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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.”


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