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Saturday, November 27, 2010

The reason the sign says, “Please don’t feed the bears.”

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, November 27, 2010.)

When bears are habituated
to humans, problems arise.

Sooner or later, it had to happen. A hunter shot a “friendly” black bear. It happened in the Pocono region of Pennsylvania during the state’s archery bear season, and people are riled up against the hunter. The bear was the leviathan of bears – 879 blubbery pounds of black. And it had a name – the locals called it Bozo.

One reason it has gained so much attention is because it’s the heaviest bear on record. We’ll wait and see if it’s the world record because bears are not ranked by weight. They’re ranked by skull size, and once the required sixty day drying period has passed, the skull can be measured for the Boone & Crockett Club record book.

Often when an animal becomes a candidate for a world record, controversy rises immediately. In this case, some people accuse the hunter of shooting it illegally because the bear was, in the minds of many locals, a tame bear.

It was not a tame bear. Tame bears ride bicycles in circuses. Tame bears wear tutus and entertain crowds in old-time videos involving pro wrestlers. Tame bears are performers, and they’re kept in cages when not doing their act.

Bears that live outside a cage are not tame bears. But some of them are habituated to humans. And when they are, problems arise.

Humans are attracted to bears. Maybe it’s because they appear slow and comical. They often act clownish. But they’re not clowns. And whatever the reasons we like to get close to them, they can bring serious injury or death to people when they lose their natural fear.

I was once approached by a bear while hunting deer in New York’s Allegany State Park. It hung around me for five minutes, as close as seven feet. Bears are common in the park and people camping there sometimes feed bears, so it almost certainly saw me as a source of food. Because that was probably a fed bear, it should be considered a dangerous bear.

People feed bears for their own reasons – perhaps they get enjoyment from it, or maybe a “photo op” and a story to tell their friends. But people who feed bears do them no favor. They are habituating bears to people, and that’s bad for bears. It may end up with an injury or death to somebody. It almost always ends up with the death of the bear.

So, did the hunter do something illegal? No. The bear was fair game. The Pennsylvania Game Commission investigated and found no evidence that the hunter in any way violated any law or regulation.

Did the hunter do something unethical? That’s a matter of opinion, and depends on what he knew about the bear, its habits, and its history. But, zero evidence exists that he did anything unethical.

Although it has important differences, this incident is eerily parallel to another from several years ago in the Katmai National Park on the Alaska Peninsula. A man habituated Alaskan brown bears to himself – in that case exploiting them for his own fame. He gave them names: Mr. Chocolate, Mickey, Aunt Melissa. Tragically, he and his girlfriend were killed and eaten by Mr. Chocolate, or one of his cohorts. Then, in the course of the investigation, the bears had to be killed.

Here’s the parallel. Another man, for the last 15 or more years, fed a bear he named Bozo. Perhaps he didn’t know any better, but habituating wild animals to humans is against the law. Why? Because it creates a safety issue – the bear learns to expect food from humans and might threaten those who don’t feed it.

It’s also unethical. Why? Because it creates an artificial bond between animal and man. It fosters an unnatural dependency. It destroys the animal’s natural fear. And it increases the animal’s vulnerability.

Fingers should not be pointing at the hunter. He is innocent. Sadly, the man who says he “raised” the bear is the one who did wrong. So are others who fed the giant bear. Feeding it was illegal and unethical. Killing it was not the worst that could have happened.

The lesson is that no matter what good we think we do when we feed bears, we harm bears when we habituate them to ourselves. That’s the reason the sign says, “Please don’t feed the bears.”

Saturday, November 13, 2010

What Deer Do. Why They Do It.

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, November 13, 2010.)

If you think deer are beautiful and
endlessly fascinating, this book
speaks to those twin interests.

Two thousand years ago Solomon wrote, “Of the making of books there is no end” (Ecclesiastes 12:12). It’s still true today. And it’s as true in the whitetail world as it is in any field. Case in point – one of the nation’s leading authorities on deer behavior and deer hunting has just come out with his seventh outstanding book.

I thought Charles Alsheimer had already done his best work in Strategies for Whitetails (2006), but now he has produced Whitetails: A Photographic Journey Through the Seasons. In two respects, this book is even better.

First, most hunters are aware of what deer are doing during the breeding season and the hunting season, but not so much during the other months of the year. That knowledge is important for the hunter/naturalist, and it’s all in this book both in text and photographic form.

Second, although this book can help hunters, it’s not a book about hunting so it should have a far broader audience. Whether you’re a hunter or not, if you think deer are beautiful and endlessly fascinating (and what nature lover doesn’t?), this book speaks to those twin interests.

Whitetails: A Photographic Journey Through the Seasons capitalizes on two of Charles Alsheimer’s great aptitudes. First, he’s arguably the world’s foremost talent in photographing deer. During more than 30 years of pressing shutter buttons and cataloging hundreds of thousands of images, he has witnessed everything the whitetail deer does in its daily, seasonal, and yearly behavior. Every facet of the whitetail’s world has been captured by Alsheimer’s camera lens and studiously examined.

That brings me to his second aptitude. As Contributing Editor on Whitetail Behavior for Deer and Deer Hunting magazine and host of Deer & Deer Hunting TV, he understands what deer do and why they do it as well as any biologist, hunter, wildlife manager or nature lover anywhere. If you have a question about deer behavior, Alsheimer probably has the answer.

He virtually lives in the world of deer. Whitetails are more than an obsession for him – they’re his life’s work. Every day he’s in a unique position to monitor and research their behavior and provide his readers with an eyewitness account of what deer are doing and why they’re doing it.

The chapters cover each month of the year and begin with April as winter ends and springtime rejuvenation begins. Everything is from the perspective of the deer – fawning season, the secluded months of antler growing, interdependence of doe family groups, interaction with other species, the developing rivalries within bachelor groups, dispersal of young bucks, scent communication, the challenges predators bring, the exhausting activity of courtship and breeding, the rigors of winter – all that happens in the world of whitetails is covered in 190 pages between quality hardback covers.

The book includes over 200 of the sharpest, most revealing photographs possible, plus every chapter ends with a digest of “Vital Information” detailing the important behaviors going on during that month in the life of the whitetail.

After 12 chapters about deer through the months, Alsheimer doesn’t quit. Chapter 13 covers the intriguing topic of antler development, and then he gives a bonus. He turns his attention to you, the nature enthusiast, in Chapter 14. It’s loaded with tips on how to take your own photos and maximize your enjoyment of wildlife through photography.

Get a copy for yourself, your favorite hunter or any wildlife watcher. Order them autographed directly from Charles J. Alsheimer, 4730 County Route #70A, Bath, NY, 14810. Send him $29.99 plus $5.00 shipping and handling, and he’ll turn your order around as fast as he can.

By the way – Alsheimer described this book to me as a “coffee table book,” but I think that description sells it short. Why? Because coffee table books generally get more attention from dustrags than from readers. If this really is a coffee table book, it’s one that will never need dusting.

Once you’ve read it, you’ll dip back into it every month of the year to refresh your knowledge of whitetails, what they’re doing, and why.