Between 2011 and 2020, nearly 5000 bears were killed by the Conservation Officer Service (COS) in British Columbia. Last year alone, 631 bears were killed. This year, the cruel trend continues. Bear traps are popping up in our neighbourhoods; bears are trapped, killed, and their bodies dumped somewhere in a landfill. As always, all this happens in the name of a distorted notion of public safety.
There is so much effort that goes into separating ‘us’ from ‘them’ in an increasingly urbanized landscape. The wildlife ‘management’ policies focus on creating ‘zones of no intrusion’, and trespassers deemed ‘dangerous’ are indiscriminately ‘destroyed’. Too focused on managing ‘them’ and creating a sterile world, we give in to our irrational fears and miss a chance to witness the new world unravelling around us.
The world is changing as we are turning the earth into an asphalted monolith of our own making. We ‘manage’ nature to fit us, our vision, our liking, while failing to see that nothing remains static.
Urban development and habitat fragmentation have created novel environments for many wildlife species, including black bears. The research on the impact of urban-dominated landscapes on wildlife is still in its early stage. And yet, scientists have already demonstrated that “urban environments drive adaptive responses in [wildlife] behavior including changes in home range and diet preference, shifts in activity budget and vigilance, and decreased flight initiation distance.” As animals, such as black bears, are trying to adapt to the novel environments, scientists are trying to learn more about these adaptation processes.
We already know that animals can differentially habituate to novel environments, depending on their individual personality traits. As a result, human-dominated environments select bears that might be bolder to start with, while shier ones choose to remain in more enclosed environments. Interestingly, bears frequenting urban areas are believed to have higher rates of innovation and are better at problem-solving than their rural counterparts. Some bears have even become nocturnal to minimize their contact with people. And yet, we perceive bears’ ingenuity as a problem, an obstacle to be dealt with. How ironic that bears are being punished for having been successful in their learning and adaptation processes.
Our current wildlife policies are woefully inadequate. They represent an antithesis of the notion of the best available science. The archaic ‘management’ practices reflect neither our current dynamic and novel environment nor the true nature of animals, including black bears. There is a new science; there are field observations, personal experiences, and stories about bears’ rich lives and personalities. All that breath of knowledge should be used to revise management policies and provide space for bridging the ‘empathy gap.’ We must change the narrative and, to begin with, we must rid our discourse of euphemisms such as ‘euthanize,’ ‘destroy,’ or ‘remove’. No, we don’t ‘remove’ bears. We kill them, we shoot them dead out of our ignorance, irrational fears, and often because of mistakes that we, humans, have made.
Those who have lived in the Lower Mainland for a long time remember the vast forest surrounding them and black bears roaming in it. Back then, nobody would call the Report All Poachers and Polluters (RAPP) line to report every bear sighting at every spot. Bears and humans managed to co-exist. It is still possible. Nowadays, many people peacefully share the landscape with these beautiful animals. They feel privileged to have a chance to glimpse at bears passing by. They are in constant awe of such closeness to nature and make an effort to understand bears and set boundaries, if necessary. Yes, it’s possible.
In the end, we owe bears respect. No bear should die because of poorly secured trash or because irrational fears rather than compassion dictate our actions. Nor should bears die because raising a shotgun is the fastest way to deal with animals that cross our path. This doesn’t have to happen. This must not happen. We, British Columbians, are the lucky ones. We should be thankful for the privilege of living so close to nature, within reach of its magnificent embrace.
As Bayo Akomolafe says, “we need a thicker we that extends beyond humans.” We need to embrace miracles of nature and accept fellow beings that try to navigate the world that we have created for them. It is time for us to adapt, too.