The Right to Fear Bears

BEAR IN AREA.

The sign was massive. Big, block, black letters on a three foot tall yellow rectangle warning potential hikers about increased bear activity on the local trails.

As I read the sign across the parking lot, changing into shorts and trail runners, I had a momentary pause. Should I run this trail today?  

I had hiked, skied and ran the trail countless times before. I had done it in the rain, the sun, and even a few times by headlamp in the dark. Once, I had skied up it in the dark, in a snowstorm. But none of these times, or at least none I could remember, started by passing a giant yellow BEAR IN AREA sign.

That momentary pause gave just enough space for the tiniest amount of fear to creep in. But, having had a few encounters with bears, including a couple very close calls with Grizzlies during a solo-hike in Kluane National Park, I pushed the worst thoughts from my head, shouldered my pack and started running up the trail. I clipped my keys to outside of pack so they would jingle as I ran, announcing my presence to any lurking animals.

The first half of the run was uneventful as I fell into the rhythmic pounding of my feet on gravel and the minor mental workout of turning boulders into a staircase up the mountain. Then, a rustle in the bushes, and a flash of something big and brown sent my heart shooting into my throat.

It was a grouse. A large, brown, black and grey sort of wild chicken/turkey type bird that had been spooked when I turned a corner and bore down on it.

On a normal hike, it shouldn’t have scared me, but that sign had changed something. Hiking in bear territory always fills me with a sense that in the wrong situation, a bear could effortlessly maim me and, worst case scenario, kill and eat me. I don’t have a crippling fear of bears, bu when I’m in bear country, I develop a constant unease and anxiety that heightens my awareness and makes every rustling seem like it could be a murderous ursine pounding out of the underbrush to remove and eat my face.

I shook my head and laughed nervously as the grouse waddled off in the opposite direction. The trail had started to level out, giving my burning legs and lungs a break from the uphill grind. With the brief respite, a thought crept into my head.

It would really suck to feel this kind of fear all the time.  

I imagined waking up in the morning, opening my door to walk down the street and get a coffee only to see a giant BEAR IN AREA sign strapped to lamppost and the end of walkway. I thought about riding my bike at night, and the spine tingling fear of seeing bulky shadows in the distance, unsure of what forms the darkness obscured. I imagined what it would be like to have a child, and what it would be like to send them to school, knowing that something that could easily take their life could be lurking around any corner.

By the time I reached the summit, I had run through a laundry list of terrifying scenarios. They were all pretty ridiculous, but at the core, they all tied back to a common thread - what would it feel like to live, day to day, knowing something that could kill you is hanging out in your neighbourhood.

Obviously, an urban bear infestation is pretty unlikely, but even were it to happen, the chances of an epidemic of bear related deaths is probably pretty low. In the entire 2000’s 29 people were killed by bears in North America. In 2015, there were 2 fatal bear attacks, one in Yellowstone National Park and one in British Columbia. Compare that to 1146 people killed by police in United States in 2015 alone.

With a population of over 320 million, that means most people only have about less than a .1% chance of being killed by a police officer. But, adjust that to only look at young, black men and a study in the Guardian found “despite making up only 2% of the total US population, African American males between the ages of 15 and 34 comprised more than 15% of all deaths.” According to that same study, one in every 65 deaths of black men in that age range is a police killing. You know what else has odds like that? BASE jumping.

By now, you’re probably wondering, “what the hell just happened, I though I was reading something about bears and now it’s about race and police violence, what gives?”

Here’s the thing, as I summited that trail run, I realized that the low level fear and anxiety I was feeling by being in bear habitat was probably the closest I would come to even remotely understanding what it’s like to really deal with police violence. Now, let’s be clear, I’m not try to say that me being afraid of a bear on a hike is the same as anything experience by people who deal with police violence day to day, but that’s kind of the point. For me, and people like me, to have the most basic understanding of what it’s like to deal with the fear of police violence, we have to literally walk into the home of 500lb apex predator.

Using bears to explain police violence is a pretty ridiculous metaphor, but it’s also ridiculous that more unarmed young black men are killed every year by police in North America than humans die from bear attacks. One of these things is literally a wild animal beyond human control, the other is a government run, state sanctioned and managed law enforcement agency mandated with protecting human lives. Put another way, more people are being killed by the thing that is supposed to view people as the something to be served and protected than the thing that is literally supposed to think that we’re food.

Unless I move to Churchill, Manitoba where polar bears have been known to roam the town, I’ll probably never have to see my neighbourhood bear nightmares come to fruition. And, even if I did, it’s pretty unlikely those bears would have a racial bias in the people they hunted. Thus, there’s a good chance I’m going to live most, if not all, of my life without ever opening my door and knowing that something that can kill me, and has a history of killing people like me is roaming around my neighbourhood.

For me, that’s good news, but thousands of people who have to wake up everyday and live with a police force that has a record of killing aren’t so lucky. They don’t have the luxury of speculative bear fiction, and that’s wrong because, frankly, it should be everyone's right to fear bears, and no-one's reality to have to live each day in fear of the police.

Check out the Movement for Black Lives for ways to support and donate to organizing around racism and police violence. Click here to check them out.

 

Cameron Fenton