Almost a year ago, in July 2014, Washington state experienced the worst string of wildfires ever in its history. The first fire began on July 8 near the Entiat River. Then, on July 14, a lightning storm started dozens more across the eastern Cascade Range. When it was all over, more than 350,000 acres (about 550 square miles) had burned.
Thousands of wild animals—including bears, cougars and deer—in the area’s forests lost their lives in these fires. But one, small bear beat the odds.
In the past few weeks, the story of “Cinder” has been covered in the news; even a children’s book has been written about the black bear cub. For me, however, the method of her release back into the wild is an even more telling narrative: not so much indicative of her instincts but of ours and how we treat “the others” with whom we share the world.
Instilling fear of us
After the fires subsided, Cinder crawled on her forearms into the yard of one of the few homes left standing. All four of her paws had received third-degree burns. Following several months of intensive-care efforts—first at a California wildlife center that specializes in treating burns and then at Idaho Black Bear Rehab, Inc.—she made a remarkable recovery. Wounds that were once thought unable to heal did. The decision was made to return her to the wild.
By that time, however, Cinder had 10 months of positive and regular human contact behind her. She would have to learn to fear humans in order to survive. So just before her release back into her native Washington, she was subjected to some simulated, worst-case scenarios that we humans routinely dish out to bears. She was confined in a steel trap, while dogs on the outside barked at her at close range. Then, when the trap’s door was opened, not only did the restrained dogs continue to bark but rangers fired cracker shells (mock bullets) around her to scare her off, deep into the woods.
While the video of her release is hard to watch for that reason, those tactics were necessary. To keep her safe, sadly, her last contact with people had to be a severely negative one.
Offering a sincere apology
Today, whenever bears come into contact with humans, no matter how naturally or innocently it happens, it is always the bears that suffer. We traditionally act on the conviction that even if there is no human harm or death, a black bear that dares to venture close to us must die.
In fact, black bears have killed 63 people across North America since 1900. That means that your chances of being killed by lightning, bees or domestic dogs are vastly greater. The 600,000 black bears of North America kill less than one person per year on average, while one out of 16,000 people commits murder each year across North America. You are more likely to be killed by one of us.
According to the North American Bear Center in Ely, Minnesota, black bears today are actually timid, a trait they developed partly because they evolved alongside powerful predators, such as American lions, dire wolves, saber-toothed cats and short-faced bears, all of which became extinct only about 12,000 years ago. Black bears survived because of their ability to climb trees and their inclination to run first. The timid ones passed on their genes to create the black bears of today. Startled black bears now will most often retreat, preferably to a tree.
Most of the rare black bear attacks are defensive reactions to a person who is very close, an easy situation to avoid. Even then, injuries that do occur from these encounters are usually minor. Bears that visit bird feeders, campgrounds and garbage cans almost never kill people, even though these bears have the most contact with us by far. They are simply looking for food and can easily be chased away in most cases. Perhaps as we learn more about black bears, fewer and fewer of us will feel that we must shoot them on sight.
A small item reported on the North American Bear Center website, however, does give me hope. It says that the residents of Hemlock Farms, Pennsylvania, peacefully co-exist with black bears. Seven thousand residents share their seven-square-mile town with more than 20 black bears; at three bears per square mile, that’s a higher density than is found in any national park. The residents in Hemlock Farms feel that seeing a bear is not a problem but a pleasure.
Unfortunately, Hemlock Farms isn’t the rest of us yet. So, to Cinder, I must apologize. I’m embarrassed for my species. I’m sorry we had to treat you like that on what is hopefully the last time you will see any of us.
Run away as far as you can, little bear. Forget about us—and please, please, whatever you do, forgive us.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,