Monday, March 12, 2012

A Word of Caution...

It's sad that this has to be said, but apparently it does.

I've been noticing a very disturbing trend among animal rights activists. I think this trend has always existed in some from or another but I've noticed an alarmingly consistent increase just in the past two years. That trend is extremism and it's getting out of control.

I first started noticing this last August when a young man was killed by a polar bear in Norway. His family and friends created a memorial page on Facebook where they could reminisce and share memories, but a group of bear advocates (led by a bear keeper and author whom I once had a tremendous amount of respect for) invaded the page and began tearing down the kid's memory, saying that he had no business being out there and "deserved to die" for "invading the bear's space." Those mourners who tried to be civil and explain that it was inappropriate to say things like that on a tribute site were viciously and venomously attacked. Fortunately, this wasn't tolerated and the offenders were reported and banned from the site. Needless to say, my respect for the person who instigated this has since turned to disgust.

Another account that irks me: in British Columbia some years back, a young boy was stalked, killed, and eaten by a black bear while playing in his front yard. The boy's mother was contacted by an organization claiming to be Greenpeace, who tried to bully her into telling the press that her son was at fault for intruding on the bear's space and that he provoked the attack. When she refused, they tried to get her to confess that she was careless with her garbage and that attracted the animal. She refused again (a later investigation reported that trash was properly disposed of and that there were no attractants) and the phone calls became threatening. Later, Greenpeace denied making the calls and it's suspected that smaller B.C.-based environmental groups were responsible. Having heard that, I now wonder how many bear attack stories have been distorted by such influences.

Thinking about this, part of me can hardly believe it. Could people so devoted to such a worthy cause be so spiteful and heartless? I'm not sure that I ever really believed that to be true until very recently.

In 2010, a young schoolteacher was attacked and killed by a pack of wolves in Alaska. DNA testing confirmed that wolves were responsible and they were later found to be non-rabid and in good health. Some evidence seems to suggest that the pack even surrounded her and cut off her escape before attacking. As you can imagine, the animal rights movement erupted. People struggled vainly to explain it away and even began calling it a propaganda conspiracy against wolves (seriously, what?). Even now, mentioning the girl's name to certain people and in certain places will get a load of profanity-laced venom spewed at you, as if she's committed some unforgivable sin. My efforts to debate some of these people on this incident and their weak, profanity-laced responses have finally brought this reality home to me and there have been a few occasions in which my own passion for bears has almost been soured because of it. Fortunately, I'm too deeply immersed in that work now to turn my back on it, but it has given me a more jaded perspective, as evidenced by the darker tone of some of my more recent posts. That's where my view still stands, even if only to ensure that I don't end up going down the same path. Romanticizing large predators is just as dangerous as demonizing them and there are a few people who need to realize this. Bears in general do not see people as prey, so those few who do have gone to a very dark place and do need to be removed as quickly as possible.

I know that most people reading this probably wouldn't be thoughtless enough to ridicule the memory of an attack victim in front of that person's family and friends (or in front of anyone), but I feel compelled to offer this as a warning all the same. It is the right of any human being to venture out into the wilds and enjoy what it has to offer. Sure, certain risks come with that and sometimes no amount of preparation is enough but no one deserves to be eaten by a wild animal and to say such a thing in front of that person's loved ones is not only morally reprehensible but also immature. It is behavior like that that turns people against environmentalists and makes conservation efforts even more difficult, just as extreme fundamentalists turn people away from religion. Be smart and use your head before you use your mouth, otherwise you're just going to dig yourself - and the bears - into an even deeper hole. Extremism is not the answer, unless your goal is to alienate as many people to your cause as possible.

I had hoped I wouldn't have to get on this soapbox - and I'll no doubt be criticized for doing so - but I can't remain silent on this issue anymore. Defending a creature that has no voice with which to defend itself is a high calling and one worth pursuing, but not worth abandoning one's moral and ethical standards (and respect) for human life over. Once we've done that - once we've given one form of life total value over another - then I think we've truly lost ourselves.

Edit: In a recent email from Charlie Russell, he had this to say about this scenario: "I love people who are passionate about things, but it is hard to be level headed about the things that you are passionate about. As you found out with the researchers bickering and bear lovers smearing etc, how does one work towards any kind of useful agreement that is helpful for the bear? People become zealots around wildlife issues and can get caught up in their ideologies which are usually a collection of dogmas that are distanced from the real world and for some reason being a scientist does not really help the situation. Even they splinter into different camps and then sub-sects because zealots themselves have difficulty coming to agreement over dogmas. We are in a big mess."

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