Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Further Thoughts On Food Conditioning

Tackling the subject of habituation vs. food conditioning on a blog like this is enormously difficult simply due to the scope of the issue. It would take several books and a bibliography of references the size of a book to present readers with enough information to analyze the data on their own. After doing more research, I have to concede that whether or not food conditioning will create a dangerous bear depends greatly on the bear itself.

Because they are so remarkably intelligent (equal to primates and dolphins), bears develop individual personalities that are formed by their experiences, much like people. While some can be peaceful and even friendly, some can be vicious, nasty, and destructive. In Beauty Within the Beast, a story is told of a female black bear who was fed by an elderly couple living in a cabin in Alaska. As a result, she became a bully and often forced her way into the cabin to get any treats she could find. Despite her tendency to intimidate the couple into letting her do whatever she wanted, she never attacked or injured them, not even when they proceeded to beat her with a frying pan. With her aggressive bullying, however, it's possible that she would have become dangerous. On the opposite end, Summers With The Bears tells the story of another elderly couple in Minnesota who befriended - and often hand-fed - several black bears over the course of six years. The animals never became dangerous, never damaged their home or property, and disappeared whenever strangers dropped by for a visit. In fact, one of the bears was strongly protective of the couple, at one point actually defending them from a strange bear that wandered into their yard with seemingly unfriendly intentions.

If you have the time, an excellent research paper on this subject by Lynn Rogers can be found at

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Habituation Vs. Food Conditioning

Having read close to two dozen books about bears, I've had to sit through more than my fair share of in-depth rants about the dangers of food conditioning and habituation. Although they are two very different things, most authors lump them together as if they were one and the same and this creates a lot of confusion and misunderstanding on the issue. While food conditioning can be very dangerous for people and bears, habituation has a number of potential benefits for both sides, not the least of which is safety.

Food conditioning is dangerous because a food conditioned bear has not learned to tolerate people. Rather, it has learned that it can obtain food from people either by raiding campgrounds, bullying hikers, or - worst case scenario - using people as food, evidenced by the brutal deaths of Julie Helgeson and Michele Koons in Glacier National Park in 1967, two teenage girls who were killed on the same night, miles away from each other, by two food conditioned grizzlies. That tragic day rocked the world and since then great pains have been taken to limit bears access to human food. Equally tragic is the fact that a number of bears were also hunted down and killed. Unfortunately, the slow expansion of civilization is destroying more and more bear habitat and having a negative impact on their ability to obtain their natural foods. With the desperate need to consume as much food as possible before the onset of the winter months and hibernation, black bears in California are now moving into human civilization in search of that food, damaging property and fraying nerves. Similar incidents have occured throughout parts of Washington and Oregon but the good news is that instead of increasing the annual hunting quota, these states have instituted supplemental feeding programs for the bears. The animals do not associate the food supplied to them with people or civilization and the programs have been met with an almost 100% success rate in deterring bears from homes and neighborhoods. If more states took steps to establish their own programs like this, it could easily solve most food conditioning issues in a way that's safe for both bears and people.

That brings us to habituation, a word that is used in such a broadly generalized way that it almost has no clearly defined meaning anymore. Most researchers have a tendency to lump food conditioning and habituation together as if they're the same thing (I'm looking at you, Herrero, but I still love your book), but this is a mistake and one in which greater care should be taken to avoid. Habituation - adaptation would actually be a better word - is nothing more than the process of acclimating to new things and is something that is not just exclusive to bears. People do it, too, be it with a new car, a new house, new neighbors, etc. Habituated bears are animals that have mostly had positive, peaceful encounters with people and usually like, respect, and trust people. In fact, in all of my digging, I couldn't find a single account in which a habituated bear has ever hurt or killed anyone. The grizzlies at McNeil River are the best example of this, often eating and sleeping within only a few feet of the thousands of tourists that visit every year. The animals are treated with respect and so they give respect in turn.

In Beauty Within the Beast, Stephen Stringham advocates setting aside areas like McNeil River where bears can be habituated to people for the purposes of research, art, or the spiritual renewal of visitors. I'm not afraid to admit that I completely support that idea, and while I'm not holding my breath for it to ever happen, to hear that coming from a noted and respected biologist is surprising and refreshing! He has even shown in his work - as has Charlie Russell - that an acclimated bear will typically only trust those certain people that he is familiar with and will not put himself in any greater danger by approaching strangers with guns. Dr. Stringham also has been unable to find any evidence proving that habituated bears are more dangerous to people than non-habituated bears. If anything, he has helped to disprove it. That's vitally important information! How can it just be swept under the rug and ignored...unless the intention of most researchers is to ignore it? That will be the subject of a later post.

In the study of bear behavior, habituated bears are seen as the exception to the rule rather than the rule itself. I think serious studies need to be done of habituated bears and I think that if those studies are done, it will be found that habituated bears are not "damaged", but are the models of what could be possible with bears everywhere...depending on our tolerance and influence.

For further study, I recommend anything by Stephen Stringham and Charlie Russell, Summers With The Bears, and the research paper From the Field: Brown Bear Habituation to People - Safety, Risks, and Benefits by Stephen Herrero, Tom Smith, Terry DeBruyn, Kerry Gunther, and Colleen Matt, which can be found online.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Addendum to Previous Post

Reading Stephen Stringham's Beauty Within the Beast, I found a passage related to the issue of hunting affecting bear behavior towards people. It makes a very valid point and I couldn't resist posting it:

"My firsthand experience is that coastal Alaska brown bears are much more defensively aggressive where they are hunted than when they are protected. That hunting bears gives them a greater respect for people also contradicts logic. While it makes sense for animals to submit to dominants, so long as submission increases safety, submission to a predator would be suicidal."

That quote right there is one of the most profound statements on the subject that I've ever read. If you'll recall, I theorized in an earlier post that our hunting bears to keep them afraid of us was actually showing ourselves to be dangerous to an animal that is programmed to eliminate danger. This goes with that same line of thinking, only taking it one step further to indicate that we are showing ourselves to be predators, something to definitely NOT be respected or tolerated. That could go a long way in answering the "why" that always comes up as a result of a bear attack.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Communication From Stephen Stringham

Recently I've had the pleasure of speaking with Stephen Stringham, a bear biologist and behaviorist, one of the few who has dared to challenge preconceived notions about bears and who also leads bear watching tours at various locations throughout Alaska and Canada. I've ordered two of his books - Beauty Within The Beast, an account of his experience raising black bear cubs in the wild and When Bears Whisper, Do You Listen?, a text about bear body language and vocalizations and how they use those to communicate their intentions to each other...and to us. If you're interested, he has quite a detailed resume to his name:

E-mailing him about his books, he and I began a discussion wherein I asked him about the two main points that I raised when I started this blog. Here are the questions and his answers:

Q: Do you think that negative experiences with people (like hunting or poaching) could make bears more aggressive towards people and thus provoke attacks? For example, bear attacks in Yellowstone have seemed to decrease after hunting was made illegal there, yet at McNeil River - where bears have never had negative encounters with people - they are extremely passive. Do you think there's a correlation?

A: Most serious or fatal attacks are defensive, not offensive. So hunting or harassment that heightens fear of people may increase risk of a person being attacked during a close encounter -- even if greater fear reduces likelihood of bears encountering people on purpose.

Q: Do you think it's true that bears are born with a natural fear of man? Personally, I have a hard time with this since bear cubs learn most everything from their mothers and their experiences and I would think that fear of man is something they would have to learn. If that's true, then aren't our ideas about wildlife management doing more harm than good? Might we not be turning a normally passive animal into a more aggressive one?

A: Animals are born with a certain set of instinctive defense responses that could be triggered by certain stimuli, such as fire or the presence of a natural predator. However, there are so many potential dangers and so many variables in responding to those dangers, that a whole system of instinctive fears is unworkable. A better strategy would be what is called xenophobia, an aversion - not exactly fear - of anything unfamiliar. I suspect this is actually the source of what we perceive as natural fear in animals, particularly in highly intelligent animals like bears. However, as animals come to know people better and better, their experiences with people governs whether their attitudes specifically towards us are fearful, hateful, respectful, or trusting. I think my books will go a long way in helping to clarify these answers for you. I wish I could compile all of this information together into one book but it has not been possible. It would take numerous volumes to satisfactorily cover the scope of this issue.

That's been all so far, but I'll be sure to post any further info that I discover. Thanks, Stephen, for your time and your answers!