Poignant tale of three bears

A story of three bears, without Goldilocks, is in the news in Canada. It began last month when a female black bear began breaking into a mobile home in Port Hardy, Vancouver Island, to steal meat and fish from a freezer.

Poignant tale of three bears

The owner complained to the authorities, who sent conservation officer Bryce Casavant, the Canadian equivalent of an Irish wildlife ranger, to deal with the problem. People are warned to stay away from bears and not to feed them. An animal becoming habituated to humans is dangerous and has to go. Casavant killed the intruder but that wasn’t the end of the story.

On July 5, two eight-week old cubs, a brother and sister, showed up at the mobile home, looking for their dead mother. Casavant was expected to kill them also but he hesitated.

The cubs were not habituated to people. They could be taken into captivity and eventually released to the wild. That their mother was a burglar didn’t mean they would follow in her footsteps. The youngsters took refuge in a tree but Casavant couldn’t bring himself to shoot them. Instead, he called on local firemen for help.

The captured cubs were taken to a veterinary hospital. Pronounced fit and well, they are now at a North Island Wildlife Recovery Association sanctuary.

His bosses took a dim view of Casavant’s behaviour. He had disobeyed orders so they suspended him without pay. When the North Island Gazette got wind of it, the story was reported far and wide. Video footage on the CBS News website showed the cubs being captured. Celebrities, such as Ricky Gervais, joined in the chorus of disapproval; ‘the cubs are innocent, why should they be killed, reinstate this honourable man etc’.

Casavant’s treatment became a political hot potato; an on-line petition was organised to have him reinstated. Still suspended, he is back on the payroll while British Columbia’s Ministry of the Environment is ‘investigating’. ‘This is a sad and unfortunate situation’, environment minister Mary Polak told CBS, ‘although conservation officers must sometimes put down wild animals for the safety of the public and the welfare of the animal, we understand how difficult it is for all involved’.

There’s no conservation issue here. The American black bear is given ‘least concern’ status by the IUCN. It’s more numerous than all the world’s other bear species combined. Hunting it is legal in most Canadian provinces. The killing of two cubs, therefore, has no conservation implications. It’s a waste of money and manpower caring for them. Resources would be better deployed elsewhere. Such is the rational view.

But the story of the three bears upsets people. ‘It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong’ declared Jeremy Bentham. He would, presumably, have endorsed the killing of mother and cubs. But does morality always depend on the likely consequences of an action? Blasting two little orphans out of a tree with a shotgun seems barbarous. It violates our moral sensibilities.

Thomas Aquinas held that we are subject to ‘natural law’, of which God is the author. Nowadays, we prefer a more secular explanation; our innate dispositions towards fair play, justice and the abhorrence of cruelty, are the products of natural selection. They are adaptations which enable us to trust and cooperate with each other. Morality is the cement which binds us together as social beings. Natural law is in our DNA.

Man is ‘the rational animal’, said Aristotle. It might be more accurate to say that he’s an ‘animal which can be rational’; we have moral and aesthetic senses which are outside the straitjacket of rationality.

Just appealing to reason and common-sense, may do little to sway hearts and minds on conservation issues. Having furry mammals and cuddly bear cubs tug the public heartstrings from time to time, can be much more effective. Perhaps Casavant and the three bears have done their bit for conservation after all.

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