A Bear Is My Teacher, I Shall Not Want. Lessons from Wildlife
July 31, 2017
by Molly Wingate
A bear reminded me of the Quaker practice of striving to be in integrity, to check my actions against my intentions. Who knew a smelly animal could teach me to be sure to look at long standing actions, just in case something has shifted?
Living with bears
For 25 years, I have lived in the urban/wildlife interface. We’ve had raccoons as big as spaniels, red fox, bobcats, mule deer and mountain lions in or near our yard almost every year. And we’ve had bears. I thought I had learned all I needed to live in concert with bears, and then I realized I was so smart that I was putting at least one yearling bear at risk of being euthanized.
So much for being a smarty pants.
As I was waiting for someone in my town’s chamber of commerce, a brochure about living with bears caught my eye. I figured I knew everything, but what the heck, I’ll read it. It reminded me to close downstairs windows at night, not to leave food in the car, and close garage doors. These suggestions are good ones for making sure you aren’t surprised by a bear in your house, car or garage. It urged readers to keep garbage locked up until the morning of trash pickup. I have scraped enough garbage off the street in the morning to never want to do it again. I knew all this.
Bears and Bird Feeders
Then the brochure talked about bird feeders. It said I should bring in my feeders at night and that I should use bird seed without hulls so there isn’t a lot of attractive stuff under the feeders. Huh! I have been feeding birds for years; this seemed unnecessary and sort of a pain.
I really enjoy feeding birds and being awakened by birds coming to the safflower seed feeder in my yard. The hummingbird feeder on my patio is full of action and so is the sunflower seed feeder in front of my dining room windows. I have only taken down my feeders to refill them. And I had always used unhulled seeds. Once or twice over the years, a bear had ripped a screen trying to get the sunflower feeder, but that was not a big deal. I wasn’t going to bring in my feeders or change what I feed them; that was silly.
And then came the lessons.
Bears and MY Bird Feeders
I came downstairs one morning to find my dining room window had a big muddy paw print on the outside and my screens were destroyed. Damn it. The feeder was knocked down but not ruined. A bear had visited in the night. I fixed the screens which was more work than I care for and decided to leave that feeder down until winter when the bears hibernate.
About a week later at 2 AM, I woke up because of a very strong, acrid smell. It wasn’t a skunk or a fox; holy cow, it was strong! From my bedroom window, I saw there in my yard a yearling bear lying spread eagle under my safflower seed feeder, scooping the hulls and seeds on the ground. And the feeder was still swinging a bit, as if it had been a piñata. I heard the crunch, crunch, crunch of his jaws as he chomped on the food I’d unintentionally left out for him.
Rats. I’d been feeding a young bear.
I yelled at the bear who looked up at my with an insouciance that was a bit unnerving. As if he was saying, “Yes? And why are you disturbing my snack?” Then I told him to get out, and he got up moseyed away. He stood on top of my four-foot wooden fence, and I yelled again. He harrumphed, jumped down, and disappeared into the open space behind my house.
I threw on my robe and slippers and retrieved the bird feeders. After locking them in the shed, I looked at the pile of seed hulls, and I got it. I was acclimating this wild creature to humans. By leaving out my feeders, I increased the likelihood that some day he or she would get too close too often and become a problem for humans. Then the bear would be relocated if possible. And if the bear came back or bothered humans again, the humans would euthanize it. I was setting up the bear for big problems.
Crap, I had just wanted to feed the birds
So, I changed what I feed the birds to hulled sunflower seeds. I make sure, most of the time, to bring in the feeders at night, and I cleaned up the seed hulls as best as I could. I haven’t seen the bear or signs that it’s been around, and the birds still wake me up, clamoring for their feeders.
My blind spot came into sharp focus. I knew how to avoid being bothered or endangered by bears, but I hadn’t seen how I was endangering the life of this yearling bear. Although I thought I knew everything there was to know, I was wrong. The pleasure of watching birds outweighed any other concerns for the rest of the wildlife that frequents my neighborhood. Oops. My actions and intentions were out of integrity.
What else has become habit that might be out of line with my intentions? I started looking again at what impact the way I live has on the environment, on my community, on my family. This incident with the bear gave me a reason to reconsider decisions and compromises I’d made years ago. I’ve learned a lot from that yearling bear. While I hope I don’t see it in my yard again, I sort of miss it. I owe it a debt of gratitude, at the very least.