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Victims of Fatal Bear Mauling Should Not Be Blamed

The couple worked hard for wildlife. Celebrate their accomplishments.

October 12, 2003|Barrie K. Gilbert

Word that my friend, Tim Treadwell, and his partner were killed by bears last week in Alaska's Katmai National Park left me numb and troubled. For 12 years, Treadwell had lived and worked among the coastal bears with a seat-of-the-pants approach, succeeding in bringing a new awareness of bears to people. Now all of his efforts seem to be unraveling.

Treadwell and I could hardly have had more different approaches to learning about bears. I directed behavior studies for Katmai six years after I survived a devastating bear mauling while doing research in Yellowstone park -- an event that made the question of how bears respond to people personal as well as professional for me.

The attacks at Katmai on Treadwell and his partner, Amie Huguenard, were the first fatalities from a bear in the park's long history. A predatory attack by a grizzly, which apparently is what happened in Treadwell's case, is very rare. It was totally unlike the more common kind of surprise encounter, such as the one I had when I startled and enraged a grizzly while I was crossing an alpine ridge. The charging animal bit my head the same way it would in a fight with other bears, tearing my scalp and face so extensively that surgeons needed nearly 1,000 sutures to close the wounds.

But making sense of all this also requires that we recognize that humans and bears have coexisted for millenniums and still do. For example, at Brooks River on the Alaskan peninsula, about 10,000 visitors -- campers, fishermen -- mix with 30 or more bears each year in a small area.

A few years ago I had an unusual experience with a Brooks bear that left her cubs beside me to "baby-sit" and went to catch fish in deep water. She did so apparently to protect them from large male bears, which are known to kill cubs but shy away from humans. Park managers incorporated these results into their plans and have successfully facilitated safe wilderness experiences for thousands of people. But just as there are aberrant, aggressive people, so too are there bears driven by hunger, disease or age that will kill and eat us, as in the recent Katmai attack.

It is unwarranted and unfair to rush to judge Treadwell and Huguenard, who tried so hard to protect bears and change public attitudes toward them.

However, some people -- including some members of the hunting fraternity -- are using their deaths as an opportunity to blame and not to celebrate their accomplishments.

What we need to realize is that wild carnivores forever maintain their predatory instincts and are never "tamed," even if they are intelligent and adaptable enough to tolerate us to get food.

Keeping large carnivores in captivity is equally risky and should be left to those who spend a lifetime with the animals. When our culture evolves to a truly human level, we may even decide that it is not appropriate or humane to cage them.

We need to respect their wildness and mystery, experiencing them at a distance.

Barrie K. Gilbert is a professor emeritus in the ecology center at Utah State University.

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