Daddy, where did the big black bear go?
I don’t know, honey, she’s gone.
But where did she go, daddy?
Dad, sighing: Well, honey, she had to go away…
Why did she have to go away?
Well, honey, she had to go away, because she was eating apples off our trees.
Why wasn’t that okay, daddy? We picked the apples, made an apple pie just last week…
Well, honey, it wasn’t okay for her, because she is dangerous, people can get hurt.
Why can people get hurt, daddy?
Well, honey, she knocked someone off of their bicycle. She was getting very used to coming into Boulder.
Maybe she just wanted to learn to ride a bike, daddy?
No, honey, bears don’t want to learn how to ride bicycles.
Will she be back, daddy?
No, honey, she will never come back.
Because she’s dead. Now stop asking…
Is that an unreasonable conversation between you and your six-year-old? I don’t think so, and here’s why…
Bear 317, a female with two cubs, lived in the mountainous edges of Boulder. She first appeared in the summer of 2015, engaging in various bear-foraging tactics, earning her first DOW-sanctioned earring. Alarming residents and eliciting attention, she earned herself the title of “problem bear.” Reappearing several times thereafter, she earned the second DOW-sanctioned earring.
A complete pair of DOW-sanctioned earrings carried her death sentence.
Colorado’s Division of Wildlife—DOW—policies, for all their purported certainty surrounding their “Two Strikes Law,” appear more ambiguous than even my own trained legal mind can comprehend. DOW seasoned officer Larry has offered a more in-depth explanation, but the bottom line of public safety is what gets any DOW officer into their navy blue pickups in the dark of night, heading down the Boulder-Denver Turnpike into our otherwise enlightened university town.
And so, what happened, with Bear 317?
There’s no choice we have, Officer Larry explained to me. She’s a liability. It’s a public safety issue.
What about the Wild Animal Sanctuary? I was growing more desperate, frustrated. I felt no give. I’ve called them myself. In fact, other bear lovers had stepped up, even offering to pay the cost of relocation.
A sanctuary is no place for a wild bear, I was told. And that was that. I was shot down. And not long after, I read the same dreaded headlines as the rest of the Boulder community: Bear 317 was dead at the hands of the DOW. Her cubs, carted off to Wyoming.
How did Bear 317 become a public safety hazard, a liability?
What to make of all of this? For me, it’s about abdication of responsibility. We have stringent public safety laws, where bears are concerned. And, some people are more bear-tolerant than others; some more fearful than others. Me, personally, I’ve no problem hazing away a bear—particularly one showing up the other side my French-doored bathroom, brown nose prominent, to join me in my claw foot bathtub on a winter evening up here in the Foothills. Retelling that story makes some curious, others pee their pants.
For me, it was a matter of having a loaded 12-gauge with blank shells to return to my comfort level.
But that’s just me.
Should we all start wearing bear spray on our Bison Belts on the way to Buchanan’s for coffee? Should we have motion-sensitive lights in our backyards to catch them in their devious acts? What, exactly, is our responsibility to them, our blessed bears in our backyards?
I know what my own responsibilities are, and when bears show up on our own land, I’ve reached for the pots and pans at four in the morning—the most dramatic appearances—lunged for the telephone in other moments. In other instances, I’ve reached for the M-80s. I’ve blasted my air horn (thank you, McGuckins), borrowed a friend’s 12 gauge (that’s another story) and loaded it with blanks and rubber bullets. I’ve hiked with bear spray on my belt (thanks, REI), counseled my husband to bring in bird feeders at night. Have I ever caught a bear friend on camera? Just once—I figured the 30 seconds as I was stepping backward was sufficient to satisfy my need to prove Smokey Bear was indeed there.
But, you may ask, don’t we all know how to prepare our homesteads and backyards for the advent of bears? And if we do, why don’t we?
I believe we don’t because we’ve grown used to the idea that there are more bears where Bear 317 came from. Americans are used to the idea that there’s always more behind the next tree. But, is that really so? There’s a rate of attrition in lean years, I was informed.
I didn’t care about rates of attrition, from a biological standpoint. I’m simply sad for Bear 317. I wonder how her cubs are doing, up there in the wilds of Wyoming. How else, then, to contemplate the importance of Bear 317’s death? We can learn from this, I was told.
I think of our moral duty to Bear 317. That sense of ethical obligation that I have as a 2-legged hominid to the 4-legged nonhuman animals out there. I think of others like her. Bear 317 was, after all, a sentient creature—feeling, thinking, teaching, learning—all qualities for admission into the higher mammal club, if you agree with moral philosophers Thomas Regan and Peter Singer. (If you disagree, ala Peter Carruthers, you can stop there—because even he felt we have an indirect moral duty not to cause harm to animals, on account of the direct harm to the two-leggeds. In other words, even for Peter Carruthers, if it makes your neighbor cry (emotional pain equals harm, in this scenario) then govern yourself accordingly. (As a moral actor, that is.)
And what of compassion, as concerns Bear 317? Every act of aggression—in this case, violence—increases aggression, reduces compassion. A direct corollary. I like my neighbor a little less for leaving the trash out overnight. Could I show him a little compassion—generosity, even—and buy him a bear proof trash can for a Christmas present, tie a big red bow around it? Hmmm…on sale at McGuckins, $225…last I checked.
And wouldn’t it be a little more compassionate if I conducted my own life with my little bear friends in mind? They may be sentient creatures with consciousness, but again, I’m the one ultimately responsible for my own conduct, if I remember I’m in a time of climate change and vegetation shortage, and they may be going for the easy meal.
What if you’re terrified of bears? A sign of sure genetic intelligence—can we open our hearts (and minds) to make room for them, remember they are there, pitter-pattering down in the dusk off Enchanted Mesa Trail, to forage for their 20,000 daily caloric intake? Can we encourage them, through our bear-aware aversive actions, to stay in the wild up there where they belong?
Thing is, when we consider that we are the ones making the laws and enforcing them against wildlife, even if we have the DOW come into town in the name of public safety, shouldn’t we count ourselves even more accountable than the bears?
Hogwash, you may say. Bears are dangerous. They kill things, break down our garage doors in the name of Bisquick Pancake Mix inside. We become afraid, for ourselves, our children, our pets. Why, we can’t even have our backyard barbecues, lest Yogi show up and ask for an Alfalfa’s fruit tart. Gluten free, of course.
The thing is, bears also have interests. If we have ours, like enjoying our Sunday strolls up Mt. Sanitas with our Border Collie mutts, they have theirs—like enjoying a sunshine siesta, cubs at their side, off Bluebell-Baird Mesa Trail. When we forget—and we do—that we live in that wilderness corridor, complete with little bears and coyotes and mountains lions—we do them harm. In extreme instances, forgetting their bear natures is the best way to kill a bear.
And if we, as moral actors with higher consciousness than bears, have a duty not to cause them harm, as they are sentient beings owed equal consideration as all other moral creatures are—then implicit in that duty is remembering their little bear lives, complete with all their foibles and tendencies.
Let’s stop making bears comfortable on our Trex Decks, licking the grease from our latest cookout off our Weber grills.
Let’s be smarter than the average bear—stop entertaining ourselves with their appearance by documenting it in perpetuity for YouTube.
If we don’t, YouTube videos may be all that remains of their once gorgeous, wild existence.
Still on behalf of Bear 317,
Author: Denise Boehler
Editor: Emily Bartran
Photo: Author’s Own