Yellowstone Kills Blaze, a Bear Who Attacked Off-Trail Hiker

Blaze's slaughter brings to light our challenging relations with other animals

Posted Aug 13, 2015

Blaze, a grizzly bear with a clean record, was killed by Yellowstone National Park workers, and her two surviving cubs will be sent to spend the rest of their lives in a zoo (for more on this story, please see this essay). Coming on the heels of the regrettable slaughter of Cecil the lion, many people are more sensitized to the ways in which we interact, and often harm and kill, wild or free-roaming animals. Some people choose to kill nonhumans thoughtlessly, some choose to do it with boundless zeal, often traveling long distances and paying huge sums, while others choose to do it "with regret," but claim it has to be done.

The Yellowstone press release about the choice to slaughter Blaze reads, “As managers of Yellowstone National Park, we balance the preservation of park resources with public safety,” said Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk. 'Our decision takes into account the facts of the case, the goals of the bear management program, and the long term viability of the grizzly bear population as a whole, rather than an individual bear.'” In other words, Blaze wasn't free to be the grizzly who she was, and individuals don't really matter to the Yellowstone bear management program. I hope people who work for Yellowstone and other parks and areas where wild animals roam and in which they are being constantly intruded upon by humans will also read more about compassionate conservation, in which the importance of the lives of individual animals is stressed (please see "Compassionate Conservation Meets Cecil the Slain Lion.") 

Blaze was not euthanized

The press release about Blaze's death also notes, "Based on the totality of the evidence, this adult female grizzly was the bear involved in the fatality and was euthanized today. An important fact in the decision to euthanize the bear was that a significant portion of the body was consumed and cached with the intent to return for further feeding. Normal defensive attacks by female bears defending their young do not involve consumption of the victim’s body." Of course, the death of the hiker is deeply tragic, but there is no evidence that Blaze, even if she tried to return for "further feeding," would then be more prone to kill and perhaps feed on other humans. 

While it is claimed Blaze was euthanized, once again the word is totally misused -- she was killed, or murdered, depending on how one wants to cash this out, but surely not euthanized. As I've pointed out in another essay, using the word "euthanized" is an attempt to sanitize what was actually done

In an essay in the Washington Post we read, "There are certainly people that have a hard time with the decision to euthanize the bear and that includes some of our biologists and park rangers," Campbell [Julena Campbell, a Yellowstone spokeswoman] told The Post. 'We don't get into the profession for that reason, but we have to make the decision for sound science and putting the safety of humans first. We can't favor one individual bear over protecting the lives of humans.'"

Appealing to the notion of "sound science" is a decoy that might make some people think that science supports killing the bears, and it would be nice to know how killing these bears will protect humans in the future. Just where are the data that support the idea that killing animal suspects who are responsible, or thought to be responsible, is the remedy for the very rare occurrences of killing humans in Yellowstone? I surely can't find any support for this claim, and the database hardly seems large enough to draw any meaningful conclusions that are often used as excuses to kill the suspects.

Blaze's death provides a lot of food for thought for anthrozoologists and numerous others who like to spend time outdoors

It is essential to emphasize that killing Blaze goes far beyond the misuse of the word "euthanasia." Her unnecessary death raises numerous questions about the complex and challenging nature of human-animal interactions, the topic on which the rapidly growing transdisciplinary field called anthrozoology focuses. And, of course, human-animal interactions occur when people visit national parks and other outdoor areas, something which I'm sure many readers of, and writers for, Psychology Today enjoy doing.

An excellent discussion of many of the issues centering on the slaughter of Blaze can be found in an essay by D. Simon Jackson called "Outrage in Yellowstone," and I highly recommend that people read it carefully and think about our responsibilities when we knowingly head out into areas where there are dangerous animals, and also think about what parks and other "wild areas" are all about. Are they for the humans or the nonhumans? How do we factor in the interests of all of the animals, human and nonhuman? Mr. Jackson rightfully asks, "If Yellowstone is not a place where the bears come first, where do they get the benefit of the doubt? Are parks not suppose to be tools of conservation first and foremost?" 

What about human responsibility for the risks that are taken when outdoors "in nature?"

My heart goes out to the man who was killed and to his family and friends. And, I know others would agree that this is an incredibly sad event but also would argue that Blaze  should not have been killed, nor should her cubs go to a zoo.

When one ventures into areas where it is known that wild and dangerous nonhuman animals (animals) live we are trespassing into their homes. Having had three very 
"close encounters of the lion kind" with cougars into whose homes I moved (please see "Close Encounters Of A Lion Kind: Meeting Cougars, Foxes, Bears ... and Bear Poop"), I can say without hesitation, (i) I would never want to meet cougar so up close and personal again although some people told me they thought it was "cool," (ii) I knowingly moved into a house that had previously been built where it was known that dangerous animals also lived and it was my responsibility to avoid cougar and the other dangerous animals with whom I shared time and space, including black bears and coyotes, and (iii) I would have been more than happy to sign a waiver when I moved into my mountain home that if any harm came to me I would not want the animal who harmed me to be killed unless he/she was injured or ill. I surely would not want their offspring sent to spend the rest of their lives in zoos. Perhaps people should be asked to sign release forms as they have to do for other activities that are risky and can cause harm or death. I've often asked realtors to inform potential homebuyers about the animals with whom they will be sharing time and space.

Let's also remember Bryce Casavant, a most courageous conservation officer who refused to kill two black bear cubs near Port Hardy on northern Vancouver Island and was suspended because he said "no." More people simply have to say "no" to killing other animals. If some people argue the killing cannot stop, it will not stop. It saddens me to think that we've gotten to the point where for some, killing is the only viable option for peaceful coexistence. We need to leave our comfort zones and think and act "outside of the box." 

I hope everyone who ventures out to enjoy other animals and their homes will consider what they're doing more carefully. Other animals should not have to pay the price for being who they are, and after all, isn't that why we go out to see them in the first place or move into wild environs? I know the complex and challenging issues of human-animal encounters "out in nature" are not going to go away any time soon, but we must honor who the nonhumans are and accept that it is indeed risky to trespass into their homes.

You can sign a petition to prevent Blaze's cubs from going to a zoo here (please also see). You also sign a petition here

Note: I just learned that the cubs are to go to the Toledo Zoo. And, note use of the word "implicated" here: "Yellowstone authorities killed the mother bear on Thursday after autopsy results concluded that hiker Lance Crosby, 63, of Montana died as a result of traumatic injuries suffered from a bear attack. DNA evidence, capture location, track marks, and bite wounds implicated the mother of the cubs in the attack, the park said."

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's story: Saving moon bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservationWhy dogs hump and bees get depressed, and Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistenceThe Jane effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson) has recently been published. (marcbekoff.com; @MarcBekoff)