Mama Grizzlies

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Mama Grizzlies

By Jill Howard-Church, on Animals and Society Institute

Never mind that the last bear-related human fatality in Montana was more than a quarter century ago; perspective and circumstance have nothing to do with it. When a man kills a bear, he's a sportsman; when a bear kills a man, she's a bloodthirsty monster.

Do we laud the mama grizzlies for protecting their turf and their young or do we label them murderous beasts? Will we share the planet with other species or judge everything they do by our own selfish standards? 

We humans can't seem to make up our minds about other animals. We frequently ascribe different qualities to the same species depending on which characterization maintains our superiority and justifies our actions.


Grizzly sow and yearling in Alaska.
Photo by Jim Robertson, Animals in the Wild

For example, in late July, 2010, there was a news story out of Montana regarding a female grizzly bear who apparently - with her three cubs in tow - attacked several people in a remote campground, killing one person and injuring two. This of course put wildlife agents in hot pursuit of the bear, who along with her cubs was soon captured. Mama bear was sentenced to death and killed by lethal injection. Her cubs are being sent to ZooMontana in Billings, never to know freedom again, let alone their mother's loving care. It was us versus Ursus horribilis, and it was horrible indeed.

Never mind that the last bear-related human fatality in Montana was more than a quarter century ago; perspective and circumstance have nothing to do with it. When a man kills a bear, he's a sportsman; when a bear kills a man, she's a bloodthirsty monster.

No one knows (or may ever know) what led this 10-year-old bear, with no prior history of aggression toward people, to do what she did. The Helena Independent Record quoted Chuck Schwartz of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study team in Bozeman as saying, "We know nothing about her," but cautioning, "When humans are injured it's almost always a female with cubs that are young of the year, to protect the young."

Perhaps that's because bear cubs are completely dependent on their mothers and stay with them for up to three summers after their birth. For grizzly cubs, life is tough; as many as 40% of them die before their first birthday. They need their mamas. And maybe their mamas don't need human campers in their back yards.

It is precisely because female bears are known for going to great lengths to protect their cubs that they are often held up as models of maternalism. Recently, a group of conservative Republican women have taken to calling themselves "Mama Grizzlies," cheered on by former Alaska governor and GOP VP candidate Sarah Palin. Palin, in a videotaped PSA for her political action committee, said, "Here in Alaska I always think of the mama grizzly bears who rise up on their hind legs when somebody's coming to attack their cubs - to do something adverse toward their cubs...You don't wanna mess with the mama grizzlies."

Yet that sentiment toward her involuntary mascot didn't seem to deter then-Gov. Palin (pictured at left in her office on the skin of a grizzly bear her father killed) from promoting the aerial hunting of both bears and wolves and fighting efforts to protect polar bears under the Endangered Species Act. Grizzly bears can only be hunted in certain parts of Alaska, but their black bear cousins are more vulnerable. According to Defenders of Wildlife, "[F]or the first time in Alaska's history, the Board of Game approved the hunting of black bear sows and cubs in an 11,000-square-mile area northwest of Anchorage where the goal is to kill 60 percent of the black bear population."

But it's not just Palin, it's a collective speciesist schizophrenia that's reflected in government policies and personal attitudes alike. Our attitudes toward more familiar species such as dogs can be just as contradictory. We call them "man's best friend" and then kill them by the millions as perfunctorily as taking out the trash. We call doves the "birds of peace" and yet use them as target practice. We decorate our children's rooms with images of chicks and ducks and then put McNuggets on our children's plates for lunch.

"We" animal advocates see the irony in all that, but much of the general public still doesn't. The larger "we" still allows nonhuman animals only as much respect and autonomy as is convenient for us, not unlike how early Americans treated the native peoples who got in the way of manifest destiny. It's similar to how we name subdivisions after the trees we bulldoze to build them.

When it comes to animals, I don't think it's a matter of romanticism vs. realism; I think it's a matter of believing that might makes right, or at least right of way anytime conflicting interests intersect. Do we laud the mama grizzlies for protecting their turf and their young or do we label them murderous beasts? Will we share the planet with other species or judge everything they do by our own selfish standards?

I think those three orphaned cubs know the answer.


Jill Howard-Church is a writer and editor who specializes in animal issues. She serves as the part-time communications director for the Animals and Society Institute, and is the volunteer president of the Vegetarian Society of Georgia.