Monday, September 26, 2011

The Loss of Hope?

Hope (the smaller bear on the right) is missing and believed to be dead.

In early 2010, Dr. Lynn Rogers of the North American Bear Center in Ely, Minnesota placed a webcam in the winter den of a wild black bear named Lily, a bear that had learned to trust him and who Lynn walked with as part of his ongoing research. That January, as thousands of people watched live over the internet, a cub was born and, along with her, an internet sensation. So many people gained such a radically new perspective of black bears from this event that the cub was named Hope. After tens of thousands of people followed the winter lives of mother and cub, the webcam was re-installed this year and captured the arrival of two more cubs, one of whom tragically died early in the season.

Now that it's September and the Minnesota hunting season is in full swing, Hope has suddenly disappeared and all evidence points to her death at the hands of a hunter who intentionally targeted, baited, and killed her just to spite Lynn and the legions of fans who have followed the lives of these bears.

When hunting season begins, Lynn attaches brightly colored ribbons onto the radio collars of his bears so that they stand out and can be identified as research animals, which most ethical hunters will not shoot. Unfortunately, Hope kept removing her collar and would not wear it. She disappeared on September 14th. Lily and her surviving cub, Faith, visited the hunter's bait pile where she was last seen on September 15th, 16th, and 17th and have not returned to that area since.

Lynn has recently stated that he knows the hunter who left the bait and knows that he would not shoot a research bear, but doubt is now starting to form. This same hunter left posts on a Lily Facebook page last week boasting of "Hope jerky" and "Hope cooked in a crockpot". Lynn now reluctantly wonders if the killing of Hope was deliberate and intentional. He is now waiting to hear from the DNR if a bear matching the cub's description has been registered.

Meanwhile, the reaction from those who followed the birth and growth of this cub is one of devastation. Hundreds of posts of mourning and grief have been added to Lily's Facebook page and Lynn has said that schoolteachers who were using the webcam broadcasts as an educational tool have called him in tears wondering how they were going to break the news to their students. Lynn himself is distraught and feels that with so much to learn from this family, this has been a major blow to his research.

While the hunting of radio-collared bears is perfectly legal in Minnesota, with Hope being no exception, it's the apparent deliberate aspect of this incident that makes it most infuriating. It takes a truly sick mind to intentionally set out to shatter something that has meant so much to so many just to make a name for himself - be that name good or bad - but the opposition faced by bear researchers, keepers, and advocates can be an overwhelming one and the list of travesties is ever-growing. While some are keeping their fingers crossed for a happy ending, every passing day makes a tragic one even more certain.

Update - September 27th:

It's now confirmed that Hope is dead. She was killed September 16th by a hunter at a bait pile. It's been clarified that this was not the same man who posted comments on Facebook apparently bragging about her death and that the shooting was accidental. Even so, this remains a deep loss and a difficult time for all of those who have followed these bears since the cub's birth.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Meanwhile, Back In Sitka...

After almost a year away, Killisnoo says: "Where have you been?"

I'm currently re-visiting my old stomping grounds at Fortress of the Bear in Sitka and it's been a very fulfilling and rewarding experience to observe and interact with the bears again. While Toby, Baloo, and Lucky have gotten much bigger (to the point where I have difficulty telling them apart), Chaik and Killisnoo seem to be their old selves, yet are visibly tired from the very busy summer they've just had. On top of the joy of watching them fish for salmon in their pool, I've also gained some new insights into bear intelligence and behavior, regarding the usage of tools and complex thinking to solve problems.

As related to me by Les (executive director of the Fortress), several weeks ago a whole chicken was hung from the bridge above the pool about two feet higher than the bears could reach. While Chaik and Killisnoo made their best efforts, they were unable to reach the meal. Exasperated, they sat on the shore for five whole minutes, staring at the chicken as if wondering how to get to it. Finally, with no spoken language and no visible communication between them, Chaik stood and began walking around the far end of the pool. Killisnoo stood and quietly followed him. Upon reaching the far side, Chaik rolled a stump end over end into the water until it was standing beneath the chicken. The stump was unsteady where it sat so Killisnoo put his full weight against it and held it steady while Chaik climbed to the top and retrieved the snack.

In the second account, Killisnoo inadvertently discovered how to catch fish in the pool by using the limbs of a dead Christmas tree as an impassable net or as a structure that the fish would seek to take shelter in. After attempting this a couple of times, he learned that the limbs could act as a trap and so he moved more trees into the water. One could almost see the gears turning in his head as he gained a clearer understanding of what he was constructing. Finally, after almost creating a fully functional fish weir, he seemed to lose whatever he was on the verge of grasping and abandoned the project. Still, there is one tree remaining in the water and he does frequently check it for fish.

I'm personally fascinated by these accounts, as they demonstrate a high level of complex thinking and problem solving ability. This, to me, is one of the highest values of captive bears that many opponents to the practice do not see: the opportunity to witness these behaviors, to understand that they are complex and intelligent creatures, and to gain not only insight into how to co-exist with them but to gain the desire to. I think that facilities like Fortress of the Bear are going a long way to help promote that kind of thinking.