A poem by Gary Lawless:
Treat each bear as the last bear.
Each wolf the last, each caribou.
Each track the last track.
Gone spoor, gone scat.
There are no more deertrails,
no more flyways.
Treat each animal as sacred,
each minute our last.
Ghost hooves. Ghost skulls.
Death rattles and
Each bear walking alone
in warm night air
For the past two months, I've been spending a lot of time with a couple of black bears. Lily (left) and her cub Hope are part of a study by the North American Bear Center. A webcam and microphone were placed at the entrance to Lily's den so she could be observed giving birth to and raising her baby. And observed she has been, with over 90,000 fans on Facebook and more tuning in on the NABC website and on Wildearth TV.
The study is being conducted by biologists Dr. Lynn Rogers and Sue Mansfield and is part of a larger, years-long study of black bears in general. It is one of the only truly scientific studies ever done on black bears, and Dr. Rogers' explicit goal is to replace much of our misconceptions about bears with scientific facts and data.
Dr. Rogers and his fellow scientists have worked closely with black bears for many years, using a process called "habituation," which accustoms the bears to the presence of researchers and in some cases, creates a level of trust that allows the researchers to actually touch and examine the bears. (This is the same scientific approach used by Jane Goodall with chimpanzees in the forests of Gombe in Africa.) They have observed and closely noted black bear behavior. It is quite thrilling to hear Dr. Rogers over the den microphone as he arrives at Lily's den each day - "Hey, bear. It's just me, bear." - and to see how Lily trusts him. She'll look up briefly to make sure it's him, take any grapes or nuts he's brought as a treat, then calmly go about her business.
Black bears are not ferocious. On the contrary, they are timid and would much rather run away than fight. In fact, there have been only 63 documented cases of fatal black bear attacks in North America from 1900-2007 - that's more than a century, and that works out to about one in a million black bears. The vast majority of these occurred in the wilderness; in other words, by bears who were unfamiliar with humans. When you compare this to the tens of thousands of bears killed by humans over the same 107 years, it is plain that we are far more dangerous to bears than bears are to us. The reality is that humans and bears live closely together all over North America. People in New England and the upper Midwest are accustomed to seeing bears in their backyards; even my cousins in northern New Jersey, within shoutin' distance of New York City, get a yearly parade of young black bears across their property in the spring.
People see the bears' big claws and assume they are meant for wreaking havoc - which they are, but on tree trunks and dead logs in search of grubs and berries, not people or other animals. Black bears are largely herbivores, although they will eat small rodents when other food is scarce. But they are pretty abysmal hunters, depending on chance rather than stealth. Sometimes folks will see evidence of bears on their property in the form of claw and teeth marks on fences and decks, and assume the bear was after the family dog or cat, when in reality it is far more likely the bear was after the garbage can or the interesting grease left on the grill from last night's cookout. (There are lots of videos on YouTube of family cats chasing black bears, by the way.) In fact, in many areas, people have been leaving treats out for bears for years, with no ill-effects. (Hunters also do this, unfortunately, to entice bears within shooting range.)
Stories about black bears and brown bears are often conflated as well. Brown bears, which refers to both grizzlies and Kodiaks, are much larger and more aggressive than black bears, although they will also usually run away from people if given the chance. Black bears are found across North America, while brown bears are only found out West and up into Canada and Alaska. Several things are worth repeating here: Timothy Treadwell, the Grizzly Man, was killed by a brown bear, probably a Kodiak. His research techniques were highly criticized; he did not follow even basic safety procedures and was cited several times by the National Park Service for violations such as wildlife harassment and improper food storage. The attack occurred during a time when food was scarce and the bears were growing increasingly desperate. The bear or bears that killed him and his girlfriend were almost certainly unfamiliar bears; the ones that were used to him had moved on in search of more food. And finally, until this incident, there hadn't been a fatal attack in Katmai in its 85-year history, and there hasn't been one since.
So what should you do if you encounter a bear on your walk through the woods? According to NABC, the one thing NOT to do is climb a tree, because it won't do much good - bears are expert climbers. The few injuries by black bears reported each year are largely bites in the foot, received when someone climbed a tree; the bear reached up and gave a good chomp to make sure he stayed there, then ran off. In fact, if you do come face-to-face with a bear, the most likely scenario is that the bear will head for hills. If the bear stands her ground and huffs through her nose at you, back quietly away while speaking softly to her. This shows the bear that you are not a threat, and that you are leaving the area.
It's been an addictive joy to watch Lily and Hope. Let's face it, there are few things cuter than a bear cub. Last Sunday was an especially interesting day as a bear-watcher. Lily pulled the microphone into the den and started mouthing it, prompting an equipment rescue mission by Dr. Rogers, then she took Hope outside for the first time for a sunbath. To say there was consternation on Facebook when Hope climbed out of the den would be an understatement; "freaking out" would be more accurate, until Dr. Rogers and Sue Mansfield made another quick trip to the den to make sure all was well. It was - Lily and Hope were curled up about ten feet from the entrance, enjoying the spring air. Later, they returned to the den and bedded down for the night, and everyone was happy.
Video clip of Lily and Hope from last week.
Dr. Rogers is quite explicit in stating that these bears are not pets; they are wild animals with whom researchers have developed long-standing relationships of trust and respect. It is important not to anthropomorphize or sentimentalize them; it is equally important not to demonize them into vicious monsters or objects of terror. Soon, Lily and Hope will leave the den for the last time, but Dr. Rogers and the other scientists at NABC will continue to follow and observe Lily, Hope, and the other bears, adding more and more to our understanding of these lovely, gentle, misunderstood creatures.
Dr. Rogers will be featured on Animal Planet's "Wild Kingdom" on April 4, 2010. Here is a clip introducing the show, "The Bearwalker of the Northwoods." The bear in the clip, June, is Lily's mother; Lily is one of the cubs tumbling around her.
Finally, what post about bears would be complete without a Mary Oliver poem?
a black bear
has just risen from sleep
and is staring
in the brisk and shallow restlessness
of early spring
her four black fists
flicking the gravel,
touching the grass,
the cold water.
There is only one question:
how to love this world.
I think of her
like a black and leafy ledge
to sharpen her claws against
of the trees.
my life is
with its poems
and its music
and its glass cities,
it is also this dazzling darkness
down the mountain,
breathing and tasting;
all day I think of her -—
her white teeth,
her perfect love.
Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems, Volume One (Beacon Press, 2005)