There was a whiff of spring…kind of. The sun was out and the temperature registered at a balmy high forties. While I confess to have the heat on in the little honda, we had the moon roof open. I know we were wasting fuel, but it was a short drive and I couldn’t resist the little extra dab of sun on the crown of my head. Toshi the cat was riding shotgun, albeit in his carrier. We sped along to the vet to see what was up with him, the night before had been rough for both of us…he seemed really sick. The shock of being sick, trapped in a plastic box and then scuttled to the car seemed to have abated. His eyes were bright, and as the wind from the open moon roof ruffled his whiskers he looked at me, and chirped an unusually cheerful meow. We drove past blocks of concrete, the medical school and some section 8 housing, and were preparing to make a left onto the highway when I saw it.
Now I must digress a moment to describe the terrain a wee bit more. Right on the outskirts of the city of Newark lies lovely Branchbrook park, designed by acclaimed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead and John Charles Olmstead and home to our world famous cherry trees. To access the highway one has to navigate an unusual intersection. One path, if followed leads to a vibrant corner of downtown, another reveals humble homesteads of those whose destiny led them to be homeowners, but right by the highway. To the left is the ramp onto the highway, and then one can glimpse, on the other side of the ramp, a bit of grass and trees and the sign “Welcome to Branch brook Park, Home of World Famous Cherry Blossoms”. Beyond the sign, the green grass and shady trees beckon one, always (as many things in Newark do) to stop and remember that no matter how tough things get, that one can always choose to dance.
Today though, I must say that my heart skipped a beat, and I near stopped in my tracks. Inside, anyway. The screeching halt I quickly prevented myself from making would have endangered not only Toshi the cat and I, but also every other auto turning onto the highway.
By the side of the road, half on the highway, and half off, was a bear. It truly was black and somewhat small, a teenager, perhaps, its coat plentiful and thick, the luster apparent even at this distance.
I had been moved more than once in this life to sculpt bears as a gesture of honor, love and awe. Revered by native cultures for strength and self-sufficiency, bear embody the gift of introspection. Bear too, it seems, had been stopped in his tracks, literally. This beautiful being, although still majestic, had met his or her demise on the hood of some previous driver’s automobile.
My initial grief was rapidly replaced by explosive anger. In case you don’t know, there is a war going on in suburban America. The habitat of a considerable number of species has been obliterated by overdevelopment, and the original inhabitants (we’ll limit our discussion here to the non-human animals) have been displaced.
Okay, lets take the gloves off, and forgo the polite euphemisms, shall we? In our gluttony for comfort and social status, we’ve stolen their homes, and now these beautiful beings who once roamed the continent freely taking their food from nature have no where to rest their heads and are forced to scavenge through our garbage for food. And dammit, if this makes us uncomfortable, we shoot them! Not one at a time, mind you, but rather in a one day free for all, us against them.
So, you know it might not even be the bear that scares you that gets shot. Not that that makes a difference. But imagine someone declared a free for all safari on the humans for taking up too much space on the planet. You might get shot for someone elses bad behavior. But that’s beside the point.
Now, I too have dreamed often of having a little plot of land of my own, where I could stick my hands in the earth and look up at the sky. The consolation prize for remaining in the urban human habitat of the deep city is that I was not a direct participant in the human contribution to the war against the wild. But that war had just landed on my concrete doorstep.
At that moment several thoughts went through my mind. Was this a figment of my imagination? Was it the totem spirit of bear, sculpted and called out to so long ago in this life? Or was I actually seeing this with my physical eyes? It mattered not, as one way or another there was clearly trouble ahead. Two possibilities came to mind. Either this little guy had been so hungry that he’d crossed MILES of concrete looking for food, or bear spirit was giving me the heads up that something was big coming. And then I knew…spirit or material, this sighting was a clear indication of what was coming…another BEAR HUNT.
In 2006, the state of New Jersey declared a ceasefire on it’s bear population. Since the ceasefire, our bear population has increased from an estimated 1700 to an estimated 3400. There are approximately 8,600,000 people in the state of New Jersey. That means there is only one bear for every 202,000 humans. I’m sorry you won’t get to have your own. We are the most densely populated of states, and to be honest with you, this impacts you even if you don’t live here. We are the only state that doesn’t currently have such a hunt. And to the parties advocating the hunt, that’s part of the argument for having one. In case you don’t think that your vote matters on such things, well, it’s no coincidence that we are losing that precious non-violent claim to fame in the year after Chris Christie took office. The increase in reported incidents after the suspesion of the bear hunt was only approximately 200 more “bear nuisance” incidents in two years.
Now, here’s what we know about the strategy of this war against the wild. When the former inhabitants of this land make themselves a nuisance (and it’s not just bears) by pooping on lawns, rifling the garbage for snacks or coming too close for comfort, some convenient form of extermination is conducted.
Sometimes these dire offenders are rounded up, forced into the back of a truck and gassed to death (canadian geese who were pooping on the lawn of a condo development). Sometimes they are mass poisoned (starlings poisoned systematically by the USDA in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon). Sometimes the humans go right to the battle lines and declare a rampage, a hunt.
Now, I understand that starvation becomes an issue if the population is allowed to grow naturally. It is an issue for the entire world right now – and we are blaming the animals, rather than looking at ourselves. There a so many humans, and many humans who take much more than they really need. The result in our lives is that humans are starving, and some feel that it is necessary to resort to violence to have their human needs met. The definition of what we need is defined often, by consumer capitalist culture and not by a balanced assessment of our true needs in relationship to the planetary community as a whole. Of course this imbalance will show up in the populations of the beings we share the planet with, human and otherwise.
This bear hunt is an unnecessary ineffective way to patchwork address a larger problem . Rather than shooting bears, the good people of the state of New Jersey may want to examine their own behaviors and begin to shift to ways of life that are more harmonious with the planet. Is it an immediate solution? No. But 200 incidents does not indicate a state of emergency that requires a wholesale slaughter. Instead, we should take this as a wake up call to create space in our lives, that other lives may be saved.
A public hearing on the bear hunt will be held on May 11 at 6 p.m. at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton.