The power of words

Whether you’re an educator, resident, scientist or wildlife officer, as someone who cares about bears, it’s your responsibility to spread the bear smart word – choosing your words carefully.

Words are powerful. They can find their way deep into the very fabric of our being and belief systems, shaping our thoughts and actions.

Words influence our perceptions and affect attitudes. They can inspire and encourage the right behaviour; or hinder and create apathy and inaction.

In Yosemite: The Embattled Wilderness, historian Alfred Raunte notes that even well-meaning bear advocates use terms like “marauding,” “offending,” and “trouble-some” to describe the very bears they are protecting.

Some words may be appropriate when used correctly, but harmful when misused. Consider the sentence; “Grizzly bears are dangerous, aggressive animals.” Without any context to this sentence, it misrepresents the grizzly’s character and behavioural traits. Grizzly bears are not dangerous and aggressive in all situations at all times. They may, however, have the potential to exhibit these traits in certain circumstances. It is more accurate to state, for example, that “mother grizzly bears have the potential to behave aggressively when defending their young; getting too close to a grizzly sow and her cub(s) can lead to a dangerous situation.”

Keep in mind, as well, the difference between “aggressive” vs. “assertive” behaviour – aggression implies intent to harm; assertiveness simply implies bold behaviour.

“A pet peeve of mine is misuse of the work ‘attack’. In my book When Bears Whisper, I distinguish contacts vs. assaults vs. attacks. Contacts inflict no injury. Assaults inflict minor injury that does not require skilled medical attention (e.g., scratches). Furthermore, I distinguish severities of attack, only the most serious of which is intention by the bear to kill the person. In reality, actions by a bear that would do little damage to another bear can severely injure a person — not because that is the bear’s intent, but because humans are so fragile.” – Dr. Steven Stringham, Bear Biologist Other words that need to be used accurately include: “charge” and “attack” (this is actually a pet peeve of mine; I seriously dislike news headlines that read: “bear attacks bird feeder” – come on?). Often bears that are walking toward people on their way somewhere else are described as “charging” by the story-teller. That’s sensationalism; pure and simple. Grrr… That said, you should make it your job to correct the media or others who write and talk about bears. In fact, I will often make a point of asking a reporter to use a certain word and explain why; or inform them why certain words can potentially cause misperceptions.

In the same way that “charge” and “attack” can carry a negative undertone, so too does the idea of bears being “afraid” or “fearful” of people. Instead, choose to state that a bear is “wary” of people. Suggesting that bears should be “afraid” of people invokes images of bears fleeing from the very sight of a person – whether the people are a threat or not. When bears fail to behave in this manner, they are labeled as a “problem” when in fact the bear’s response was normal in reaction to the perceived level of threat. Bears don’t always run away just because a human appears on the scene. But people sometimes get this impression from our advice and most would generally prefer such a response. If a bear is afraid, that gives people a sense of security. Give people realistic expectations when they encounter a bear. It is the only responsible thing to do.

Dr. Steven Stringham has long been fighting against misuses of the term “habituation” — as in “habituated bears are dangerous” or “habituation makes bears more dangerous.” He says that “habituation actually reduces risk of defensive ‘attack,’ which is especially important with grizzly/brown bears whose defensiveness is far more likely than blackie defensiveness to severely injure a person.”Understand the correct use of scientific jargon, like habituation vs. tolerance; or food conditioned. If you don’t know the exact meaning of these words, look them up[1]. On the BC Parks government website, reference is made to bears that are “habituated to food”. That is wrong, particularly on an official website, and perpetuates misuse of language. Bears can be habituated to people and places; but they are conditioned to anthropogenic food (human sources of food).

Also, be mindful of placing fault or responsibility. For example, when we call a bear a “problem bear”, we are effectively placing the blame on the bear for being the cause of the problem, when in fact that is not the case. Bears and people may share the blame for coming into conflict with each other, and I would even go so far as to say that people are actually at the root cause of the problem (but I am admittedly biased). Bears are just looking for food to meet their most basic survival needs. People should know better; we know that when we are careless with anthropogenic food, we are inviting bears into conflict with us. The onus is on people to remove the source of the “problem”. To be fair, we should call it “human-bear conflict”. But this phrase too carries its own baggage, although I hope it has become generic enough to be widely accepted without bias.

Which brings me to another point…. when we refer to “bear-people conflict” or “bear-human conflict”, we are putting the emphasis on the bear as being the lead cause of the conflict. It would be more appropriate to call it “human-bear conflict” or “people-bear conflict” and put the onus back on the people or humans or who are in fact causing the problem (oops…my bias is showing again).

If we refer to a bear as a “garbage bear”, that is disrespectful and unhelpful. A bear is not garbage, a bear is a living breathing sentient being with the same right to a peaceful and non-violent life as humans should have. Alternatively, depending on the context, you could just call him or her a bear, plain and simple; or a “bear involved in a human-bear conflict”. It’s a bit wordy I know, but there doesn’t seem to be a good substitute here (so, I would welcome your suggestions).

Other words to avoid include: vicious, snarly, ferocious, fierce, and nuisance.

When we misuse language, we have lost the fight even before we have entered the ring. Yes, you must consider, with great care and thoughtfulness, the ramifications of the words you choose. Your words can shift perceptions.

“The most egregious misrepresentation of other animals is the common practice of objectifying them via the inanimate pronoun it instead of the gendered she or he (Freeman, 2009; Stibbe, 2001). The Associated Press stylebook (Christians et al., 2009) guidelines on animals need to be updated so they no longer dictate that an animal only receives a personal pronoun (he, she, or who) if he or she has an established sex or a personal name designated by a human. We suggest if the gender of an individual is unknown, use he/she or pluralize the subject to be they, as one would with a human.” Freeman et al. Giving Voice to the Voiceless, pg. 11-13.

By changing the wording in a sentence you can alter the meaning. Take this sentence for instance: “To avoid a problem with bears, prepare and be aware”. Sounds innocent enough, doesn’t it? But what if we were to re-phrase it slightly to say “to avoid a potential human-bear conflict situation, prepare and be aware”. First of all, we’re not suggesting that it is a problem to encounter a bear. I for one, enjoy seeing bears. It brings me great joy and in fact, makes my day. It is not a problem. And it’s not inevitable. It just has the potential to become a conflict situation. The second, re-worded sentence bears no blame (no pun intended). It states that any negative consequence is under the human’s control and can be avoided. It’s not as negative and doesn’t reflect badly on the bear; or the person for that matter. It’s actually empowering. It gives people the choice to do the right thing and have a positive outcome or do the wrong thing and have things will go badly.

Make your thesaurus your constant writing companion. Eliminate redundancy. State clearly and concisely what it is you want your audience to know. Speak the language of your audience. If you’re a Baby Boomer, don’t pretend to understand the words that will resonate with the Thumbs Generation. If that is the age group that is your target audience specifically, then ask someone of that generation to translate your message. For example, the Get Bear Smart Society contracted a 22 year old writer to author an article about living with bears for Whistler’s Survival Guide. Readers are young and “hip” and I don’t know the first thing about the way they talk and what’s important to them. They opened with “If you bump into a bear in the hood and it ain’t Yogi…..”

Take the time to edit your writing; review it, edit it, review it again. Sleep on it. Review it again, edit it again and then give it to someone else for review and editing. Make every word count. Copy other well worded and succinct writing (but ask for permission first).Publish your work only when it has become the best it can be.

As a bear smart educator (or whether you’re a resident giving advice to a neighbour, scientist, or wildlife officer), it is your duty to express your message so that the inherent meaning is crystal clear and does not bias the reader against the animals you are trying to help.

Messaging delivered by wildlife agencies can sometimes be unintentionally conflicting. On the one hand, an agency might refer to “removing” a bear that has become a “problem”; yet at the same time the goal is to make the residents accountable for ultimately causing the death of the bear by their carelessness. Using terms like remove (which could mean kill or relocate), euthanize, put down, and destroy take the heat off the people and the officer and agency for that matter. In the long run, that’s not helpful. Call it what it is….. “killing”. If the goal is to put the onus back on the people who created the conflict in the first place, let’s not sugar-coat it.

Find the middle ground. In the first sentence of this article, there are several words that I re-wrote several times. Can you guess which ones? The phrase I’m referring to is …. “as someone who cares about bears”. Readers may be educators, residents, scientists or wildlife officers. How do you appeal to such a wide audience in the same article? Are the readers people who care about “coexisting with bears”, “safety in bear country” or “managing the bear population”? If I used any of these phrases, I may have lost part of my audience. I would consider the language I chose to be in the middle, not bear-huggerish and not too scientific sounding.

“Clichés and pejorative language act as blinders that keep you from seeing bears for what they really are.” Dave Smith, Backcountry Basics

Words that carry too much baggage should be avoided. Animals are frequently used to describe human qualities, often in a pejorative sense; like pig-headed, stubborn as a mule, horse-faced, snake, pig or bitch. Phrases like “there’s more than one way to skin a cat” are disrespectful and harmful at a subliminal level. You’re not doing the animals any favours. Just take these words and phrases out of your vernacular.

Yes…. you must choose your words carefully. They can be profound and resonate deeply in the subconscious mind of your audience – for either good or bad. Make it good!


On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William K. Zinsser, published by Collins, 2006

Communication Skills for Conservation Professionals (2nd Ed.) by Susan K. Jacobson, published by Island Press, 2009

Giving Voice to the ”Voiceless’‘: Incorporating nonhuman animal perspectives as journalistic sources by Carrie Packwood Freeman, Marc Bekoff, and Sarah M. Bexell, 2011

A proposed lexicon of terms and concepts for human–bear management in North America, Hopkins et al. Ursus 21(2):154-168 (2010)