The nice thing is, even though I’m not the only one who likes the quiet of an early morning, most of the ones who agree with me aren’t people. This Friday, when I put boot to trail at 7 am, among those who shared my opinion were a female grouse, a universe of bumble bees, and an adult black bear.
I heard the bear before I saw it. I was close enough to it that the noises I heard were oddly intimate. Breathing—a little wet and grumpy, like so many of us in the morning—and chewing—open mouthed. It’s late summer, and the shrubs on either side of the trail were full of beautiful huckleberries at that perfect stage: two drops more sweet than tart. I’d been popping them into my own mouth, as I came along the trail.
“Hello, bear,” I said loudly, to let it know I was there. It made no sign that it either heard or cared, but breathed and chewed some more. It took a few slow steps through the bushes in the direction of an open meadow, located off trail beyond the trees, with lots more Vaccinium growing in it. I knew this, because that meadow is my lowest study site on the Paradise side of Mt. Rainier. My destination that morning was further up the trail, where I wanted to catch some high-elevation grasshoppers for an experiment I’m running—so I had to keep going up eventually. But it was still early, and I was certainly in no more of a hurry than the bear, so I took several steps back down the trail, and stood perhaps 50 or 60 feet away.
The bear breathed, and chewed, and rustled. It crossed the trail, passing into and out of my view. Somehow, with its giant mouth, it was consuming berries smaller than my fingernail without destroying entire branches. I wondered how delicate and mobile its lips must be. Every now and then I said something, to make sure everyone involved knew I was there and could make their own decisions about the matter. Once, the bear ran suddenly (away from me) a few feet, and I thought it had spooked—but then it returned to its slow, calm, breakfast. Otherwise, it ignored me utterly. It was, unlike most black bears I have seen, a true coal black instead of a cinnamon or old rust color. A marvelous animal.
After about 15 minutes, the bear had moved far enough toward the meadow, and it had been long enough since I had last heard rustling, that I felt comfortable continuing on. “Coming up now, bear,” I announced, and hiked beyond the place I’d last seen it. But there was no longer any sign that a 300-pound creature had been there.
The previous night, I had listened to an episode of the podcast Invisibilia, which bills itself as being “about the invisible forces that shape human behavior”, and is often, though not always, interested in what science has to tell us about these forces. The episode is from their latest season, which I have in general found mildly irritating for reasons we can discuss in person if you are interested. 🙂 But the episode they called “Reality” was so irresponsible and had annoyed me so much that I had actually gone “UGH!” to myself out loud as I lay in bed alone at the field house that night, no one to hear or care. And I thought of it again the next morning as I hiked onward, leaving behind the bear.
This will make sense once I tell you that one of the main stories in the episode is about black bears—or rather, what the Invisibilia hosts call two “competing realities” about black bears. One, the conventional perspective, holds that black bears are wild animals, normally timid but nevertheless powerful and unpredictable, and though we may admire and appreciate them from a distance, they should not be trifled with or taught to associate humans with food—because this usually leads to negative outcomes for both people and bears. The other, which the podcast treats with equal merit, holds that black bears are not dangerous, especially if treated with “attention and love,” and that it is a great and good idea to set out feeding stations for them, attempt to befriend them, and ultimately become so close that when they visit your backyard you can lean on their backs and let their cubs crawl all over you.
The episode follows the conflict between a set of people living in a small town in Minnesota who passionately adhere to this “other reality”, and the rest of the townsfolk (who do not, and dislike the fact that their town’s black bears are constantly nosing around their houses and cars looking for food). Interestingly, the leading proponent of close human-bear contact is a wildlife ecologist, who teaches three day field courses in which among other things he trains people to hand-feed (and sometimes mouth-feed) bears. (Yup.)
With me so far? Then you won’t be surprised to hear that a bear dies, as it was bound to do. Here are the facts: A bear named Solo had begun to approach people for food so often and to generate so many complaints that the MN Department of Natural Resources decided to relocate her and her cubs while they were hibernating, moving them to a sanctuary in Michigan—rather than euthanizing Solo. But people who wanted Solo to stay didn’t like this idea, so they “broke into the den early to help the bear and her cubs escape. They roused Solo with pepper spray – lots of it – and tried to coax her to the woods to safety.” The DNR employees then followed Solo and her cubs to the woods, where the bears climbed a tree. The agents darted the cubs, which fell out of the tree (but survived). The podcast isn’t clear on how Solo got down from the tree, but it sounds like the DNR folks retrieved her and tranquilized her, too—but in the show’s words, “After being pepper sprayed, being tranquilized and the trauma of the transport to Michigan, Solo never woke up from hibernation.”
So, those were the facts. Now, the Invisibilia take: The hosts describe Solo’s death as a result of “the different ways of perceiving the reality of bears”.
The different ways of perceiving the reality of bears.
Not: “People deliberately feeding a black bear, habituating it to humans as sources of food, causing it to become a problem bear, and then directly leading to its death by devising an insane and traumatic plan to “free” it from the reasonably good plan that was put in place to solve the problem they created in the first place.”
Listen. I believe that cuddling in your yard with a family of wild black bears is an extraordinarily cool and amazing thing. I am sure that having a wild black bear “kiss” a peanut from your lips, as one of the show hosts does, is a magical experience. But constructing that interaction by training a wild animal to approach you for food, and then calling it friendship, claiming that the bears are responding to your “love and attention,” is obscene and self-absorbed. If you hike across a frozen lake to visit a black bear in its den every few days while it is hibernating, lie down outside the den, and talk to it, as the main character in this story did with Solo, I don’t doubt that that means something to you. But it sure as fuck doesn’t mean a damn thing to the bear.
So if you’re going to be the kind of person who lives like this, then just be honest about it. Admit that close physical contact with a wild animal makes you feel remarkably special, and because of that feeling, you’re okay with the fact that the actions you take in order to extract that contact endanger the animal. Accept that you experience the entirety of the psychic benefit from the relationship, and the animal bears most of the risk.
And if you’re going to be the kind of podcast that tells a story about this kind of person, please don’t insult the rest of us by making this about “competing realities”, complete with a facile and grossly shallow reference to “Chinese philosophy and East Asian cultures” being willing to accept contradiction and the absurd implied conclusion that Solo died because “Western culture” isn’t.
Enjoy your black bears and other wild animals with respect and joy, fellow humans. Please don’t make their lives about you.
Because it calms me, I shall leave you with this picture of the mountain that I took a few minutes before encountering the bear. Unlike the story of Solo, I think it benefits greatly from the presence of a person.