By Gail Picco, December 8, 2020
What Bears Teach Us, Sarah Elmeligi, Photographs: John E. Marriott, Rocky Mountain Books, October 29, 2020, 224 pp., $45.00
Living in Toronto on the 15th floor in a corner suite with a reasonably unobstructed view—insofar as city views go—has its advantages. You can see a storm coming from miles away, feel the windy gales that shake the glass in your windows when it rumbles overhead and, on evenings when the weather is nice, be treated to a nightly light show. As sundown makes its way across the city, multitudinous squares of light spill out from buildings large and small, taking the shape of a sparking abstract quilt. The nightscape view never gets old.
But what, then, explains the increasing draw to books and photos of animals in their natural habitat I’ve been experiencing in the last few months. It could be the pandemic, for sure. The pandemic has been used to rationalize a lot this year.
On a personal note, it could be because I’m missing my annual trek to my homeland in Newfoundland although, truth be told, most of the wildlife I see there is of the marine variety or identifiable by its swerving nocturnal gait up and down George Street in St. John’s.
But in all likelihood, the craving for uniquely-written and photographed books about the natural world in Canada has been because of my joyous discovery of the catalogue of Rocky Mountain Books (RMB), a catalogue that I encourage any reader to explore. There is a bounty of singular books that, no matter how you might categorize your current interests, you will find yourself hungry for a type of food you didn’t know existed.
What Bears Teach Us in one of RMB’s latest offerings. We reviewed Takaya: The Lone Wolf last week. What Bears Teach Us is written by Sarah Elmeligi, a scientist, conservationist and land use planner who has been working with bears for nearly 20 years. She did her PhD thesis on the grizzly bear habitat use of hiking trails in the Rocky Mountains. The photos in the book are the work of John E. Marriott, a noted Canadian wildlife photographer who has worked with National Geographic, BBC Wildlife and others.
The result of this formidable author/photographer combination is a coffee-table size hardcover that gives you a fact-filled and joyous rendering of bears’ lives and current accounting of our relationship with them. Elmeligi talks about how the level of habituation or tolerance a bear can display for other bears, the habituation of bears to humans, which can have detrimental effects on the bear, and human to bear tolerance, which is also called complacency.
And, as humans encroach on what has previously been bear habitat, the issue of habituation is an important one. Case in point:
After a process where Elmeligi and Marriott had been observing a “sub-adult” bear in Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park in northern British Columbia.
“John and I sat along the roadside watching a familiar, beautiful, subadult grizzly bear. We had been spending the past few mornings with him; over the week, he had become more habituated to our vehicle and never showed any signs of stress or even acknowledged our presence.”
But one morning, with a belly full of coffee, Elmeligi herself felt the call of nature. She slowly made her way out of their vehicle and crossed the road, checking out the bear’s response with each movement. He had no reaction. But as she crouched down, he looked at her intently and “bluffed-charged” her. She stood up slowly and moved back toward the vehicle, baffled as to what might have caused his reaction.
“Bears have written a complex rulebook rulebook for people. When we step out of line, bears are more than happy to let us know.”
There is an elaborate system for tracking individual bears in Canada, and some bears can be tracked for their entire lives. What makes the news about bears is when their habitat includes humans, such as the towns of Canmore, where Elmeligi lives, and the bears become food-conditioned. She says,
“There are still bears who come into town to feed on delicious crabapple and chokecherry trees that are on private property. At least a dozen black and grizzly bears are removed from town each year. If a black bear returns, it is destroyed.”
Canmore—and similar towns—have bylaws to compel people to reduce the attractiveness of town life to bears. In Canmore, for example, residents are forbidden to feed wildlife, must pick the fruit from fruit bearing trees on their property and cannot have a birdfeeder accessible to wildlife.
“Managing ourselves is much easier than managing bears. It may not be possible to keep bears completely out of towns that have been built in their habitat, but it should be possible to ensure that they simply pass through town because there is nothing to keep them there. That’s what coexistence is.”
In What Bears Teach Us, Sarah Elmeligi explains where bears live, how they live, how they learn and what brings them pleasure (scratching is involved).
“Every moment of every day, a bear makes a decision based on its learning or the present circumstances and its estimation of what may happen next.”
Elmeligi’s encounters with individual bears tell us more than we can imagine we might know, and after reading the book and lingering over its photos, we do learn a lot, about ourselves and about bears—all without leaving the couch. She’s generous and lays down the framework of a true co-existence between humans and our animal cousins.
But the next move is ours.
(Gail Picco is the editor in chief of The Charity Report.)
Other titles reviewed by Gail Picco
Takaya: What a lone wolf teaches us December 2, 2020
Begin Again by Eddie Glaude: James Baldwin as a Man for our Time November 30, 2020
She Proclaims: The necessity of women persistently proclaiming October 22, 2020
The reputation of philanthropy: A history of the facts September 18, 2020