by Robert E. Bieder
Reaktion Books Ltd. (79 Farringdon Rd., London, EC1M 3JU, U.K.), 2005. 192 pages, paperback. $19.95.
The Grizzly Maze
by Nick Jans
Dutton (375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014), 2005.
275 pages, hardcover. $24.95.
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
Robert Bieder and Nick Jans explore the mythology of bears from opposite angles but to common purpose in Bear, a global overview, and The Grizzly Maze, an examination of the fatal maulings of bear advocate Timothy Treadwell, 46, and his friend Amie Huguenard, 37, by a brown bear on October 6, 2003, in Katmai National Park, Alaska.
Bieder, a career scholar, starts with the evolution and diversification of bears. Bear ancestors emerged in Europe and Asia as long as 25 million years ago, but the forebears of today s bears appeared at about the same time that great apes evolved in Africa.
Conflict emerged between modern bears and early humans as soon as population expansion brought them into overlapping habitat. Bears, as carnivores who had developed the ability to eat vegetation, and humans, as ancestral vegetarians who had learned to scavenge and hunt, were direct competitors. Each killed and ate the other, if able.
Bears had a slight head start, and established themselves in North Africa before humans, but domesticating dogs and taming fire eventually gave humans a decisive edge. By Cro Magnon times, bears had already begun a long retreat to the rockiest, coldest, and most densely forested parts of the temperate latitudes. Humans dominate the rest.
Yet human competition with bears has never really ended. In one-to-one encounters, bears still have the advantage of size and strength. Wherever bears persist in the presence of humans, or have managed to re-establish themselves, as in rural New Jersey, humans tend to feel threatened, despite outnumbering the bears by ratios of hundreds or even thousands to one.
Intuitively, humans tend to perceive bears as human-like, whether benignly as in the example of Teddy-Bear toys, or menacingly, as bears are typically portrayed in folktales. Bears in turn tend to respond to humans as if we were just another bear species. They might eat us, as brown bears might eat black bears, or ignore us if we offer no threat.
Either way, bears usually expect humans to understand bear gestures and etiquette, which has evolved to minimize trouble between bears who mind their own business. Fatal bear/human conflict, as in the case of Treadwell and Huguenard, typically occurs when humans do not do what other well-behaved bears would do, staying out of other bears way unless specifically welcomed.
Humans, as Bieder discusses, have developed an extensive inventory of art, literature, and legend imagining bears as possible mates and ancestors. Bears, so far as is known, do not hold such perceptions of people. Among the hundreds of accounts of bear/human conflict on file here at ANIMALS 24-7, there are none in which a bear appeared to attempt to initiate sexual contact.
Yet bear behavior toward human children can indicate recognition of likeness. Thousands of bears have killed and injured human children, especially Asian brown bears, but a few bears of almost all kinds have occasionally fostered lost or abandoned children with their own cubs, sometimes for days, weeks, or even years.
The answer to the seeming paradox may be that unlike humans, who will mate any time, bears only mate during a short part of each year, when they rarely meet humans. Yet, like humans, bears nurture their young for an extended time. A female bear is thus more likely to be psychologically primed to parent a child who is close to the size of her own cubs, than any bear is likely to be primed to mate. For humans the odds are almost the opposite.
The Treadwell tragedy occurred, apparently, because he learned to exploit the bear tendency to accept humans as different kinds of bears, and for 13 years got away with often approaching brown bears much more closely than most experts would without tranquilizing the bears first.
Treadwell imagined that he understood Alaskan brown bears much better than anyone else, and perhaps he did, yet he over-anthropomorphized in believing that the mutual understanding he may have developed with some bears would protect him.
Grizzly Maze author Nick Jans visited the site where Treadwell and Huguenard were killed and mostly eaten soon after the incident. Jans continued his investigation by interviewing most of Treadwell s close associates, viewing his videos, reading his writings, and soliciting much expert perspective.
Jans also paid more attention to Huguenard than most others investigating the case. Huguenard often seems to have been regarded as only another of Treadwell s many girlfriends. Despite their five years of involvement, she was not well-known to most of Treadwell s associates. Huguenard seems to have been much more fascinated with Treadwell than with either bears or outdoor living, but she appreciated his work, and visited him in the bush three summers in a row.
In addition, Jans discusses the December 2003 fatal mauling of Vitaly Nikolayenko, a Russian ethologist who for 33 years lived among brown bears on the Kamchataka peninsula. Unfortunately, the bears who became habituated to his presence also became easy pickings for poachers. At least 20 bears Nikolayenko knew were massacred about seven months before his own death. Jans compares and contrasts the Treadwell story to his own changing perspective, as a former bear hunter who now favors leaving bears and their vital habitat alone, and was among the three sponsors of an unsuccessful petition drive that tried to put a ban on aerial predator control on the 2006 Alaska ballot.
Jans concludes that trying to show that humans and bears can co-exist does bears no favors: when humans and bears mingle, bears die. Jans advises admiring bears from a distance, and teaching bears to respect that distance, just as they respect their distance around others of their kind.