As members of Congress undertake bipartisan efforts to address gun violence in the wake of recent tragedies, they could find inspiration and fortitude in wild scenes that unfold across Alaska this time of year. More than most Americans, Alaskans have front-row seats to lessons from the natural world.
Early in May, a baby moose was born on the knoll in front of our house, not 30 feet from our living room. It wasn’t the first time a mother moose had chosen the sheltered space between tall spruce to give birth. In the hills above Anchorage, at the edge of wilderness, we’ve come to almost expect them. To us, there are few scenes of greater tenderness and vulnerability than the tiny creatures at their mothers’ sides, wobbling on spindly legs.
For six days, the moose pair rested and rose from the same spot on the knoll, until it became a worn bed. For hours, the mother moose would lie peacefully, gently nuzzling and licking the calf, and the calf would return the attention, snuggling close. At intervals, she would stand and use her head to nudge the calf to nurse. When she rested, the calf would leap and tear in circles, testing its stride, then collapse in exhaustion. From her vantage, the mother could face away from our house down an open slope toward the road that crosses below. Head up, she rotated her ears like antennae to catch the sounds of cars, dogs and people, raising her hackles countless times a day at any hint of threat. Like her, we watched and listened, alert to sounds and movements we would usually ignore. What she knew instinctively, we knew through simple research: Many moose calves don’t survive.
On the sixth night, we were awakened by commotion outside our bedroom window. In the twilight, perched in bushes near the resting place, a huge grizzly bear was pulling at something in its paws. We knew instantly what had happened. Soon the mother appeared and charged the bear full-on, running so close she seemed to brush its fur. The bear didn’t flinch or move. Again the mother charged -- hundreds of pounds of fury hurtling towards the hulk of solid brawn. Again the bear was unfazed. Within minutes, it dragged the tiny carcass away.
Hearing the story, friends were sympathetic. “How heartbreaking for you,” everyone said. “How sad for the little guy.” But to a one, they also relayed some version of, “That’s nature. That’s what bears do.” As a 50-year Alaskan, I know the drill about getting attached to wildlife. But the wisdom around me didn’t lessen the loss I felt.
Less than a week after the calf’s demise, still gripped by a sadness I found hard to shake, the news that 19 children and two teachers had been gunned down at school in Uvalde, Texas, hit me hard. The image of so many young people facing down the barrel of a gun, with no safe place to turn, tore at a consciousness already raw from bearing witness to the killing of another young, defenseless creature. There is, of course, no comparison between a hungry bear eating a moose calf and an angry young man gunning down a classroom of children. But what struck me as truly tragic in the aftermath of the school shooting was the apparent view among many that guns and the human bloodshed they cause are also part of the natural order of things.
The maker of the assault rifle that killed the children in Uvalde advertised the weapon by posing it with an infant and quoting scripture to suggest that training in its use should be part of every good parent’s obligation to their children. “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it,” the AR-15-style rifle ad urged. As if ensuring proficiency with lethal weapons -- even against our own kind -- is as essential to human development as instilling values or building character, and a human attachment to guns as vital and ordained as a bear’s instinct to attack its prey. How to answer the fact that guns are the leading cause of death for children and adolescents in our country for the first time in history? Or that accidental shootings by kids occur almost daily? Just sad facts of life.
Many Americans remain adamant that regular mass killings and daily gun deaths -- along with countless life-changing injuries from guns -- are the necessary price we pay to protect the right to bear arms. “We’re never going to be able to prevent gun violence,” said one pastor who opposes efforts to change our laws, as if humans can no more control the brutal behavior around us than a bear can control its appetite. A sizable minority of Americans (35%) view the protection of gun rights as more important than controlling gun violence. Apparently, they’re comfortable with these stark realities: that guns outnumber people in the U.S.; that youth can legally purchase weapons of war before they can legally drink; and that adults in America can gather large private arsenals, in secret, for whatever purpose they choose. The accompanying loss of life is to be condemned and mourned in the moment, but ultimately understood to be a necessary evil we can do little about.
As a country, we can certainly debate what steps would be most effective to curb the carnage that has become so commonplace in our communities. But after years of deference to the idea that “the best defense to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” and years of growth in gun ownership, gun violence is rising, not falling. As tragedies continue and we dig more graves for our children, we should recognize that the status quo is far from the best we can do. And our leaders should take a lesson from the mother moose.
Hours after the grizzly encounter, our motion cameras revealed that she had charged the bear, time and again, before it killed her calf. Each time, she directed her full speed, size and ferocity toward the immovable mountain of bear. Each time, she risked her own life against the bear’s powerful claws. Each time, she held nothing back from the fight. The bear’s aggression may have been natural, but her fierce defense was too.
When we treat individual gun ownership as an absolute right of citizenship -- untouchable even as we face the terrible consequences of gun misuse -- we fail to give our children and communities the best possible solutions to the danger. When we hold back on reasonable gun measures that could make our communities safer, we sacrifice lives.
The mother moose didn’t succeed in saving her calf. But her fearless protection showed there’s nothing natural or inevitable about accepting the continued destruction of our youth, our families and our communities through our complacency and failure to act.
In confronting a nation awash in guns, our leaders would do well to find a measure of her courage.
Barbara Hood moved to Alaska from Texas a half century ago, and has worked for human rights and social justice for 40 years.
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