Sunday, October 5, 2008

Lead Them not into Temptation

For those of us who live in "bear country" -- though I still say we humans conquered it fair and square, and to the victors go the sprawl -- this is the time of year when encounters are more likely to occur, as the bruins go into their pre-hibernation feeding frenzy. And that means it's also the time of year for a lot of finger-wagging and guilt-tripping by wildlife officials and animal activists, who love to lecture the rest of us on the need to minimize temptations, so our provocations don't get an animal in trouble, or shot as a nuisance.

All the rogues in this world view are human; all the beasts, blameless. There is no such thing as a nuisance bear, just a nuisance human, who needs to be properly trained. Animal control is out; people control is in. If we get our faces ripped off, that's just the price we pay for invading bear habitat. Payback's a bitch.

And the lectures are increasingly backed up by stiff fines for those who don't weld their garbage cans shut, or fail to batten down doors and windows securely against home invasion, or allow tempting food odors to waft unchecked into the air, leading the innocents down the road to perdition. La Plata County, in Western Colorado, is the latest to put the onus for curbing nuisance animals on people -- link -- with a "bear-proofing" ordinance.

"La Plata County's ordinance will require householders, businesses and homeowner associations to either have a bear-proof garbage can or Dumpster or keep unsecured garbage cans in a safe area except for three hours on collection day," reports The Durango Herald. "Fines for violations would be stiffer than originally proposed. Instead of $100, $200 and $500 fines for successive violations, the scale would increase to $200, $300 and $500, respectively. A first-time violator could avoid the fine by purchasing or leasing a bear-proof garbage receptacle. Bear-proof cans cost $200 to $250 each."

This people-are-the-problem mindset gets a little annoying to those of us who take reasonable precautions, and who aren't anti-wildlife, but still have to be "bear aware," and looking over our shoulders, when we go out to pick up the paper each morning. Running into a sow and two cubs, as I did one day a number of years ago, groping through the early morning murk without my contacts on, can make for a potentially rude awakening. The charm of hosting urban wildlife wears off when encounters get a little too close. My wife hit a deer -- actually, it hit her -- on her way to the office a few years ago, even though we live right in the city and it's a concrete jungle between here and there. What rats are to New York, deer are to some parts of Colorado Springs.

The neighborhoods where I've lived in Colorado Springs are long-established, so it's ridiculous to suggest, as wildlife apologists do, that my presence constitutes an encroachment on bear habitat, giving them license to roam at will. My neighborhood has been human habitat since the 1930s at least, and bears still haven't gotten the message. There's a lot of counter-encroachment going on, as bear, deer, fox and mountain lion become more fearless and more urbanized.

We're repeatedly told that the animals are drifting down into developed areas because wild food is scarce. Every year, it seems, we hear reports that acorns aren't plentiful enough, or berries aren't bursting. But the truth is that these animals aren't in town by necessity, but by choice. It's just easier raiding garbage cans and breaking into homes than it is grubbing for acorns or scrounging for berries. Yet wildlife officials like to maintain the pretense that these situations are anomalies, rather than the norm, just as they like to suggest that most human-bear encounters -- they never, ever use the word "attack" -- result from some confusion, or perhaps even physical or mental illness, on the animal's part.

This recent story in the Boulder Daily Camera may give those who don't live in "bear country" a taste of this pervasive, people-are-the-problem guilt-tripping. Here's how the Camera wrote it up:

"With the season for bear hibernation approaching, the lure of fresh fruit hanging from trees in Boulder was enough to bring a small group of volunteers together Saturday to eliminate some of the sweet temptations that draw bears to the city.

Billie Gutgsell organized the first Community Harvest Day and works for Bear Smart Campaign and WildEarth Guardians -- groups that try to raise awareness that so-called "nuisance bears" are wild creatures with a natural tendency to seek out food. "We want to bring out public awareness that this isn't a bear problem, it's a people problem," Gutgsell said. "They're not nuisance bears, it's just a nuisance situation."

Gutgsell, with a group of about half-a-dozen volunteers, picked mostly apples from Boulder residents' trees to help reduce the number of bears wandering into the city scavenging for food. The picked fruit will be shipped to the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, which will feed about 48 rescued bears from across the country who are taking shelter there.

"People need to act now to prevent any more bears from learning bad habits," Gutgsell said. "Once learned, it's impossible to get them to stop." Possible bear-human encounters aren't just dangerous for people. The Division of Wildlife tags and relocates bears who are deemed a threat because of breaking into homes or rummaging through garbage. And if a tagged bear is found back in the city causing problems, it's considered a risk to people and killed."

Personally, I blame Walt Disney (and, more recently, the Animal Channel and Discover Channel, etc.) for anthropomorphizing and over-romanticizing animals in a way that helped create the animal cult we see developing in America today. Anyone who's been watching The Grizzly Man Diaries, or who's seen previews for this other creepy show, about the guy who thinks he's a wolf, can see this taken to its insane extremes. But this mindset, in a lesser form, also inhibits the ability of Westerners to deal rationally with our animal management issues -- meaning that the conflicts will escalate, and the human and animal casualties will mount, as time goes on.

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