“We have between 150 and 200 bears in the Missoula Valley right now.”[i]
That was Chris Servheen, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bear specialist urging the Missoula City Council to adopt more ‘bear smart’ policies across town. The two-hundred black bears Servheen mentioned were wandering through the backyards, alleyways, and river trails of this Montana college town of 70,000. Servheen urged the council to take steps to keep food and other attractants safe if relationships with the furry visitors were to remain harmonious.
Remarkably, relationships had remained harmonious. There had been no attacks on people and reports of scary encounters were in short supply. The bears seemed happy to mosey between pavement and lawn, sniffing out as many urban calories as their nostrils permitted. They generally avoided run-ins with people. The biggest headaches in evidence had been those of the bear specialists who relentlessly relocated animals and those of the bears themselves who would wake up groggy from tranquilizers in unfamiliar locations.
The lack of incidents sounds surprising with so many bears circulating in an urban environment. But does the surprise reflect a view of wildlife in need of repair? When wildlife shows up on your doorstep with its ribs heaving and claws clicking on the sidewalk, it presents an opportunity. It’s a chance to sort myth from fact and to reset cultural assumptions that linger from previous centuries.
In the North American settler’s mind, wild beasts belonged in one place: ‘the wilderness.’ Environmental historian Roderick Nash explains the word is a combination of the old Norse word ‘Villr’ (= ‘self-willed’) and the old English word deor (= ‘deer’ or ‘beast’).[ii] If you wanted to experience something wild, venture forth to the place of wild beasts. This meant a journey outside the comforts of the village and into the dark, foreboding woods.
When farming and herding replaced hunting and gathering, the distinction between the human world and the world of wild beasts escalated in significance, claimed Max Oeschlaeger in his study of the wilderness idea.[iii] The transformation of wilderness into cultivated lands was deemed by Europeans to be the signature achievement of Homo sapiens. Only humans – and to the settlers’ mind this meant European humans – had the rational wherewithal to complete this transformation. This was their destiny.
The conceptual split between ‘man’ and ‘beast’ quickly took on rigid, spatial form. Settlers abolished wild beasts from ‘their’ territory to affirm their humanity, something they did without mercy. Villages and their surroundings became exclusively human geographies. The beasts were forced to roam elsewhere. Their mere appearance on the edge of town sent shudders down civilized spines.
Bears were potent motifs for the gulf between civilized and wild, but there was no more perfect embodiment of it than the wolf. The look in a wolf’s eye, said Jack London, revealed “a wistfulness bred of hunger, as cruel as its own fangs, as merciless as the frost itself.”[iv] The wolf became “the symbol of what you wanted to kill,” offered Barry Lopez in the same vein, “….memories of man’s primitive origins in wilderness, the remnant of his bestial nature which was all that held him back..”[v] Little Red Riding Hood, The Call of the Wild, and other propaganda turned the wolf into an emblem for everything civilization was not. Not only was the wolf impossibly cruel, it was also devious, disguising itself in Little Red Riding Hood as a benevolent grandmother to hide its treachery. Banishing these beasts of waste and desolation became an obsession.[vi] Civilized people poisoned, trapped, shot, set on fire, and tore the jaws from animals judged incurably wild. The bear, the lynx, and other creatures rode the wolf’s carnivorous coattails into decades of exile from civilized spaces.
The conception of wilderness and wild animals caricatured by Lopez and London is riddled with racism and scientific inaccuracies. Lopez claimed it projects psychological infirmities – “the lust, greed and violence that men saw in themselves”[vii] – as well as colonial ideologies onto the surrounding world. Indigenous writers point out that the wild side of the segregated geography was never the province of wild beasts alone, but filled with enduring cultures who found ways to flourish there. The beasts themselves were never, in fact, quite so beastly as the folklore would have us believe. Yet, the colonial stench lingered well into the twenty-first century, often fueled by white environmentalists’ fixation on wilderness. That fixation is finally showing cracks. Blackfeet ethnobotanist Rosalyn La Pier suggests now might be the time “to say goodbye to the words ‘wild’ and ‘wilderness’ and the false narrative they continue to perpetuate in American society.”[viii]
If La Pier’s message fails to resonate, the presence of two hundred bears in Missoula provides its own impetus to a change. The bears were certainly hungry but they were not even slightly merciless. The bears had descended to the valleys in search of calories after unusual spring weather had caused the berry crop to fail. They found plenty of apple trees and nourishing vegetation in town, as well as the occasional dumpster hiding left-over pizza and chocolate cake. (Missoula bear specialist Jamie Jonkel conceded during an interview that he too can be tempted to dumpster-dive behind one particular bakery for late-night leftovers).[ix] Coming down to the valley bottoms in a lean year is typical bear behavior. The bears are not interested in a fight, only something sweet to fatten up before hibernation. This hardly makes them beasts of waste and desolation.
My lawyer – if I had one – would insist I add a qualifier to this insouciance about bears. To imagine that no black bear would ever cause harm to a person would be misguided. (This would be doubly true with grizzly bears). Attacks do occur and they can result in tragedy. The presence of so many black bears in town was a reason for Missoulians to stay on their toes. But attacks are vanishingly rare. And at the same time as these bears showed their faces, another hometown happening added to the sense something is awry in how we think about animals.
While the bears went about their business in Missoula last summer, dog attacks continued unabated. I’m particularly sensitive to this because my wife was rushed to the emergency room for twenty-five stitches and – a week later – a suspected blood clot after a vicious dog attack. It shattered our summer. In the end, my wife was lucky. The physical wounds are healing. But maulings and killings of people by dogs took place regularly across the country. In one appalling incident in Tennessee, two children were killed and their mother hospitalized after an attack by the family’s two pit bulls.[x] Pet dogs cause between thirty and forty fatalities a year in the United States. Black bears average one.
I typically carry bear spray when hiking in the mountains around here. But it’s clear I’m much more likely to be hurt by a dog in town than by a bear outside of it. Dogs are abundant, it’s almost certain I will encounter one, and some of them are ornery. If I meet the wrong dog breed on the wrong day, I could even be killed.
But here’s the thing. I like dogs. I grew up with them. I value their affection and the virtues they display. Dogs are our friends, coddled within a conceptual category unavailable to bears. But the constructed nature of the categorization is obvious. Bears are not always wild and foreboding and dogs are not always friendly and good company. They are each animate beings with all the foibles that inhabit our own animate selves. Suggesting there are wild and civilized geographies determined by the creatures who occupy them seems unhelpfully shallow.
Dogs are particularly appropriate creatures to cast doubt on the wild/civilized divide. Fifteen thousand years ago they walked easily between the segregated geographies and took up residence alongside Home sapiens. By becoming pets, they showed the division between the wild and the civilized is contingent. The categories are porous. Wolves turning up in towns and villages in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Italy are doing the same thing today. So too are bears in Missoula. The dogs that attacked my wife displayed the same contingency. She and I feel it today in a way we had not felt it before.
The wash of bears that spilled into Missoula last summer tests the established wisdom at an appropriate time. Humans are hastening the planet towards its sixth period of mass extinction. Species are struggling and climate change will only make things worse. Yet within the wildlife apocalypse, a handful of recoveries suggest all hope might not be lost. Animals, in general, are tenacious beasts. Bears, wolves, whales, beavers, storks, and fur seals are among the species staging remarkable recoveries in parts of their range. But to fully recover biologically, they also need to be recovered conceptually. Some of what must happen to improve their chances is to change how we think about them. Conceptual boxes have always been leaky. We should be alert to the damage they cause.
As the warmth diminished in October and the first flakes of snow began to fall, the bears started to leave the city in search of suitable places to hibernate for the winter. The bear management people began to breathe easier. The bakers could relax a bit when carting left-overs to the dumpsters at night. Nobody had been hurt and the bears’ presence had caused excitement and conversation in the community.
I hope the berry harvest is better next year. But I also hope the bears won’t completely vanish. They added richness to our community and I want that richness to remain. Segregated geographies have a track record for resting on dubious categories. Missoula’s bears were a reminder of categories that are problematic. We are, of course, free to dismantle them.
[i] Martin Kidston, “Bear Smart resolution adopted; Biologists estimate 200 bears in Missoula,” KPAX , October 4th, 2022, https://www.kpax.com/news/missoula-county/bear-smart-resolution-adopted-biologists-estimate-200-bears-in-missoula
[ii] Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967) .
[iii] Max Oelschlaeger, The Idea of Wilderness (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991), p.28.
[iv] Jack London, White Fang (New York, NY: Scholastic Inc.), p.19.
[v] Barry H. Lopez, Of Wolves and Men. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978), p.142.
[vi] Ibid., pps. 137-199.
[vii] Ibid., p.145.
[viii] Rosalyn La Pier, “Say Goodbye to the Words ‘Wild’ and ‘Wilderness,” Missoula Current, August 23rd, 2021, https://missoulacurrent.com/wilderness
[ix] Hannah Hyslop, “Bears a Problem for Missoula Bakery,” KPAX, September 19th, 2022, https://www.kpax.com/news/missoula-county/bears-a-problem-for-missoula-bakery
[x] Natalie Alund, “Family dogs kill 2 Tennessee children, injure mom who tried to stop mauling, family says,” USAToday, October 10th, 2022, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2022/10/08/2-children-killed-mother-hospitalized-after-tennessee-dog-mauling/8219201001