March 31, 2009
I went “undercover” once with a European television producer to the workshop of a taxidermist-cum-trophy hunter on Vancouver Island. The producer and I had just spent a couple of days watching grizzly bears on British Columbia’s central coast. With my baseball cap pulled down low, I entered the taxidermy workshop. I was there to observe a somewhat arcane aspect of the trophy hunting world.
As the taxidermist opened the door, a chemical smell came wafting outside; it was reminiscent of the embalming fluids used by morticians. The first thing I saw looking past him was a black bear mounted on a platform of river rock. The black bear was on all fours in a contrived stance that suggested it was about to take a step forward. On the bear’s right, near the front of the platform was a mounted river otter. The taxidermist explained it was for a client in Texas.
The producer appeared a bit taken aback, but she was game and so began directing a steady stream of questions at the taxidermist. While they engaged in the interview, I wandered off to take a look at the two grizzly bears “in progress” on the other side of the room.
The two bears were positioned side by each, rearing up on their hind legs, replete with the clichéd baring of teeth that is meant to show menace. Upon closer inspection I could still see the bullet holes.
As I rejoined the living, the taxidermist was relating how he had just bagged his first grizzly on a recent hunting trip to a coastal area located within the Great Bear Rainforest. He spoke of how he had looked the bear in the eyes before killing it. I thought about all the times I had observed large carnivores in the wild, often close enough to see that fire in their eyes, as the father of wildlife ecology Aldo Leopold described it. Zoologist James Karr has characterized it as the fire peculiar to living things.
We moved into the taxidermist’s showroom, which was full of finished products. It seemed to contain virtually every species that is allowed to be hunted in coastal B.C. As far as I could tell, there was a full compliment of top predators, with the exception of wolverines. There was also a stack of black bear hides that looked a couple of feet high.
We finally bid the taxidermist farewell and drove to the local airport. The producer and I sat silently in the embarking area and pondered the last 72 hours we had just spent with bears, both alive and dead.
That the province continues to permit grizzly bears-especially coastal grizzlies, which are often sitting targets-to be shot and killed for sport in our parks and protected areas is not only anachronistic from a wildlife management perspective, but it is ethically lamentable as well.
The reality is that you can kill coastal bears quickly via trophy hunting or kill them slowly by denying them their life requisites through destructionof their habitat and over-exploitation of the salmon on which they depend. Sadly, one can only expect the situation for bears to deteriorate further as industrial activities intensified by climate disruption devastate more forests and salmon stocks.
Ironically, the grizzly, a species once regarded as a threat to our survival, is turning out to be a test of how likely we are to achieve sustainability of the elements that also sustain us-forests and salmon.
The Great Bear Almanac by Gary Brown, one of the seminal reference books on grizzly bears, states, “bears are highly intelligent and individualistic…and are capable of nearly as many responses in a given circumstance as a human. Some biologists believe the highly adaptable brown bear is intelligent enough to be ranked with primates.”
What does it say about us, as the human species, that we have been unable to peacefully co-exist with this magnificent and powerful animal? Why can’t we find a way to accommodate both our needs and those of the “great bear”?
Recreational hunters, governments, and conservationists will likely continue to argue about the status of bears, but what matters most in the grizzly hunting debate is that killing these magnificent animals for sport, trophy and profit has no place in today’s society. Poll after poll has shown that most British Columbians agree, but the will of the people will be ignored once again as the spring coastal grizzly hunt resumes on April 1.
Chris Genovali is the executive director of Raincoast Conservation.