Friday, September 11, 2009


Bear in a Chair

Andy Revkin posted this photo at DotEarth and invited reflections on the increaingly common interface between humans and wildlife.

Here's my 2 cents worth:

I've been fascinated (haunted?) by the pic of the bear in the chair. It triggered memories of my days in Oregon where I lived in a backwoods hippie community where folks avoided cruelty to wildlife at all costs. But there were limits.

One summer a black bear started to frequent yards and porches. Indeed, the big discussion at the swimming hole was "didja see the bear?" and "how didja chase it away?". Turns out that the bear was pretty fearless. Loud noises and threatening gestures, banging on pots and pans, and fireworks didn't work. Finally, it was discovered that the bear was terrified of cars. Just going out and starting up the pickup was enough to send it racing for the woods. That worked well for a few weeks. The community had discovered a benign response.

But one day, a guy came home to find the bear sitting in his young son's unoccupied playpen, actually playing with the kid's toys. That was too much. Out came the rifle and the bear was history.

Another Oregon anecdote is from my summer-long vigils in a wilderness camp on Bald Mountain in the Siskiyou National Forest. One year there was an old logger guy camped about 3 miles down the trail where he was doing some post-fire salvage work. He loved to feed a local deer and put out a bowl or oatmeal or cornflakes for it everyday. When I visited him, he proudly showed me how "tame and friendly" the deer had become.

Eventually the logger left and the deer went in search of another friendly human which, unfortunately, was me. The deer became the terrorist of my camp, waiting until no one was there to come marauding, kicking apart the tent, dumping buckets, stealing sweat-soaked shirts (loaded with salt) and doing much mischief. This went on for two years! Needless to say, I was not pleased.

There was much wildlife in the old-growth forest surrounding my camp. Each summer I sighted bears and cougars. I wasn't afraid because I knew that they had not habituated. I kept it that way by shouting and jumping up and down whenever one was near. Basically, my defense was that I knew that if animals remained in their wild nature, fearful of anything unfamiliar, that I could maintain safe space and be protected within my "nature". The bears could remain bears and I and the visitors to my camp could be secure and comfortable as humans. Nature provides for peaceful co-existence with boundaries. I was careful not to upset this natural balance.

The people of the far North (I forget whether Eskimo or Inuit) have an insightful way of looking at this: They love their dogs (which are constant work companions) but they truly revere the wolves. They view their dogs as lesser, seeing them as slaves to human purpose. But the wolves remain "virgin" -- truly free spirits -- beings worthy of adoration.

They have a saying, "Gifts turn wolves into dogs".

Yup, domestication is like like that. There are benefits for sure but also a host of problems that are not easily resolved. Contemporary human-and-nature interface is like that. I wrestled with it at my Amazon home and wrote a post about my struggles.

I don't know the big picture solution in a world of endless human diaspora into the habitats of other beings but I keep thinking of the saying: "Fences make good neighbors". Some separations have purposes. Perhaps, we should strive to keep it that way.

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