From Charismatic Carnivores to Slithery Serpents

How our relationship with charismatic carnivores (such as bears) is changing, why such changes matter, and how we can rub shoulders with carnivores without getting eaten.

| Wed Dec. 1, 2004 4:00 AM EST

Introduction by Tom Engelhardt

We do live in a changing world when scientists can gather at the undoubtedly lovely La Fonda Hotel in genuinely lovely Santa Fe, New Mexico, for a "carnivore conservation" conference. After all, you don't have to go back that many years and such a "conservation" conference would undoubtedly have been about methods of smoking or salting meat for long-haul storage. Amid the general environmental bad news that envelops our world, there are distinct sparks of hope and creative thinking, including the attempts of scientists, environmentalists, and others to re-imagine our relationships with even the largest and most dangerous of animals, those capable of preying on us. In fact, there's a new label for the more majestic (or cuddly looking) of those creatures -- "charismatic carnivores" -- a term that has just a bit of Hollywood as well as the publicity business in it and that not so long ago would probably have been considered an oxymoron.

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If you push even farther back in time -- way farther -- as science writer David Quammen has in his latest book, Monster of God, you can find in the endless mythic battles epic heroes fought with epic monsters a reflection of the awesome, charismatic quality such carnivores had in the "alpha-predator habitat" of the human past. "Killing monsters on one pretext or another," Quammen writes, "is something that has always allowed heroes to seem heroic." Only because that alpha-predator habitat (for most of us) is long gone, can we begin to grasp the deeper role predators play in our world.

Activist, urban librarian, and environmental writer as well as the author of Hope's Horizon: Three Visions for Healing the American Land, Chip Ward (as the title of his fascinating book suggests) likes to focus on the sparks amid the global gloom. Below he considers the ways in which the human/charismatic-carnivore relationship is changing, why such changes matter (and are in their own way revolutionary), and how we as individuals can rub shoulders with carnivores and yet reduce our chances of suffering the less than cuddly consequences.

It's important that we not lose sight of such subjects in the daily rush of immediate political news pouring in from around the world. The single issue on which most Americans are in denial most of the time is the overall health of our planet which, if we were capable of taking its temperature, would certainly have a persistent fever. Just recently, for instance, the National Audubon Society released the latest news from a nationwide study, begun in 1966, on the health of bird species and "found 70 percent of grassland bird species are in decline and 36 percent of shrub-land birds are in decline, while 25 percent of forest birds are in decline." Birds are, to mangle an image, the canaries in the mine for so many other species… and some birds like eagles, ospreys, and owls are -- at least to my unscientific mind -- charismatic carnivores, which is why I can sneak this bit of news in here.

But below Ward concentrates on bears. Of course, if you meet a brown bear or grizzly bear in the wild (or more likely at that nearby woodsy trash dumpster) or a polar bear on that local ice floe, canary is unlikely to be the first thing that enters your head, but maybe it should. After all, bears aren't having exactly a top-notch year in 2004. It is, you might say, the year of the bad news bears. In Spain, for instance, the last reproducing female brown bear in the Pyrenees was shot by hunters. (She attacked their dogs, they claimed.) "Indigenous Pyrenean mountain brown bears," comments the environmental magazine Grist, "are now effectively doomed to extinction." In the meantime, back on those ice floes, a major study of global warming in the Arctic has just sounded a possible death knell for polar bears. Within the next half century or so, polar bears will probably be a thing of the past. No summer ice… no bears. It's not too complicated. (And it must be catching, the North High School Polar Bears, a volleyball team in Des Moines, Iowa, suffered the year's most dreadful season, toting up a record of 1-21.)

Back in the USA, voters in Maine and Alaska found bears "charismatic" in an entirely different way and defeated referendums that would have made bear-baiting, bear trapping, or hunting bears using teams of dogs with radio telemetry in their collars -- why not just hunt from home with Hellfire-missile-armed Predator drones? -- illegal. (Of course, I've gone fishing on party boats that use sonar to locate schools of fish, so let me not be the one to throw the first hook -- and I swear, if hunters now write abusive emails to Tomdispatch, I'll don my camo, hire a photographer, and head for the nearest party boat to prove my manliness.) Anyway, check out the unexpected upside of predation, thanks to the invaluable Chip Ward.

From Charismatic Carnivores to Slithery Serpents

How Predation Keeps Nature Whole

My favorite advice for hiking in grizzly bear habitat goes like this: Avoid surprising bears, especially sows with cubs, by carrying a whistle to blow when moving through brush where visibility is poor. Also, tie bells to your pack. Finally, be alert for signs of bears -- like large turd piles with whistles and bells in them.

Conservation biologists call big predators like bears, wolves, and mountain lions "charismatic carnivores," a term that reflects the love/hate nature of human attitudes towards those powerful creatures. We cuddle with stuffed bears and turn lions into noble cartoon characters or steadfast marble guardians for our libraries but if you see one in the wild it's usually been shoot first and ask questions later. Lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) can, after all, eat you.

That rarely happens. In the United States and Canada in the 1990s, 29 people were killed by bears. During the same period, 250 were killed in dog attacks. You are 12 times more likely to die of a bee sting than a bear attack. In the entire history of America, only one person was killed by a wolf, a rabid one at that. While hiking in or near wilderness, you are forty times more likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by a mountain lion. And yet our fear of top carnivores is as primal as our admiration for them.

Landscapes Raised by Wolves

Can science trump fear? After a long era of killing wild predators, every last one by any means available, America is entering a post "wipe em' out" era that includes the re-introduction of wolves into Western ecosystems, a project our grandfathers would find unfathomable. That wildlife biologists even chose the loaded term "charismatic" for certain carnivores indicates a profound shift in perspective now taking place. Until very recently man was the only carnivore considered charismatic -- a high powered hunter who tracked down and slaughtered the other big carnivores and then expropriated their habitat for trophy homes, vacation ranchettes, gas wells, and back-country, off-road-vehicle theme parks. Perhaps the grand beasts we exterminated only grew larger in stature -- more noble than nuisance -- because seen in the rearview mirror of extinction. But if we have not mistaken charisma for the nostalgia of a last fading glimpse, then perhaps the new regard for carnivores signals the early glimmerings of a radical break with the resource-driven policies that the Bush administration represents so admirably.

The change in attitude can be attributed to the influence of conservation biologists who have in recent years described the profound effect of carnivores, charismatic or otherwise, on the food webs that include them. Until now, predators have generally suffered a bum rap.

Ecologically, you could say that western landscapes are raised by wolves. After wolves were wiped out in Yellowstone in the early 1900s, for example, elk got lazy and bunched up in delicate but critical river and stream habitats where they chewed up and trampled down the tall grass in which birds nested. They eroded stream banks until native fish choked to death on the muddy waters left in their wallowing wake. When the elk ate up all the willow seedlings, beavers that feed on willow saplings and use them to weave their dams dwindled drastically. No beavers, no dams. No dams, no wetlands. No wetlands, no…well, whole sets of species fade away. Yellowstone lost precious biodiversity, the most compelling measure we have of any ecosystem's vitality. With no competition from wolves, smaller carnivores -- coyotes and foxes -- became too abundant and ravaged their prey species: More birds, small mammals, frogs, and snakes gone. Eventually, Yellowstone's entire ecosystem became skewed and degraded, thanks to the absence of just one "keystone" species of predator.

Even the smallest predator can play a "keystone" role. After a summer of painful welts and screaming children, a superintendent in one of our national parks ordered the eradication of wasps that nested in the eaves of park housing and dive-bombed the residents. The next year, the park's historic fruit orchards were overrun by voracious caterpillars. The wasps, it turned out, were the only effective predators on those caterpillars. Without them the caterpillars were free to pitch their gossamer tents without limit until the trees above the campground resembled racks of cotton candy. The wasps were reintroduced when park biologists grasped that even the least appealing insect predators play a role in nature's give and take dynamic.

Conversely, the presence of predators in a landscape can be a measure of ecological health. A decade ago I heard a Bureau of Land Management ranger describe a favorite wilderness canyon as "infested" with rattlesnakes. The canyon in question is one of the most robust I have ever experienced, lush and loaded with springs, birds, insects, and animals. Rattlesnakes are plentiful there because they have a rich food web to enjoy. "Infested" does not characterize their presence so much as reveal an attitude towards creatures which are inconvenient, repellent to most of us, and put us at risk: the only good rattler -- like the only good wolf, bear, or mountain lion -- is a dead one.

Bear Huggers and Lycra-clad Deer

As suburban sprawl invades the foothill habitat of lions and bears and we build more resort communities on the borders of national parks and wilderness areas, the potential for clashes between charismatic carnivores -- human and wild -- is bound to increase. Can predators and people co-exist? I think so. I have a lifelong fear of snakes that I share with most of humanity. The serpent, though still an uncharismatic carnivore, has always been a source of veneration as well as fear, much like its more charismatic peers. I deal with my fear first through understanding and then by modifying my behavior accordingly. Collectively, our culture can do the same.

A rattlesnake is a very astute and patient creature. It can go weeks without food, moves slowly to conserve energy, and picks its targets carefully. It can hear the footfall of a mouse, pick up the faintest odor, and judge a body's size from the heat it throws off. To a snake, I come across as huge, clumsy, and distinctly inedible. Rattlesnake attacks express neither malice nor virtue, but are based on a simple set of calculations: Am I hungry? Can I swallow it? A rattlesnake normally strikes a human in self-defense and the first bite is often "dry." After all, why waste precious venom on a target too big to eat? Because they are cold-blooded, snakes have predictable behaviors -- they sun in the morning and shade up in the heat of day -- and that makes them easier to avoid. When I attend closely to what I know about where they may be, I rarely see them. When I do encounter one, it is usually as startled as I am, often coiled and buzzing.

That, of course, is how we imagine and depict them -- ready to strike -- a bit like basing our impression of automobiles only on head-on collisions. Before I moved "out west" thirty years ago, I imagined lots of snakes here. My brother-in-law was a ranger at Saguaro National Monument near Tucson and he wrote to me that his morning duties included moving rattlesnakes from the Visitor Center area to remote areas away from people. I decided I had to overcome my fear of snakes before I moved and so I caught every snake I saw that last summer in Vermont. It was an enlightening adventure. I learned that a snake's first line of defense was to be very still and hope I didn't see it. If that failed, the snake would flee. If cornered, it would feign aggression in the hope I would give up or back off. Only as a last resort would it fight and bite. This, I realized, is the exact sequence most unarmed humans work through when confronted by a bear.

I am to a snake what a bear is to a human, except that bears don't get drunk and behave unpredictably. Snakebite victims are overwhelmingly male and typically in their teens or early twenties. About 80% of the people admitted to emergency rooms with rattlesnake bites were inebriated when bitten and about the same percentage were bitten on the hand, often twice. You get the picture: rattlers bite drunken young men who try to pick them up.

Bear avoidance can also be learned and practiced. Steven Herrero has collected data for many years on where, why, and how bears attack humans. His book, Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, is the authoritative study of the subject. Herrero makes the case that we could significantly reduce deadly bear attacks by not feeding bears, better securing food and garbage, educating the public about bear behavior, and moving trail routes away from where bears feed, migrate, and seek shelter. Predacious attacks on humans, he says, happen mostly because bears learn to associate us with food sources. Our tradition of feeding bears through car windows, at open dumps, or by failing to secure food at campgrounds can generate this potentially fatal association. The predacious bear simply figures that the slow and soft animal generously offering food might make a better meal than the leftovers he's giving away. To your average bear, gratitude is tasteless and non-filling.

We can learn, Herrero says. Indigenous people who lived among bears were smart about bear avoidance based on close observation and a natural sense of respect. Mindful respect is key. In the Native American view, bears are sovereign. They are not cuddly and not for befriending, as Timothy Treadwell, the bear-hugging founder of the Malibu-based organization Bear People recently discovered when he and his research assistant were mauled and eaten by bears at Katmai National Park in Alaska. Treadwell was known for approaching and touching bears, even sows with cubs, while humming friendly tunes to them -- an experiment that, in the light of his demise, will not be peer reviewed, or at least replicated, anytime soon.

Mountain lions are also trying to rebound but are running into our traps and guns when they do. Severe drought and dwindling deer herds (coveted by hunters) are being used as a rationale for further reducing mountain lion populations across the West. And then there's the problem of people building trophy homes in the lion's foothill habitat. Not surprisingly, the lions will learn from time to time to go after joggers who, from their perspective, look and act like deer wearing Lycra. Perhaps those who choose to build in lion habitat will have to curtail their jogging -- and give up pets. I do not swim in the ocean with bleeding feet that may attract sharks and people who live in cougar habitat would be wise not to imitate deer.

The Snake in the Garden

Our fascination with predators runs as deep as our fears. Snakes are erotic and undulating spines, phallic, mysterious, and wholly other. In the dance between nature and culture, the snake becomes the serpent, a potent player in religion, folklore, and dreams. Once upon a time, lions, tigers, crocodiles, and bears reminded us of our limits and vulnerabilities. Our ancestors were well aware that they lived in a world where every creature fed on and was, in turn, food for some other creature. Humans, after all, were both hunters, a source of pride, and prey, a source of profound humility. The presence of big carnivores in our world rooted us in the cosmos rather than lifting us out of it. In their absence, human hubris and a sense of ultimate hegemony have thrived. But perhaps if we can recover something of that lost sense of humility in our damaged world and begin to focus on the long-term symbolic service charismatic predators offer us and the ecological good works they do for us, we can overcome our fears long enough to restore them to our wilds.

The American landscape -- the watersheds and habitats that sustain our very lives -- are not in close to optimal shape to face the onslaught of chaotic climate disturbances that we are now beginning to experience. Our forests, deserts, and plains have been clear-cut, over-grazed, fragmented by development, drained, dammed, and trashed by miners, oil drillers, and off-road vehicle drivers. The present historic drought across the West and that busy harbinger of global heating, the bark beetle, are killing entire forests just ahead of catastrophic firestorms that will feed on the dead, dry timber. We are not just poised for a future biological meltdown as the globe warms too fast for species to adapt, we are experiencing a crash of biodiversity right now. Putting predators back in the game could help staunch the loss.

Recognizing that predation, especially by charismatic carnivores, is an all-important ecological process that ties extensive food webs together is one thing. Creating the conditions on the land to let it happen is another. Big carnivores need room to roam -- lots of room. One project currently in the works would link habitat from Alaska to Mexico into a continuous chain or corridor so that wolves, bears, mountain lions, and jaguars have more room to thrive. Such ambitious plans will require years of negotiation, public education, and clever collaboration to overcome the endless conflicting interests on the ground. It won't be quick or easy but it could help us understand how to survive our own mistakes.

The ecological crises we face have many causes that could be addressed through laws and policies, if the governmental will were there. But I suspect that at their heart lies a failure of imagination, a fundamental disconnection from the natural world that sustains us. Blind pride and an absence of empathy ultimately hobble our attempts to restore disrupted ecosystems. We will conserve what we appreciate. It is easy to love salmon and whales, eagles and otters. If we can learn to appreciate rattlesnakes, then bats and badgers should be easy to accommodate. We could use some ecological wisdom right about now and, ironically, we could look down to the serpent at our feet for that apple. This time, however, we might just get to re-enter the garden.

Copyright C2004 Chip Ward

Chip Ward is the author of Hope's Horizon: Three Visions for Healing the American Land. As an activist, he is the co-founder of HEAL Utah and sits on the board of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. He is also the assistant director of the Salt Lake City Public Library System.

This piece first appeared at Tomdispatch.com.

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