Monday, July 4, 2011

Day 34: When paths cross

What happens when the paths of humans and wildlife cross?

I have been writing about all the instances of when humans venture into the wilderness, trying to get our paths crossed with the animals. I've talked about walking out into the swampy fen to catch dunlin and collect their DNA, and about racing through deep, long puddles, to find the telltale signs of a fox den. These interactions are designed to minimize any negative effects of the people on the wildlife - yes there are alien abductions, but for the purpose of studying the birds and to ultimately initiate conservation efforts for the species, and yes, driving the ATVs on the fen can destroy the peat, and is generally very polluting, but again, it is meant to study the animals, to gain an appreciation of the environment we are trying to understand.

So why do we carry riffles? What would happen if my path crossed with a polar bear's? I've seen six bears so far. I've been safe on a balcony, I've been across a lake, I've been a kilometer away on the fen and I've been driving in a car, again very far away. With the bear at the Study Centre, deterrents were used, cracker shells that make a big bang to scare the bear off. Otherwise, the behaviour in all the other circumstances was that of decided avoidance by the people involved. The respect that we have for the bears means we won't approach them, that we know that they are powerful, fast animals, that we are in their wilderness, we are the ones that must accommodate them. So when our paths have crossed, we have backed away and left them be or scared them away without anyone being hurt, the policy of the centre which briefs every guest about polar bear behaviour and proper responses in these situations.

But what happens when the paths cross in human territory? What is the fate of any wildlife in human territory?

A polar bear was shot in town today. From what the police shared, which I obtained from a photographer, the bear was being a problem in town, getting too close to some people. A police car drove up to the bear to scare it off. The bear stood up and smashed down on the hood of the police car, leaving two huge dents. The freelance photographer who told me the story showed me some pictures of the car. The power behind those paws is enormous and reminds me again of why I should respect the bear. But because of this behaviour, the bear was shot and killed.

Is this the fate of animals when they wander into human territory? Are we so separated from nature that we can no longer share the land?

I don't know the details of why the bear was in town, or the exact nature of the bear's interaction with the people, but I have this feeling in my stomach that the bear's death could have been prevented. My first question after seeing the photos, including the photos of a proud, smiling police officer, was to ask what had the officer done to provoke the bear and get that close to it? Could the bear have just been responding to the threat without access to an escape route? A bear being killed in Churchill is so rare, I sadly wonder what would have prompted this.

Was it the bear's fault that it was shot? Was it the people's fault? Was it the ignorance of bear behaviour? Or was it the inevitable conclusion to mankind's expansion of civilization at the expense of wilderness? The loss of habitat for the bears, and for nearly all known species?

We have altered the world so much, the specifics of which can be found on any news site. If we look specifically at the polar bears, the first obvious negative impact is climate change, obvious because polar bears are portrayed as the victims on every poster as their sea ice melts. Another impact was from pollution, mercury and DDT, a discussion I can't have without mentioning Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Polar bears are again the victims, this time of the fat-soluble pollutants that bioaccumulate, getting to higher and higher concentrations as you go up the food chain, from the water to the algae to the zooplankton, to the invertebrates to the fish to the seals, and who is at the top, but the magnificent polar bear. Then there is this interaction in a town that is out of bounds for polar bears though their ancestors were here long before ours.

This story of growth of civilization and loss of habitat isn't new. Think about the farms and the wolf hunts and bobcat hunts. Think about the farms in the rain forests with slash and burn. Think about the shark hunts around tourist destinations.

By virtue of Churchill being a tourist town, which is now it's primary industry after the military left and the port was downsized, does that help or hurt the chance of survival for this wildlife? I showed an image of the tundra buggy at the parade, the means by which tourists from around the world can go forth on the tundra, leaving deep, heavy tracks to find the bears, allowing them to lean out with their cameras and snap pictures of the snout of the polar bear a few feet directly below them. Do they really know what it means to encounter a polar bear? Do they understand that the bears control this land? At least the tourists come to specifically see the bears, the beauty of ecotourism, which should help to preserve the landscape at least for that commercial interest.

Though that commercial interest seems so tainted. How can there be any understanding of this place if you don't walk on the peat or feel small in the expanse of the watery fen or feel the excitement tinged with genuine fear when there is nothing but open air between you and the 2 ton animal, both standing on the same ground? Could they have killed that bear if they knew these feelings? There is a staff member who has lived here for 10 years, who has lived in a solitary cabin outside of town with her dogs. She has gone walking with her dogs and been surprised by a bear around a clump of trees. She has fired cracker shells and trained her dogs to bark when they see the bear, but never has she had to shoot a bear.

Has city life, where we fear that eagles will swoop down on our miniature dogs, and our children will fall victim to the wild coyotes, and the biggest concern is hitting a deer while driving if there is some sort of habitat left for deer, and with the zoos and their cages and the easy viewing without fear, respect or appreciation, destroyed our connection with wilderness? When the paths cross, is there only destruction and ignorance?

I am being biased here without knowing the facts of the incident. Polar bears are dangerous, especially if they are hungry and turn to humans as prey. In the past century, there have been four reported human deaths due to polar bears: Hattie AmitnakCarl StalkerThomas Mutanen, and Paulosie Meeko. Thomas and Paulosie were killed in Churchill.

But how many bears have been killed? How could all of these deaths been prevented?


  1. Insightful arguments presented here. Is there a better way to deal with predatory wildlife that starts showing aggression to humans? It is certainly a tough question to answer. The standard practice, like the one you illustrated, is that any animal that becomes too habitualized (or loses its natural caution around people) is often shot, partially out of fear that it will soon turn against humans. You brought up two interesting arguments, one of lost connection between humans and other life on this planet, and one of the feeling you got about respecting the bear after seeing pictures of the town incident. Humans beings do often forget that we too are animals, interconnected and affected by the life that surrounds us - and nature does not discriminate despite our higher intelligence. The fact that we forget this truth, and don’t believe in creating the boundaries that flow out of mutual respect (that lack of respect which is also causing the extreme starvation, poaching, food migration, etc. we see with a lot of wildlife now – factors that most certainly contribute to habitualization) is certainly an indicator that we are not willing to find alternatives that will allow such animals to live, or to solve the factors that increase the unusual predatory instincts against humans in habitualized wildlife. It’s sad to note that even with our superior aptitude, humans are (time and time again) very capable of bringing about their own demise; all the while completely oblivious that the process is even taking place.

    Sorry about the huge post hehe, but it made me think a lot about the topic. Thanks for posting.

  2. I'm glad it got you thinking. I hope you like the next post!