Special thanks to Publisher of The North Island Eagle, Kathy O’Reilly. Originally printed Friday, April 26th in The North Island Eagle.
Spring is here once again, and yes, so are Vancouver Island’s black bears. Stinky, lumbering, brown eyed, course haired, berry pooping trouble causers, black bears are waking up hungry and searching for food. In rural Vancouver Island communities it is important to expect wildlife. It should not be a shock to see a bear; but for some reason we are surprised every year when a bear wanders into town. “There’s a bear eating my garbage!” “I saw a bear eating out of a dumpster!” “A bear ripped apart my barbeque!” “There’s a bear licking up all my bird seed!” “Can you set a trap and take it away?” “I want this bear relocated.”
It is important to remember that the search for food can take a bear on long journeys. Often times these travels include the same trails you and I walk and jog on, the same green spaces that interfaces with our communities. Trails, beaches, fields, power lines, river beds and stream banks – these are all shared areas that we should expect wildlife to be in. Just because a bear has wandered into a shared space does not necessarily mean it is a concern – wildlife often passes through our communities without incident. However, opportunistic feeding on human food sources as a result of poor citizen behavior can create dire consequences for both people and our bears. As much as we want to assign blame and police our wildlife, it takes responsible good citizens to police themselves and their friends.
The same old messaging of, “Put your garbage away” “Don’t put your garbage cans out the night before” “Clean your barbeque” “Put bird feeders away” “Pick up your fruit” “Close and lock the dumpster lids, don’t over fill them” appears to go on and on to the frustration of our neighbors, ourselves, our policing services, public servants, and our broader community.
So what do we do? Keep repeating ourselves over and over again, banging our collective heads against the well dented wall of stupidity? Seems to be what we do – bad has become normalized and the messaging doesn’t scare us anymore. Public education is important, don’t get me wrong, and so is enforcement actions for certain individuals who just refuse to change. But public education is also more than simply repeating the old rhetoric of “No officer likes killing bears – unfortunately it was habituated. People have to learn to put their garbage away. We don’t relocate habituated bears.”
Promoting individual responsibility and teaching good citizenship goes beyond issuing tickets and regurgitating age old government statements. Being “bear smart” means taking responsibility for our own individual actions (wildlife officers and police officers included), educating our neighbors, friends, and family, and helping hold each other accountable to the shared values we cherish. As Sir Robert Peel said circa 1829, “The Police are the Public; the Public are the Police. The Police are paid to give full time attention to duties that are incumbent upon every citizen in the interest of community welfare and existence.”
Community policing doesn’t always have to be a negative interaction with law enforcement (although we are often hyper sensitive to the wrong in society). Sometimes it’s wise to focus on the good we are doing as well. When was the last time someone stopped you to say “thank you” for being a good citizen? If you see someone doing something good – tell them! All of us can do more to encourage ourselves and our neighbors to not just talk about being “bear smart” but to start living it. A little bit of positive messaging can go a long way and science shows that it is actually more impactful and longer lasting than negative feedback loops, blame assignment, and fear based messaging. So, if you see someone doing something rotten with their garbage this summer tell them to cut it out! If you see someone doing something good, tell them “great job!” If you work in policing or by-law enforcement make the extra effort to find something good in the community and tell people about it. It takes a community to achieve great things, but it also takes responsible individuals who make good decisions to help support the development of good citizens. We can’t enforce our way out of collective problems. We have to work through them together. Easier said than done, fair enough; but shoving the ol’ noggin in the sand to the point we don’t even talk to our neighbors anymore is probably not helpful either.
Bryce Casavant is currently a Doctoral Candidate with Royal Roads University and recently received fellowship with the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada for his work, In Search of a Wild Peace. He is a former BC Conservation Officer.