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!

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