Bear in Mind

Exploring the common minds and emotions of people and other animals and their lives together

Right Manners

More lessons from Grizzly Bears.

Grizzly bear face.
Fisherman, at rest.
We are witness to a great turning, from an era that saw nature as something to be feared and controlled to a new vision where we understand nature as someone with whom we have profound kinship and connection. The old view has been around for a long time. It has shaped the attitudes and policies of today’s so-called “bear management.” But now, along with global change and the state of the world, the bubble of bear management has burst and the truth is revealed.

And that truth is: Bears are not aggressive. Bears are not a problem. There is no bear-human conflict. The only conflict comes from practices and perceptions that don’t conform to science and the reality about bears. Today’s bear management is not based on science, or rather, it is based on the selective use of science.

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When science is looked at in its entirety - and we are talking about standing, widely accepted theory and data - it mirrors my personal experience over the past 50 years. Bears are social and friendly. John Muir knew this a century ago. He lived in grizzly country for forty years without a gun and had no fear of bears. Here is what he wrote about his first encounter with California Bears:

In my first interview with a Sierra bear we were frightened and embarrassed, both of us, but the bear's behavior was better than mine. When I discovered him, he was standing in a narrow strip of meadow, and I was concealed behind a tree on the side of it. After studying his appearance as he stood at rest, I rushed toward him to frighten him, that I might study his gait in running. But, contrary to all I had heard about the shyness of bears, he did not run at all; and when I stopped short within a few steps of him, as he held his ground in a fighting attitude, my mistake was monstrously plain: I was then put on my good behavior, and never afterward forgot the right manners of the wilderness.

John Muir.
John Muir.
Muir’s experience, and science, disprove a second myth. Contrary to conventional bear management, grizzlies are not aggressive to humans unless seriously provoked or, as sadly is the case today, they have been made to feel and do so because of what has been done to them. Management methods such as translocation, darting, noise, rubber bullets, and killing have changed bears, making them fearful and defensive. Research practices and attitudes add to the problem as illustrated by a recent tragedy. Outside Yellowstone, a grizzly, waking up confused, drugged, and terrified after being darted and collared by researchers, killed a passing hiker. Shortly thereafter, he was killed himself.

This story relates to another scientific discovery. Bears experience post-traumatic stress – like soldiers in war. Bears have learned fear and suspicion. They are under siege from humans. Grizzlies are denied access and excluded from the majority of their natural habitat and hunted to the point of near extinction. The same thing is happening around the world with other wildlife as in the case of Africa where post-traumatic stress is now epidemic among elephants.

Humans, in particular the people who are in charge of making laws and implementing them, are driving wildlife to madness and violence. Given what bears have had to endure for centuries, it is remarkable that there are not more incidents. This speaks to the intrinsic respect and restraint of bears.

Charlie Russell with friends in Kamchatka.
Charlie Russell with friends, in Kamchatka.
Park and public policy and practices must conform to this science. We are fortunate to be alive to speak this truth and change how bears are perceived and treated. Humans and bears have lived peacefully side-by-side for millennia. We have the science and sense to do so again. But we have to start now. The transition may be difficult. The trauma and suffering that bears have experienced have taken its toll. Human aggression has left scars. It is our job to re-learn and apply John Muir’s “right manners of the wilderness” – not only restore bear lands but bear minds and souls so that they can learn to trust us again.

G.A. Bradshaw & Charlie Russell

G.A. Bradshaw, Ph.D., Ph.D. is the author of Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us About Humanity.

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