After much lobbying by citizens of Seward, a small town at the head of Alaska’s Resurrection Bay, an effort is underway to rescue two orphaned grizzly bear cubs that have become a city attraction and a city worry.
Since their mother was shot and killed raiding a chicken coop at the end of July, the Facebook page Seward, AK Bear & Wildlife Report has been buzzing with reports of the cubs’ movements and concerns about their welfare.
Out of fear the cubs might get run over by the tourist traffic on the summer-busy Seward Highway that runs 120 miles north to Alaska’s largest city, one area resident on Sunday reportedly posted signs warning people to slow down and watch for the bears.
Others in Seward worry the young bears are hungry, though starvation doesn’t appear to be an immediate threat.
Wildlife biologists say the animals look healthy, but have only a one-in-a-million chance of surviving the winter without their mother.
The cubs, however, don’t know that. And coastal Alaska is rich in food in the summer, so there is no danger of the cubs starving in the short-term no matter how much some might fear that fate.
But neither will the cubs be able to put on enough weight to survive a winter’s hibernation on their own, and the risks of falling victim to another bear – already significant – only increase later in the year as hyperphagia, the feeding frenzy before hibernation, sets in among old, mature bears.
The Montana Division of Fish, Wildlife & Parks describes hyperphagia as “a single-minded lust for calories in advance of their long winter’s sleep,” and warns those afield in late fall to be especially alert because the bears “can become so engrossed in eating they pay less attention to their surroundings than usual.”
Already a target for older, bigger bears, the cubs will only become more so as the days shorten and Alaska quickly slides toward winter. Even with their mother around to protect them, they would have had low odds of surviving their first year of life.
A now 30-year-old, bear study still running in Alaska’s Denali National Park and Preserve reports that 65 percent of cubs of the year don’t make it. The odds for young bears are better in places where bears are hunted, as on the Kenai Peninsula, but they are still not great.
In areas where hunters crop off bigger, older bears, wildlife researcher Sterling Miller found, the death rate among cubs of the year dropped to 33 percent. But those were cubs accompanied by sows protected from hunting. Alaska law generally bans shooting sows accompanied by cubs.
Cubs of the year on their own are generally considered to have zero chance of survival.
All of these factors and more played into a decision by the state to try to capture the young bears, something that isn’t always done.
“Every situation is different,” wildlife biologist Jeff Selinger said Sunday. He is the Kenai area biologist for the state’s Division of Wildlife Conservation.
Given the near-impossible odds of survival, some in Seward were moved to suggest that the man who shot and killed the sow had an ethical obligation to put the cubs down as well. The shooter has not been identified.
Alaska state law is liberal in determining legal shootings of bears under the state’s defense of life and property law (DLP). And there is no telling what the reaction might have been if the shooter had gone and killed the cubs as well even if some believe that the right thing to do.
Seward – like parts of Anchorage – appears very mixed on the bears-in-the-neighborhood issue. Some like bears nearby until there are too many bears, a very tough number to define, or they are too nearby.
Others live in dread of the idea they could walk out their door and get mauled even if the odds of that happening are lower than the chances of walking out the door and being hit by lightning.
Bears stir differing emotions in different people, although sometimes the emotions have a lot in common. The people who want the bears humanely dispatched and the people who want the bears “saved,” as if life in prison were better than death, are both projecting human foresight onto a pair of grizzly cubs.
Bear cubs don’t have foresight. They’re like children. They don’t yet have the skill – if bears ever develop that skill – to look ahead to the future. At the moment, they are a couple of rambunctious kids lose in a candy and toy story.
Maybe they think about their dead mother now and then, but likely not. There are too many distractions, too many new things to explore. That their lives can’t go on like this forever is not within their comprehension.
Were nature left to take its course, the cubs would go on having fun right up until it ended naturally – killed by another bear or starvation – or unnaturally – run over by a motor vehicle.
To capture them now and send them to a zoo might actually disrupt the happiest time of their life.
There is no way of knowing what goes on in the mind of an animal. Maybe the bears would be happier in a zoo where the meals are regular and the people looking in are friendly. Maybe that beats having their summer of fun end in death, the way the summers of so many other bear cubs end.
What matters is that saving the cubs is almost certain to make the majority of people happy. Whether it will make the bears happy, we will ever know. But saving the bears, as with most “saving” of wildlife, with the exception of the endangered species scientists try to preserve in the interest of genetic diversity, isn’t about the bears.
Saving wild animals is about us. It is about the best of us and the worst of us.
It is about our desire to protect the innocent, our yearning to make the world better if only for one other creature (or in this case two) for a nanosecond in the continuum of time, and our distaste for suffering.
It is also about our willingness to let emotion trump logic, and about our refusal to recognize and accept the natural world for what it is – a place where the young die at a staggering rate to make function a system driven by death.
As you read this, salmon are spawning and dying all over the 49th state. Most of their progeny will die. A female sockeye salmon will lay 2,000 to 5,000 eggs, according to the National Park Service here; maybe one in 1,000 will survive.
Some of the eggs will be eaten by other fish before they hatch. Some of the alevins will be eaten as they emerge from the gravel as fry. Some of the fry will be eaten as they head to sea or try to survive in the river as smolt.
If they actually make it to the ocean, a lot of them will be become prey for other fish, sea birds, marine mammals or anything else bigger. The young salmon lucky enough to survive until they get big enough to begin preying on the young of other species will remain in constant danger of being preyed on themselves by marine mammals and humans.
This is the way nature works. It is a shoot-em-up video game. It is a war zone.
Most of us understand this at some level even if we don’t accept it. There is no logical reason to save the Seward cubs. Saving grizzly cubs in a world where there are adequate numbers of grizzlies to fill all zoos makes no logical sense.
But it will make us feel good because it hurts to think the cubs are doomed to die sooner rather than later without human intervention.