Cowboy’s Cleverness Should Be a Reprieve, Not a Sentence

Cowboy is a clever bear, and the work of some members of his community and bear advocates have taught him some valuable lessons about how to coexist safely. But his record of learning and listening doesn’t apply when a government agency decides he needs to be killed.

Cowboy is a clever bear, and the work of some members of his community and bear advocates have taught him some valuable lessons about how to coexist safely. But his record of learning and listening doesn’t apply when a government agency decides he needs to be killed.

A trap was set for Cowboy, who resides in the Fromme Mountain region of North Vancouver. While the trap has been removed for now (because he didn’t take the bait), Cowboy is still slated for “removal” by the BC Conservation Officer Service (BC COS). Cowboy was given his name by his community, a nod to our bow-legged boy’s saunter and easygoing nature. The community knows Cowboy well. This is the kind of relationship residents want with the natural world. To know it well. All of its parts. The forest. The fauna. The mountain and the animals who live there. Residents have been working with Cowboy to peacefully coexist for quite some time now.

As a longtime bear advocate and a driving force in creating the Bear Smart community program in BC, I have spent a great deal of time with bears like Cowboy and their community to help these neighbours better share a mutually loved space together. I’ve been there to not only educate residents, but the bears themselves. When traps get set to capture bears like Cowboy, it’s incredibly frustrating.

To be clear, the trap was not set to relocate Cowboy, but to capture and kill him. Not because Cowboy has harmed anyone. But, ironically, because he is such a good learner. You can say a bear’s intelligence is likened to that of the great apes, but what does that really mean? It means Cowboy was able to figure out how to open a latched tote to access garbage.

But even more importantly, he’s also learned not to enter properties where he’s not welcome.

And this is where the story of Cowboy and his advocates starts. Last year, Cowboy was frequenting a residential area on the border of parks and creeks. The community and local bear advocates worked together to let him know that he wasn’t welcome in certain spaces. This was done by the public, from a safe place such as a porch, who told Cowboy to leave. Sometimes this was simply done verbally. Other times, after stern words, something like a rock would need to be thrown to let Cowboy know people meant business. And Cowboy listened and learned. He changed his patterns. According to residents, Cowboy didn’t come back to the area all last season.

When Cowboy’s trap came to our attention, advocates reached out to the BC COS about him. But treating a bear like an individual is not part of the BC COS checklist. I believe it should be. And so, Cowboy is sentenced to death, regardless of his ability to learn new behaviour and the community who is working towards peaceful coexistence with these sentient beings.

North Shore residents know the value and privilege of living and playing in our great mountains. I am reminded of how residents recently rallied around a 200-year-old cedar tree when they learned of a developer’s plans to cut the ancient beauty down. There were love letters attached to the tree. People united and spoke up, and a giant corporate entity listened, spending four weeks redesigning a city development, causing considerable delay and added cost to the project, so the tree would live on.

No government officials were involved in instigating this process. There was nothing in bylaws to save the tree. Only the community standing up and vocalizing their need for business and government to do things differently.

When I think of this tree, I think of the trap that was set for Cowboy. A 1960s relic with more rust than paint set on balding tires. A symbol of an old way of thinking that no longer works. Cowboy’s community does care about him. I like to think if each one wrote a love letter, that decaying trap, sitting like a guillotine in an old town square, would be covered in coloured paper with messages that say, we love you, we care and we will not let you die.

#StandUp4Wildlife.

Sylvia Dolson is the executive director of the Get Bear Smart Society and co-chair of the BC Bear Alliance. She has been advocating for bears for over a quarter of a century and was instrumental in establishing Whistler as a model Bear Smart community.

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Georgia Straight on May 17. 2021.

Comment online here: https://www.straight.com/news/sylvia-dolson-a-love-letter-to-cowboy