We’ve lived here 20 years, and we’ve had everything — wolves, coyotes, foxes and deer every day — but we’ve never had a bear. My wife won’t even go to put out the garbage now.” He also mentioned hearing of another bear in a nearby community, wandering the streets and gulping down fallen apples. It is, as I say, that time of year, and in late summer bears spend most of their time eating, trying to consume some 20,000 calories per day. Winter is long and foodless.
Please understand, gentle reader, that I am not taking a dewy-eyed, Disney-esque view of nature which, as the hunters and wildlife managers are forever reminding us, is red of tooth and claw and all that. But I am suggesting that fear, panic, death and destruction are not the only, or best, or most rational, responses to encounters with animals who appear not where they are welcome. The bears were there first, and we should be at least willing to meet them, all the animals whose lands we so imperialistically usurp, part way. Sure enough, after his snooze the bear shuffled off and away.
Meanwhile, as this little story got its wee bit of media attention there was a horrific story also unfolding, also in eastern Ontario, about a far greater threat than any sleepy black bear. I shall spare you the horrific details but put simply a trial was under way for a pillar of the community, the commander of Canada’s largest military air base, whose picture was splattered across the news, dressed both in his military uniform and in stolen women’s underwear. It might have seemed like some sort of outtake from a comedy skit but for the fact that he had, at the outset of his trial, pled guilty not only to the break and entering and underwear thefts, but to confining, torturing and raping three women, and murdering two of them, one of whom was herself a solider.
I dare say most of us would feel safer in the presence of a square-jawed, clean-shaven colonel than in the presence of a black bear, and so we should. This monster was an anomoly. My point is this: If there is one thing that really does separate humans from other animals, it is the matter of predictability. Animals are not entirely predictable, and the more intelligent they are, the less we can know what they will do in response to a given stimulus, to put it rather pedantically. But compared to humans they are enormously predictable.
The cop got it entirely right: No aggression, no real concern. The bear was an inconvenience, nothing more. Sure, you keep the kids in — they’re potentially prey-sized — and you give him room, but after that, well, if he’s that sleepy, let him sleep. He’s just a bear, not a monster like the one in the nearby courtroom.
We blithely walk across roads inhabited by vehicles consisting of tons of steel racing at speeds high enough to cause our bodies to burst open if struck, and take it in our stride because the vast statistical majority of them will be driven by alert drivers obeying well-known laws that keep us safe as we live and move among them. Bears really don’t normally want to tangle with us; they want to be left alone. They, like cars, even like the respected human pillars of our community, can be dangerous, but that is not their default position. Abigail was right: “Shoo!” won’t work, but giving peace a chance can, and no blood gets shed.
Barry Kent MacKay