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By whose rules do bears live or die?

On April 27th last year, a black bear that wondered into west London, Ontario was quickly dispatched by police (that’s the politically correct way of saying the bear was killed). It was a rare occurrence and police as well as Ministry officials were unequipped to deal with the visitor. The incident caused a huge public outcry and hundreds of residents weighed in with their opinions. Here in Whistler and elsewhere in British Columbia, bears die all the time as a result of conflict with people. It has become so common place, that there isn’t much protest any more.

This caused me to re-examine the ethics of these situations. Is it acceptable for police or wildlife officers to kill a bear because they are ill-equipped or don’t have time to deal with the situation in any other manner? Of course, the police would have us believe the bear was a significant threat to human safety as evidenced by the fact that it “bluff” charged an officer. Should we consider the welfare and life of the bear in our decision? Can we dispose of bears when it’s convenient to do so?

Then I began to ponder how we interact with nonhuman animals. According to Marc Bekoff (professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado), “Our relationships with animals are confusing, paradoxical, frustrating, challenging, and force us to consider who we are, who ‘they’ are, and how and why we choose to interact with them in the ways we do. When push comes to shove, human interests usually trump those of other animals, as we are a selfishly dominating species.

He says that “A number of ethical questions arise that warrant serious consideration because we, human beings with large brains, self-centered importance, and a tendency to be thoroughly and uniquely invasive, can do anything we want to other animals and their habitats.” Marc Bekoff.

There is no longer any debate as to whether animals feel pain or have emotions. It has been well documented in science. Given that bears are sentient mammals who share the same neural structures that are important in processing emotions in the limbic system as people – is it not reasonable to consider these facts when we are deciding their fate.

Bekoff goes on to say that “It is individuals who count when we consider how we treat other animals. It is individuals not species who personally feel pain and suffer. Animals aren’t mere resources or property. We must respect their dignity and their lives.”

“These principles form the foundation of a global moral imperative to expand our compassion footprint to which we all should aspire. We can rewild our hearts, build corridors of compassion and coexistence, and all animals, including ourselves, will benefit. We do not own the world and when we ignore this fact it is to our peril and loss. We suffer the indignities we impose on other beings. If we are not part of the solution we contribute to the problems”, says Bekoff.“While I do not consider myself to be an animal rights activist, I do have strong feelings about animal rights and that they should have some basic rights. For instance, I believe animals have the right to live without cruelty. I also believe they have the right to live and not be “dispatched” or “destroyed” when the human animals are inconvenienced or consider them to be a nuisance. Let’s call it what it is – we are killing them. I question whether humans have the right to make decisions about whether an animal can live or die, particularly when that decision is based on whether or not the animal’s behaviour is a nuisance or inconvenience.” ~ Sylvia Dolson

If we continue to operate independently of the ecosystem, without regard for the environment and the other animals that live in it, the system will eventually collapse. The question is will it affect us directly? Our children? Or our grandchildren? Or will it become someone else’s problem down the road? The fact that it will happen is inevitable. What we’re gambling with is “when”. We’re all hoping we’ll be dead by the time it would affect us directly.

Man’s lack of regard and compassion for other animals (the non-human kind) is often abhorrent – at least to me. Every year, millions of animals suffer on fur farms before they are killed-sometimes by being skinned alive-for their fur. Leading scientists from around the world take part in subjecting animals to cruel experiments. Baby seals are slaughtered by being beaten to death. Just watch Food Inc. to see how the animals we eat are treated. Perhaps it will at least make a vegetarian out of you.

Many of us grew up eating meat, wearing leather, and going to circuses and zoos. We never considered the impact of these actions on the animals involved. Today, we should know better. The fact is that animals are not ours to eat; to wear; to experiment on; to use for entertainment; or to abuse in any way.

While Sylvia Dolson is the executive director of the Get Bear Smart Society, this blog post represents her personal beliefs and thoughts.