A few days ago, a friend shared a post from America’s Funniest Home Videos via Facebook. The video showed a little girl “playing peek-a-boo” with a bear at a zoo. It was a cute video. The comments, however, were not so funny.
Many comments discussed how it wasn’t a cute video at all, because the bear actually wanted to eat the little girl. There was also the usual hatred for zoos. And then there were comments refuting the claims the bear was just trying to eat the little girl.
“Bears are vegetarians. They don’t even eat meat.”
“Bears are friendly. They don’t hurt people.”
Um, wait, WHAT??
Bears eat meat. They are omnivores. They are opportunistic and will always prefer the easiest method of getting a meal. Bears will eat roots, tubers, nuts, seeds, berries and fruits. They’ll also eat insects, moths, fish, cattle, sheep, deer, elk, bison, sheep, moose, dog food, snowmobile seat covers and and just about anything else that smells yummy to them. The leading “bear guy” at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department used to say that a bear can smell an animal carcass upwind from more than 15 miles away. It is that sense of smell that leads them to campsites, cabins, campers and other homes with improper food storage. But bears, at least all bears in North America, will eat meat.
Bears are not friendly. Bears are wild animals. They don’t want to be petted or scratched or loved on. Yes, they can be playful. But they are wild animals, not a dog or goat or horse that thrives on human interaction. Polar bears, grizzly bears and black bears can and will attack, hurt and kill people. Most black bear attacks are not fatal and they tend to be less aggressive than their white and brown conterparts, but they are still plenty dangerous.
To perpetuate the myth that they are “friendly” is dangerous for both humans and bears. It is the attempts at “friendly interactions” that gets bears killed. Baiting a bear into your yard with food so you can watch it feed is an invitation to trouble, and will almost always end up with the bear being euthanized because they have become people dependent. A fed bear is a dead bear.
I really shouldn’t be surprised by the sheer ignorance of people when it comes to wild animals and spaces and our encounters with them. Bison in SUVs. A man dying in a Yellowstone hot spring. A lady run over by an elk. A toddler getting drug into the water and drowned by an alligator. Society has been building to this for the last 160 or more years. The Industrial Revolution saw the invention of machines that changed a way of life as well as methods of manufacture. New jobs became available in the cities, working in factories and mills. People left the farms and the country for prosperity in the cities. And the exodus has continued to this day.
Today, less than 2 percent of people in the United States are directly involved in production agriculture. About 4.2 percent of the population are hunters. Thirty-eight million folks are hikers and backpackers, accounting for about 11 percent of our population. Bird-watchers, anglers, mountain bikers and wildlife lovers account for another few million. But in the scope of our country’s population, those actively engaged in and knowledgeable about outdoor pursuits are few and far between.
What does this all mean? It means that there are an awful lot of folks out there who have no connection to the land or her furred and feathered and scaly residents. None. No favorite fishing hole or hiking trail. No favorite mountain ride or wildlife viewing area. Their habitat is concrete and asphalt and the only wildlife they see are squirrels and pigeons in man-made parks. They grow up learning how to navigate a subway or read the bus schedule instead of learning how to cross streams or navigate a trail.
Kids are spending less and less time just simply being outdoors. Schools are cutting back on recess and field trips in the name of meeting standards. Kids are bused to school instead of walking or riding their bikes. And they are spending more time in front of screens than ever before, which means they are spending less time active and outside. And when they do get outside, it is more often than not in a structured environment like competitive sports.
And we’ve delegated responsibility for our own safety to others. The government. A facility. Park rangers. Everyone else should be looking out for me, so I don’t have to, right?
Is it any wonder, then, that we are seeing these behaviors? All over social media, I see people leaving comments like “bears are friendly.” When it comes to folks interacting with nature or wildlife, sadly, I don’t believe they know any better. Ignorance is not an excuse, but it is a very real phenomena. Millions of Americans simply don’t get nature because they haven’t experienced it in any real or meaningful way. The same can be said for folks from other countries.
It’s the same problem agriculture faces in many respects. People are so far removed from the production of their own food that they don’t even know the difference between pork and beef. How can we expect to have meaningful discussions with each other on food safety and stability when some of those involved in the discussion just don’t understand the realities of growing food on a larger scale? So it goes with people understanding and respecting the natural world. How can people comprehend the danger of an elk when 30 minutes ago they didn’t even know what an elk was?
It would be easy to laugh off these naive and foolish comments and actions. Except they so often lead to tragedy either for the animals or the people The risks of this displacement from the land go beyond the individual tourist harming himself or committing localized environmental damage. There are some tremendous sociological and environmental risks as well.
The disconnect means there is an ever-growing number of folks who don’t appreciate wild spaces and wild places. They don’t value elbow room or wildlife diversity. They don’t give a hoot about hunting and fishing opportunity. They place no importance on green space, roadless areas or backcountry regulations. They simply don’t care.
When a growing populace no longer cares about these resources, we start to see problems. People getting mauled by bison or falling into hot springs are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. A growing body of evidence shows that losing our connection with the natural world has contributed to stress, obesity, attention disorders, other diseases and overall poor health. There are also risks to the environment too. Land is lost to development, wildlife are displaced or extirpated. Our water, air and soil is compromised.
I don’t know how to make the world care more about our environment and the wonder of the natural world around us. But we could all benefit from some more green in our lives, and I’m not talking money. Research has shown the following:
- Living in or near open space can enhance human function and well-being.
- Experiencing nature in many different forms can help recovery from illness and improve our overall health and well-being.
- Contact with nature can enhance intellectual performance and problem-solving abilities.
- Work environments with natural light and ventilation improves worker stress, performance and satisfaction.
I’ve been greatly encouraged by the “eat local” movement, which has lead to growth in local farmers markets and community supported agriculture. People are starting to pay more attention to what they put in their bodies and where it comes from. And the “backyard chicken” concept is also a step in the right direction, as is the effort to teach things like archery in our schools. I was also heartened to see the backlash facing the yahoos that walked in Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring. It means there are a few folks out there who still love this earth and our natural wonders.
I just hope we aren’t already too far gone from our connections with nature that it loses its importance once and for all.