Above: Vancouver Island black bear via hellobc.ca
By contributor Chantelle Spicer
Every time we walk through a city or provincial park, all we take in has been orchestrated to enhance or hide certain things in the area.
The path bends a certain way, showing us a particular view; benches are particularly placed, giving us space to relax there; pathways are lined with fallen logs or mossy rocks to make us feel as though we are not being led somewhere. We even now have apps designed to enhance these experiences, providing us with field guides, hiking maps, and reviews from other park users. Not to mention the influence of our identity as Canadians; wilderness is our history which resounds in us today—a cultural design for being surrounded by and engaged with nature.
This summer, quite a few folks came face-to-face with a side of nature that is not so designed—wildlife. Like us, wildlife is a part of nature, but they are not a part of our human-made world. They do not read signs, understand the purpose of bear bells, or follow human rules—they have their own codes to follow. So when the true wild crosses the path of slightly removed, it makes headlines. It also sometimes leaves an indelible mark on both parties. Case in point, this summer two Island residents posted a video of their encounter with a black bear on the highway between Port Alberni and Tofino. Feeling like they needed to make a closer connection to this bit of wild, they got out of their car and began feeding rice cakes to the animal from the roadside. As a former resident of Ucluelet, I have seen this type of encounter all too often, though mostly with tourists to the area. To humans, feeding wildlife may seem like a once in a lifetime opportunity to really connect; however, to animals, this is a trespass against their nature and routine.
“Once the bear has been fed by people, it will have an association of people and food, so it can lead to further conflict,” says Deputy Chief of BC Conservation Officer Service Chris Doyle. “If they become dangerous they may have to be destroyed.” This can also lead to bears expecting food from cars along the road, leading to traffic collisions.
A more elusive wildland creature has also made some headlines this summer—cougars. Like all wild cats, their presence is powerful. To see one makes your heart skip a beat, reminds you of your weaknesses—physically, intellectually, spiritually—and makes you feel privileged to have been in it’s presence all at the same time. One person must feel particularly lucky after his encounter involved an attack during a jog in Port Hardy, escaping with only minor injuries. Reports from locals also stated that an adult male had been stalking joggers and hikers for a two-week period, with that individual being caught and destroyed.
If a person is being stalked by a cougar, one is reasonably unlikely to even know until it is too late, which makes another local story all the more significant. In this particular incident, a man and a cougar engaged with each other for 45 minutes in a Sooke backyard. When watching the footage through Global News, one cannot help but notice how much more comfortable the cat is with this than the human. No matter where the animal is, even if it is in a neighborhood, they are in their own element. They know that under the asphalt or carefully-crafted lawn, the land exists, along with their instincts, knowledge, and identity as wild.
Humans are both drawn to and afraid of our experiences with wild relatives. People flock to zoos around the world to glimpse creatures that fill our dreams, journey to the reaches of paradise, including our Island, to view whales, bears, eagles—symbols of Canadian wilderness. We prepare our cameras and phones to capture and share these encounters. Some even strive to own these moments with something very wild, even prehistoric. Attention to this was peaked this summer when it was found a Kelowna man shared his space with two American alligators, the largest of which was 3.5 metres long, weighing 267 kilograms. What drives us to seek out and put ourselves at risk around these creatures? More importantly, how ethical are these types of encounters?
Ethicist Ann Peterson explains in her book, Being Animal —Beasts and Boundaries in Nature Ethics, “the first step to understanding and loving real animals, not just abstractions of them, is through emotive relationships and encounters with real animals.” This has been a key point in many conservation plans worldwide—how can we care about that which we do not know? This can lead to even more issues though, as we introduce ourselves and our arrogance into the animals’ lives, believing that we know what is right and proper for them and their roles in the environment and life cycles. Take, for instance, our sometimes lewd interest and force in the mating habits of panda bears, or the cycles of killing, then saving, then again killing wolves in Yellowstone Park. We really want to love animals on our own terms, rather than respecting their own sacred spaces. These verbs of owning and capturing, I use purposefully; our colonized culture doesn’t allow us to just be a part of or observe, creating a need for proof and objectification of the wilderness we covet.
As with most things, the ethics of our relationship with wildlife is not easy to navigate. There is certainly a place for wildlife sanctuaries and even zoos or aquariums which house wild animals. There is also an incredible need to restore wild habitats for these animals outside of cages, but that is another article altogether. I do not offer any advice or opinion on what is right (except don’t feed bears rice crackers or Timbits) when engaging with wildlife. I simply invite you to reflect your own connections and impacts on the wild world around you—as each one is as individual as we are. One thing I will impart, however, is that no matter how you connect, remember that it is not just about you, but about a whole living landscape tied up in that moment.