Humans and Dogs and Bears, Oh My! – A Summer Podcast Reflection

This post originally appeared on the Network in Canadian History and Environment website.

This clip shows Bear 148. Bear 148 was an iconic and beloved grizzly bear from Banff National Park who met her early demise in British Columbia after being relocated there just months earlier. A thirteen second clip of a bear munching on dandelions, and my heartstrings are pulled. Am I more invested in this clip because I know her tragic fate? Or is it because I can empathize with this scene because I too have enjoyed a leisurely snack in a field of wildflowers? Or is that just my anthropocentric understanding of the world? Likely, Bear 148 is actually eating feverishly in this scene, fighting for her survival, making sure she is fat enough to get through another winter.

Perhaps my own experience isn’t so different from this second scenario; I too fight for daily survival, though the instinctual nature of my behaviour is clouded by generations of cultural constructs and human denial. Yet still, perhaps both of these scenarios are equally real. Pleasure and the fight for survival do not have lie at opposite ends of the experience spectrum.

I grew up on the outskirts of Cook Forest State Park, near Allegheny National Forest, in a region referred to as the “Pennsylvania Wilds.” This area has a sizable black bear population. I’ve never been afraid of bears. I always considered them with respect and wonder. Bears regularly passed through our yard. One bear would regularly stroll in, stand on its hind legs, lift our bird feeder off of its tall stand, carefully open it and scoop out the seed, close it, and go on its way. It took great care not to hurt our property. I believe this was intentional, even if only because it knew that to harm the feeder would be to risk access to future meals.

Watching the bears at the dump about 1958. Newberry, Michigan. John Lloyd, Flickr Commons.

I remember listening to older adults who told tales of the “olden” days when folks would line up in their cars every night to watch the bears at the local dump. These tales occurred ten, twenty, maybe thirty years earlier, but it seemed to my young mind to have happened a long long time ago. By the time I was on the scene in the 1990s, both garbage and wildlife regulations and management practices had changed enough to make this activity a thing of the past. More than anything, I remember the tourists being terrified of bears. At some point, it seemed to me, popular wonder for these animals had largely been overtaken by fear.

Because of my early experience living close to bears, I was quickly drawn to Mike Commito‘s work on the history of black bears in Ontario, and was especially piqued by Tina Loo’s January 2018 post, “The Bow Valley and ‘People’ Without a History.” As the title denotes, Loo uses Bear 148’s life and Colleen Campbell’s 2017 Eastern Slopes Grizzly Bear Project exhibit at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies to explore the idea that individual animals have histories that are just as rich and complex as humans’. “It’s a piece,” Loo writes, “you have to sit with to appreciate. For me, doing so made the theoretical insights of scholars from anthropology who call for ‘multispecies ethnographies’ meaningful; that is, for ‘a more-than-human approach’ to research and writing ‘that acknowledges the interconnectedness and inseparability of humans and other life forms.”

Even after the Eastern Slopes Grizzly Bear Project formally ended, the animals continue to be monitored. Photo credit: Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies

Although I had no prior knowledge of or connection to Bear 148, Loo’s piece left me wanting to know more about her life. When I saw that The Narwhal was dedicating their inaugural podcast to the bear and the issues surrounding her life and death, I knew that I would have to listen.

Undercurrents: Bear 148 is a six episode podcast, led by Molly Segal, that interviews various individuals who had professional and personal connections to the famous Banff resident. The primary strength of Undercurrentsis its accessibility. They pack a lot of reflection and information into episodes that are approximately fifteen minutes long. I especially appreciate short podcasts. With approximately three trillion podcast options, unlimited music, and a need for occasional moments of silence there is only so much time to dedicate to auditory pursuits. One can digest this season of Undercurrents  in one evening and that is a very good thing.

Another strength of the podcast is its narrative arch which begins and ends with Bear 148’s demise and relies heavily on rich interview material. Three main topics stuck out to me as I listened both as fuel for personal reflection and as issues that need to inform my environmental history scholarship as I go forward.

Eric Petersen, prospector and trapper, is a breeder of three-quarter dog, one-quarter wolf, huskies which he sells as sleigh dogs. August 1945, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. Credit: John Mailer / National Film Board of Canada. Photothèque / Library and Archives Canada / PA-166273

1. Interspecies Relations or “Leash your damn dogs”

Undercurrents emphasizes Bear 148’s adversarial relationship with the dogs that accompanied humans within Banff and other areas. The final episode that ended in Bear 148’s relocation involved an off-leash dog; she charged at the dog that was bothering her and in the process charged at humans. To Bear 148 the offleash dogs that barked and nipped at her were no different from their ancestral wolves; they were her natural adversary, and her desire to protect herself and her peace was a rational response.

The dogs in this story stood out as invasive species to me. Though we regularly see articles that explore the damage that domesticated cats can do to bird and rodent populations, similar consideration of our domesticated dogs are not as prevalent. When we unleash (literally and figuratively) our dogs on a landscape, we are causing other animals distress. How do we reconcile our love and dependence on our pets with their base animality and individuality? This is something that the basic population needs to grapple with more; such debates need to move beyond the pages of animal studies research and into regular discourse.

Canmore Wildlife Corridors. Source: “Bow Valley Builders and Developers Support Wildlife Corridors

2. Border(less)

Another key theme running throughout the podcast season is the artificiality of borders. We repeatedly hear the point that bears can’t read. Bear 148 unknowingly passed outside of a protected area into British Columbia where she was legally harvested. The border meant nothing to her and everything to the humans that sought to both protect and harm her.

The borders are more than just lines on a map, they also denote where certain rules and policies are followed. The podcast effectively demonstrates that bears and other animals are able to grow accustomed to the behaviour accepted by them in one space, but may not understand that the same behaviour may be unacceptable when they cross from national to provincial park, or park to unprotected area. The inconsistency of our regulations and the arbitrary boundaries that define them set wild animals up for failure.

But borders are not just physical: the podcast also highlights the borders we place between human and non-human, as well as between western scientific knowledge and traditional Indigenous knowledge. What would happen if we consciously broke down these borders?

3. What is fear and is it useful?

Earlier I noted that I was never afraid of bears, but that isn’t entirely accurate. I’m wary of bears. I understand myself in relation to them. I understand that my life is in danger around them if I move too close or disrespect their boundaries. Is wariness the same as fear? Is wariness the informed version of fear? Is wariness natural and fear learned?

The podcast traces officials’ increased use of fear to manage both people and bears over the latter half of the twentieth century. The folks that gathered at the garbage dumps to watch and feed bears were not driven by fear, but rather by wonder and a smidge of human hubris. To dissuade this behaviour officials focused on making humans afraid of bears and bears afraid of humans.

The problem with relying on fear is twofold. Firstly, as Bear 148’s story shows, it does not effectively kill human or non-human curiousity nor support co-existence. Secondly, it relies on a lack of knowledge and misunderstanding. The difference between fear and informed wariness is knowledge and understanding. The path forward requires humans to make an effort to cultivate interspecies empathy built on education and Undercurrents: Bear 148 is a great place to start. 5/5, would recommend.

Feature Photo Source: Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics Facebook Page

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