Legally Brief: Bears are People TooPosted by Stephen Wells, ALDF's Executive Director on August 28, 2013
On a recent trip to Alaska, once my home for nine years, I had the chance to spend five days watching bears fish for salmon at a creek in the southeastern part of the state. The creek hosts a rare congregation of usually solitary black and grizzly bears who come for a six week run of pink salmon. They gorge on the fish to lay on fat for their winter hibernation. Every day for five straight days my friends and I would hike the two miles from our US Forest Service cabin to the creek. What made the experience special was that during that time the bears became easily recognizable, despite the fact that they were mostly just big black bears. Size, scars, a chest patch of white, and cinnamon highlights sometimes made them identifiable. But mostly it was personality.
Tank was my favorite of the black bears. It’s silly to play favorites when you’re talking about bears in the Alaska wilderness, but he was just so lovable. He caught salmon the same way every time; facing upstream towards the falls he would wait until a fish appeared or bumped him underwater and then he’d thrust his face underwater and grab it. What made Tank unique, other than his fishing routine—same spot every day—was that he was so laid back, he’d share if a juvenile bear asked or an older one. Tank was big, no pushover, he just wasn’t greedy. Plenty of salmon for every bear.
V and her cub were easy to identify too. Few beings are more adorable than a bear cub, but V, named after a V-shaped patch of white on her chest, was also a sweetly doting Mom. She was particularly cautious while at the creek as male bears will sometimes kill a cub. But not on her watch! She would park her rambunctious, curious cub nearby and fish, but if another bear approached she’d stiffen move in their direction and stare them down. Not even the big males wanted a piece of a super protective Momma bear.
Harry Potter, a young male, would fish in a pool just above Tank at the falls. Like Tank he’d face upstream and wait for a salmon to appear. But, unlike Hank, Harry was shy. After catching a fish, he’d squeeze his body into a narrow crack between boulders and eat in private. Most of the bears weren’t so fussy. Half eaten salmon carcasses were everywhere, food for juveniles not yet good at fishing and for eagles, ravens and gulls.
Boboli was a very small and nervous bear. She would skulk down to the creek and grab a salmon and then hurry back in the woods. If she got spooked by one of the big males or it got crowded at the falls, she climbed a tree. Sometimes she’d even fall asleep waiting for things to calm down. A weaned cub of hers, now full grown, showed the same super cautious behavior. Like mother like son. It had worked well for her as she’s known to be at least 30 years old!
What struck me while watching the bears was how similar they are in movement, body language and behavior to dogs. It made them familiar and easier to understand. It’s always struck me as odd how we humans find it so hard to think of personality in other animals. Dogs and cats, sure, we live with them so individuality is hard to overlook. But all animals have individual personalities. Anxious, playful, smart, not-so-smart, angry, social, anti-social, goofy, etc. When you get to spend time with animals it’s inescapable.
But for animal untamed by humans, and for the billions who live unseen on factory farms or in laboratories or puppy mills, it’s different. We tend to only consider them in terms of populations or species—or the hideous but sadly accurate factory farm term, “units of production.” Perhaps thinking of animals as individuals with identifiable personalities, like we do with people or our cats and dogs, would make it much harder to treat them the way we do. It would be hard to brag about shooting a black bear, if that bear was known as Tank, who liked to share his meal with inexperienced and elderly bears.