The recent killing of a male hiker by a grizzly bear is the first such death in Yellowstone National Park for 25 years and seems to be a highly unfortunate case where walkers accidentally disturb a bear with young and the mother bear defends her cubs. A month ago I had my own close encounter with a mother bear and cubs in Yellowstone – perhaps the very same bear involved in this fatal tragedy.
The grizzly mother and her two one-year old cubs were about 400 yards away but gradually headed towards the crowd of bear-watchers and photographers parked along the narrow road. The mother bear didn’t seem to look where she was going most of the time. She shuffled along with her snout down on the ground, pushing through the sage bushes of the flat wet ground that lay between her and us. The two cubs followed her. Occasionally she stopped and looked rather vaguely around and then started snuffling again.
She was coming straight towards me and my car. Leaflets warn you about how unpredictable bears are, how mothers with cubs are the most unpredictable, how they can outrun humans, are immensely strong and how you shouldn’t get in their way. But this grizzly had decided she was coming straight at me. Occasionally her shuffling and snuffling would take her in another direction temporarily but she was coming straight towards me.
She was about 100 yards away now and the more sensible photographers were moving from the roadside into their cars having got the photos of their lives already but wanting to keep their lives. The road was quiet except for clicking camera shutters – and still she kept coming. A wildlife sight to remember forever. The mother led her cubs to 25 yards from the road, and then abruptly turned and headed back the way she had come.
I had mixed emotions – 85% exhilaration at the wonderful views of a beautiful, rare, powerful wild animal and 15% nervousness followed by relief that she didn’t come any closer.
About one in 2 million visits to Yellowstone National Park results in a serious injury from bears, and much effort goes into educating visitors not to treat bears as cuddly harmless creatures. Yellowstone tells visitors that ‘Wild animals are dangerous’, ‘Be safe – and legal. Stay at least 100 yards away from bears’ but someone should tell that to the bears too.
A few days later I encountered California condors in Arizona and found a man throwing rocks at them on the Navajo Bridge at Marble Canyon. The young man worked for the Peregrine Fund and was scaring the condors so that they didn’t spend too much time in close contact with people and perhaps be fed by well-meaning tourists and later be tempted to snatch a hot dog from a child’s hand. Keeping nature wild is the name of the game in the USA.
I came back to the UK to read of a child being scratched at a school in Watlington, in the Chilterns, by a red kite swooping down, perhaps to snatch food from its lunchbox. This unfortunate incident gives encouragement to those who dislike birds of prey, just as an overbold condor might, and some local farmers have already called for a cull. But a more sensible reaction has come from conservationists who have discouraged artificial feeding of these birds – at the moment some people are putting prime cuts of meat out in their gardens to attract kites. That has to make a predatory bird, with sharp claws, less afraid of people and that is not necessarily good for the bird nor for the people. What the Americans have learned with bears, and put into practice with condors too, we should learn with red kites and maybe with urban foxes too.
I don’t get bears or condors in my garden but kites fly over and foxes move through. I love seeing both but I feed neither. There’s a fine line to be walked between demonising wildlife when it is behaving in a perfectly natural way and treating it as if it is cuddly and completely safe. Even if you love nature, as I do, it makes sense to treat it with respect, for its sake and yours.