Two legs bad, again

July 16th, 2009
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Driving back through Kootenay National Park from the DrJ RRC (Remote Rural Compound) yesterday a black bear crossed the highway in front of our car. Daughter number two took one look at the furry creature and let out a squeal of joy: “Oh what a cute bear-y, he must be a cousin of Snuffles” (her favourite stuffie). Just about the reaction you’d expect from a young girl.

It’s frequently demonstrated that many adults view wild animals pretty much the same way. Not only do these people possess the child-like wonder, but on top of that they layer thick coats of intellectual varnish and misanthropic varnish.

So it is that MacLean’s has devoted its second full-page obituary feature (“The End”) to a large furry protagonist. Nicholas Köhler wrote in heroic terms some months ago about the “matriarch” of a wolf pack in the Bow River valley west of Calgary. Last week he produced an elegy to a 10 year old grizzly killed by a train while hoovering grain from the CPR track in Banff Park.

It turns out that, at least in this somewhat populated region, scientists and amateurs follow the lives of these animals like a cross between Wild Kingdom and four-legged Survivor. The wolves and bears are given names and described as if they were members of the family – except better because, unlike many relatives, we actually like and admire them.

Similarly, wholesale transference of human qualities to the animals is undertaken. The bear’s encounters with wolves are describes as looking “remarkably like play … an impromptu game of tag”. Just like encounters between our human ancestors could be “playful”, and literally so, with an opponent’s head often serving as a ball for impromptu “pick-up” games following a fight. Sounds like fun.

The extreme naiveté and delusional quality of many of these observations seems to escape the writer. They fall into the long tradition of man imposing his thinking onto animals, perhaps it only seems stranger when post-modern urbanites do it. They are so removed from having to grow – and slaughter – their own food, from having wild animals threaten the survival of their families, that their worldview has become inverted.

No sane person wants to be cruel to animals or kill them unnecessarily. Readers will know though that the pendulum has swung far beyond that. Whether it’s complaints about animal deaths at the Calgary Stampede or Sarah McLaughlin politicizing over seals on Canada Day, the vocal minority is pushing a program of zero-tolerance when it comes to man over beast.

The results are ample. As we’ve written before, municipal “animal control” officers have more often become human relations officers, urging a live-and-let-live attitude toward urban coyotes (too bad some coyotes still find toddlers appetizing). Then, if their rural colleagues actually shoot cougars because they deem them dangerous, some locals seem to side with the cats.

It’s easy to blame humans for fatal encounters with wild animals. “We are invading their habitat” goes the argument. However, if we look at the 30-plus major watersheds in the Rockies south of the sixtieth parallel, only seven of them are transportation corridors (admittedly, four are in the southern third of that stretch, three with a railway). By contrast, there are extensive parks and preserves in the south, and negligible development north of 60. So why the obsession with maintaining “wilderness” in the busiest transportation corridor, and why the grieving over the unfortunate deaths of a small number of animals?

Many animals are nice, but our image of them is even nicer. It seems much easier to have sympathy for “dumb” or “innocent” animals than for our fellow man. This attitude manifests itself in everything from vegetarianism to lobbying for protection of what are generally still considered vermin. One of the most dangerous examples is the distortion or blurring of the relationship between animal and man, of radical anthropomorphism. The most notorious case was the “Grizzly man”, who literally “became one” with the grizzly, that is one with its digestive tract.

I guess it would be too much to expect MacLean’s to eulogize the dumb humans killed in traffic accidents along the same highways that happen to claim other animals as well. If that’s too pedestrian, how about obits of each of our soldiers killed in action? That would, unfortunately take up a couple of months per year worth of back pages, but would have a definitely different flavour than an ode to a bear. Perhaps they could consider honouring Private Sebastien Courcy of the Royal 22nd, who was killed while on duty today in Afghanistan. God bless him and comfort his family.

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By John Weissenberger