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On bear attacks and the nature of Evil

Bill Sherwonit

Are rogue bears evil? But more than that, are unpredictability and randomness themselves evil? Let's say they are. Wouldn't that mean our lives are constantly immersed in and threatened by evil?

Random events — or perhaps better put, events perceived as random — happen around us all the time, wherever we happen to be. For example: unless I’ve planned to meet someone, anyone I meet at a cafe, say, or a concert, is randomly encountered. Such encounters then become dangerous situations with evil beings, if unpredictable acts and random events are by definition evil.

And what about “random acts of kindness”? Those clearly would be impossible.

I’ve been thinking about such matters since reading Alaskan anthropologist Alan Boraas’s commentary in the May 4 Anchorage Daily News, headlined “Family won battle with evil in form of rogue bear.”

To be honest, I might not have given his column much thought — except perhaps to think “this seems kind of nutty” — but for his focus on an “unpredictable rogue bear,” one that happened to attack a family near the Kenai Peninsula’s Kasilof River in late April. Starting with what he claims are traditional Dena’ina Athabascan beliefs — namely that rogue bears are metaphors for evil — Boraas asserts that “An unpredictable rogue bear is the perfect metaphor for evil in the North. And it frames evil as an action rather than a presence.”

Boraas then goes even further, equating the Kasilof bear with terrorists, mass murderers, and other humans who’ve done horrific acts. He also argues that the killing of Osama Bin Laden by Navy SEALS was not random or unpredictable, but a predictable response to an evil act.

Oh really?

What Boraas gives us is simplistic thinking. As Joseph Campbell commented in his Power of Myth conversations with Bill Moyers, “One person’s good is another person’s evil.” For example, in some quarters the assassination of Bin Laden so celebrated in the U.S. (and many other parts of the world) was in fact an evil act, for instance to some of his family members and followers. Or perhaps a better example is America’s Civil War: don’t you think the North’s victory over the South was perceived as an awful, evil thing by most Southerners at the time (and likely some even today)?

I’ll return to notions of the evil that humans do. But what interests me more at this moment is Boraas’s interpretation of the brown bear’s actions, and the animal itself. While I don’t know enough about the Dena’ina culture to contest Boraas’s comments about their world view of “rogue” bears, I believe that it’s dangerous and arguably wrongheaded to apply traditional Dena’ina beliefs to our modern western ways of perceiving and interacting with bears. Is a bear that behaves, in Boraas’s words, “unpredictably,” truly an evil animal? I would agree that a rogue bear is dangerous and frightening. But are its actions evil?

One might even ask whether the bear’s behavior was truly unpredictable. It turns out that before attacking the Burke family, the brown bear sow had been behaving strangely and reportedly “attacked” a telephone pole and moving pickup. Given that behavior, was her assault on people so unpredictable?

But there’s more. The same day that the newspaper ran Boraas’s commentary, the Daily News reported that a state biologist discovered the “rogue” bear had an empty stomach and two bad eyes. The animal was fully blind in one eye and partially impaired in the other. As wildlife biologist Jeff Selinger told reporter Casey Grove, though it’s very rare for a brown bear to prey on humans (and actually we can’t be certain that eating the people was the bear’s intent), the bear’s poor vision from a ruptured right cornea and a clouded left eye could have caused it to act strangely (as interpreted by us humans).

“In general,” Selinger said, “they [presumably bears with poor vision] can act very confused, disoriented, unsure of what’s going on, and all that can lead to erratic behavior.”

Whatever you think about bears, I would argue that it makes much more sense that the female bear attacked a pole, a pickup, and a family because she was suffering, disoriented, and perhaps desperate (and desperately hungry), rather than because she was evil.

In a place and a time and a culture — that is, Alaska in 2013 — in which way too many people already carry an inordinate—and I would argue, irrational — fear of bears and often kill them for no good reason, it’s a dangerous thing to suggest to the public that certain bears are the embodiment of evil. People simply do not need one more reason to fear bears, or hate them, or kill them.

To use Boraas’s line of thinking, we humans present a far greater evil to bears than they do to us. Think about it: Which species behaves in a more random, unpredictable way? We lure bears into our neighborhoods with food and garbage, we often treat them like harmless teddy-bear critters when they appear “tame,” and then, when tired, annoyed, or fearful of their behavior, we kill them, when the bears are simply being bears, and usually not threatening anyone. That to me is an awful fact of northern life and by some standards, evil.

Anchorage writer Bill Sherwonit is the author of more than a dozen books about Alaska, including "Alaska’s Bears and Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey." He frequently writes about Alaska’s wildlife and wildlands.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.