Don't Feed the Bears
By Darcie Abbene
Late one spring night, when the house was quiet, I peered out the bathroom window across the valley from our perch on the side of Elmore Mountain. I like to see what is happening at night. I inspect the backyard below, the treetops of the birch trees budding out beyond it, and if I’m lucky and the night is clear, the Mansfield range across the way. This night, I watched the way the beacon from the small airport down the hillside from us lit up the underside of low hanging clouds, guiding aircraft to safety. Closer to the house, a movement caught my eye.
Focusing my sleepy eyes, I detected a shadow only a little larger than our Labrador retriever lumbering its heavy body just underneath my window. I knew it was not Ellie, who was fast asleep in my daughter’s bed, and yet I was not startled by this backyard presence. It had to be a bear.
It is springtime and that means many things. The long hibernation of winter is winding down. The snow melts back to slowly reveal the fruits of the forest floor for the animals who live there. The warmer temperatures beckon us all. The bear emerges just as we all emerge.
We had not yet taken down our bird feeder, though the bulletins about bears and bird feeders had already gone out. We were slow to it, admittedly. We liked the cluster of chickadees that sojourned at our house through the winter, picking at the feeder and then flitting to the lilac bush on the far side of the house to snack. When our supply of seed is gone, we tell ourselves we’ll take the feeder down.
Through the darkness, I watched the black mass amble toward the pile of seed shells collected on the ground just off our back deck. Trying not to wake anyone, I moved from room to room and window to window trying to get a better view of the animal before the shadow of the house absorbed it and I could see nothing.
I did not see that bear again but as the spring unfolded into summer, a family of bears appeared again and again in my small town, taking up residence somewhere within the village limits. The mama and three cubs were well photographed by the newspaper, early risers who discovered the animals walking down the paved streets, and anybody lucky enough to catch a glimpse. The sow was quite large, the cubs probably a year or two-years-old.
Their presence touched off posts on the nightly community email forum and social media. Several used the bears’ attendance in town to express their approval or their defense of Vermont’s new composting laws, set to go in effect the coming summer. Several others implored their delinquent neighbors, like us, to take down their bird feeders. Still others attempted to educate against the danger of feeding bears and worried over the fate of the bear family if people didn’t change their ways.
Most of the posts were respectful of this unexpected reminder of wildness in the village. We’re all in this together was the general vibe, perhaps COVID pandemic induced, perhaps not. “Good luck and be safe!” many of the posts warned. The subtext here, though, is that these bears are not safe. They represent a problem.
To look at why we fear bears means we need to look at how we talk about bears. Somewhere after the childhood bear stories of Paddington, the Bernstein Family, and Pooh, the language turns dark and ominous. Talk turns to stories of “bad bears.” One Amazon search is telling. A profusion of scathing titles pop up, including: Mark of the Grizzly: More Stories of Recent Bear Attacks and the Hard Lessons Learned or Alaska Bears: Stirred and Shaken, or Murder—Bears, Moonshine, and Mayhem. Try Bear Attack in the Smokies: Memories of a National Park Ranger or Bear Attacks of the Century: True Stories of Courage and Survival. These titles suggest struggle, adrenaline and heat, triumph and loss. That there is some valor to be earned as the result of an interaction with a bear. Above all, these are stories of us versus them. Here, fear reigns. This helps with book sales but I worry about the language.
These kinds of stories are an indicator of the distance between humans and bears that extends beyond just the physical. In The Practice of the Wild, Gary Snyder points out that this dislocation is symptomatic of something bigger. After a conversation with a fellow hiker about his trepidation of bears, Snyder says, “I felt it wasn’t bears, but the idea of bears that he feared: the unseen, dark forces that lurk in the forest of our mind. To be concerned with bears while hiking in the mountains means you cannot become one with nature; nature appears to harbor evils” (Sanders 208). When people sense danger, they retreat to their houses, their cars, their machines—to themselves. The resulting barrier effect becomes a symptom of a larger problem.
Barrie Gilbert, research scientist and grizzly bear expert, spent his life devoted to debunking the idea of this tortured disassociation, of the antagonist and protagonist narrative of bears and humans. In One of Us: A Biologist’s Walk Among Bears, he writes, that “…poor Ol’ Griz still carries the stigma of timeworn folklore—that of an inscrutable, unpredictable, treacherous rogue, ever ready to attack and dismember unwitting humans” (Gilbert 1981). Gilbert has first-hand experience here; he was mauled by a Yellowstone grizzly in 1977, leaving him with one eye and several scars.
The mauling also left Gilbert with a sense of urgency about the way people and bears interact. After his recovery, instead of choosing a less dangerous animal to study, he doubled down on his efforts to study how behavioral science could lead the way to better bear-human interactions. A scrutiny of the historical accounts of Lewis and Clark led Gilbert to note that more often than not, when the bear and human worlds intersected there were “more bears killed per interaction than humans” (Gilbert 323). Gilbert’s research led him back to the wilderness, this time to Alaska’s Brooks Range and Katmai National Park, as well as Yellowstone to shine light on negative stereotypes, massage out what stories the bears themselves are telling, if only humans would take note.
Gilbert’s observations about bear behavior, namely, that aggressive bear behavior is driven by stressors on habitat directly connected to food sources, should surprise nobody. The great leap Gilbert asks of his readers is to accept that bears can learn in much the same ways as humans. And because of this, he pushes bear researchers to consider their methods and “whether constant trapping, ear-tagging, and collaring had resulted in a man-hater syndrome” (2912). As uncomfortable of a question as this might be for some scientists, who no doubt have the best of intentions in mind, Gilbert’s field observations demanded he push for a cultural shift. He argues that since the power differential is tipped in favor of humans, humans “bear” the responsibility of stewardship.
There is another problem going on. Bears need land. Lots of it. A bear’s home range depends on the size of the bear, its age and gender, and the food available in the habitat. It also depends, unfortunately, on the land’s many stewards who have a variety of intentions. Players in bear management stretch from biologists, state and federal forest, fish and wildlife employees, municipalities, nonprofits, community members, and activists. People are afraid of being mauled. Game wardens, keepers of wildlife by definition, are afraid they won’t be able to guarantee safety—for humans or for bears.
Habitat changes for bears, as Gilbert reminds us, lead to behavioral changes. Generally, this means bad bear behavior: bears get into dumpsters, raid chicken coops for grain or fowl, fight with dogs, cause trouble for themselves and others when they wander onto roads, enter people’s houses, or explore campsites. Wardens like to say, “A fed bear is a dead bear.” And they’re not wrong.
A ride along with a Vermont game warden one day revealed to me that most of the problems surround food. We took a tour of dumpsters in town, inspecting the various ways bears were able to break in and feast and the ways people attempted to keep them out. The warden told me of one resident who had taken to deliberate bear feeding. She was an unlikely scofflaw, an affluent older French woman who believed she was helping the bears by leaving out seeds and apples. Her neighbors and the warden, a Brit who she suggested was only on her case because she was French, were onto her. Eventually the warden was able to gather enough evidence to charge her with an illegal feeding fine. He delivered it to her along with a conciliatory dish towel that read, “Don’t feed the bears.”
One has to admire the French woman’s intention to help the bears, but also acknowledge that perhaps her method is off. But if one wants to change the relationship between bears and humans, what is one to do?
How we talk about wildness—about bears and nature—matters. It reveals whose story we are telling. It also reveals our relationship to wildness. Do we tell our human story, or do we tell our collective story—yours, mine, the bear at my bird feeder, the French lady and the game warden, and the one Barrie Gilbert suggests we listen for and become stewards to?
The stories we share let slip as much about us as they do about bears and wildness. When we tell stories about bears that are of fear and attack, those are the emotions we attach to bears, to wildness. Perhaps if we take a slow moment to think more deeply, we might remember that bears symbolize more than just great physical power and incredible strength.
They are guides, representing a nightly navigation in the constellation Ursa Major, also known as the Great She-Bear. They represent a seasonal cycle of hibernation and rebirth. They are the teachers of the wilderness.
It is popular right now to talk about the danger of a single narrative. That extends to the natural world as well. Snyder urges us to think larger than ourselves. He says, “The wild requires that we learn the terrain, nod to all the plants and animals and birds, ford the streams and cross the ridges and tell a good story when we get back home” (Snyder 24). It might be time to pipe down a bit and start listening instead.
The tales we tell are important.
Gilbert, Barrie K. One of Us: A Biologist's Walk Among Bears. Friesen Press, 2019. Kindle file.
Krivak, Andrew. The Bear. Bellevue Literary Press, 2020. Kindle file.
Sanders, Barry and Paul Shepard. The Sacred Paw: The Bear in Nature, Myth, and Literature. Viking Penguin. 1985.
Snyder, Gary. The Practice of the Wild. Harper Collins. 1990.