There’s no delicate way to make this obvious point: Poor Donna Munson succeeded far beyond what she intended in feeding the bears.
I don’t mean to be glib. The 74-year-old Ouray woman was clearly suffering from a delusion, the same delusion that accounts for “bird ladies” who feed pigeons in big cities. Somehow, a broken circuit in the brain convinces these poor souls that the apparently hungry animals need them. No amount of reason or punishment can convince them otherwise. It’s a maternal instinct gone terribly wrong. When you consider that a bird lady was serenaded in Mary Poppins, it’s not difficult to understand where this impulse comes from.
I write not to chastise Donna Munson, even though a dozen or more of the bears she loved will now die as a result of her delusion. I am more interested in the notion of the predation of humans.
It seems that nothing makes people more squeamish than the feeling that we may be regarded as food by another species. This is no doubt wired into our DNA at the most primitive level. Run from that tiger! The movie Jaws was supercharged by this phobia (and sharks still occasionally take a surfer). A few tigers keep humans at bay in parts of India. In the American West, a few mountain lions have decided that people are prey. But for the most part, we humans have relentlessly attacked big predators either all the way or close to extinction.
To wit: the top two predators in the food chain in the San Juans are gone. Our forebears here exterminated both the grizzly and the wolf. That leaves us at the top of the food chain, which apparently is where we feel most comfortable.
But this is not natural. Despite human unease about becoming the prey and despite sounding insensitive in the wake of Donna Munson’s tragedy, I feel all the more strongly that without the grizzly and the wolf outdoors we are missing something essential.
What could possibly make us more human than to live in a world where it is still possible to be eaten?
Again, this may sound glib, but as surely as the answer to living with black bears, who rarely attack humans, is to find ways to share the habitat – by feeding them neither deliberately nor inadvertently, by mismanaging our trash – so too we should learn to live with predators who would just as soon eat us as look at us.
Of course, ranchers have never been fond of predators as a matter of tough economics. Every animal the predators eat is one less for them to sell to us to eat. I say we should bring the big predators back and compensate the ranchers who pay for it in lost livestock. It’s worked in the Yellowstone area.
For me, it’s already kind of cool to walk home in Telluride after dark just a little extra alert to the possibility of stumbling across a black bear. It’s bracing to know that there’s something bigger and stronger than us out there.
Grizzlies and wolves would make it even more bracing. Now and then they might grab one of us. It would be extremely rare, as it is in places where grizzlies and wolves were never fully exterminated or have been restored, and it would be especially rare in populated areas like Telluride. The exposure to risk would be similar to the risk taken by backcountry skiers and mountaineers, for whom the risk they consciously take contributes to the reward of their sport. They manage the risk. So, too, risk of predation would be mostly incurred by those who go out to where the predators rightly rule, and it could be managed. These are risks we should be willing to take in exchange for living in a more natural world, and for venturing out into a true wilderness.
May there always be sharks in the sea and tigers in India, and may the grizzlies and wolves soon find their way home to the San Juans, where they belong. For without them and the squeamishness they inspire, we are less fully human.