Riverdave's Journal
August 2, 2009

        The killing of a neighborhood bear by Winston-Salem police on July 13th is an uncomfortable reminder of Durham’s own neighborhood bear killing on June 21, 2001.  This summer’s bear visitations in North Durham, along with the demise of an individual on Interstate 85 in Orange County, bring the issue back home to us again. It does seem that as a community, Durham has made some progress from the 2001 tragedy to the latest 2009 series of events.  But it also provides an opportunity to express some feelings and to envision what might be an even more enlightened plan of action as we face the likelihood of further visitations from this native charismatic mega fauna.

         To set the record straight at the outset, we must remind ourselves that the black bear was a resident in the North Carolina Piedmont before the arrival of Native Americans and before the arrival of colonists from the Old World in the 16th century.  The black bear’s claim to Piedmont residency is more valid than any human claim.  The bear’s fundamental role in a healthy piedmont  ecosystem cannot be denied.  

          Something is amiss and not functioning at its optimum level because our now heavily developed piedmont has left little room for black bears.  For the human spirit, the loss may be felt as an unconscious vacuum in our cohabitation with other forms of life that at least approximate our own physical dimensions.  Hey, nothing against gray squirrels, but I would love to have a few large bears as visitors too!  Have we worked hard to protect local natural areas like the Eno River parklands, only to become paranoid when returning native fauna try to make themselves feel at home?

           In researching for this essay, I have returned to archives of the account of the unfortunate 2001 Durham incident and read all I could find about the recent Winston-Salem debacle.  My conclusion is that both the public and law enforcement officers, on occasion, have acted out of an exaggerated unfamiliarity and fear about the actual danger a bear might pose to human beings.

         I  spoke about this matter with Mike Edmiston, the NC Wildlife Resources warden assigned to Durham, Person and Granville Counties.  He is a resident of Bahama in northern Durham County.  He said that the recent bear sightings in Durham brought an avalanche of calls to him from citizens, law enforcement and animal control.  His response to all these calls was simply to advise both public and government to give the animal a wide berth, let it find its own way out of the neighborhood and just enjoy the moment!  He further stated that  despite requests for him to trap and remove the animal, it is not the NCWRC’s policy to do so, unless an animal shows unusual aggression towards humans.  

          Removal is a big and expensive effort with not a lot of good results.  From my own research on the subject, the data indicates that relocated bears often become disoriented and perish.  It seems that we would all do the bears a big favor if we would just leave them alone to their instincts.  Unfortunately, some bears may fall victim to vehicles on roads as happened to one individual on Interstate 40 last month. But roads are ubiquitous and migrating wildlife will have to take their chances there along with the rest of us.

          Perhaps as a community we can take a cue from the stars, where throughout history, humanity has projected and overlaid both ts worst fears and best dreams.  For many folks, the Big Dipper is the most recognizable star pattern in the summer night sky.  The dipper consists of the lower body and tail of the constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear.  It is an interesting fact that a number of disparate cultures from around the world find a bear in this star pattern.

          In our Western stelar tradition, the arc of the bear’s tail points directly overhead to one of the brightest stars in our summer sky, Arcturus, whose name means the “guardian of the bear.”  Ancient Greek tradition has it that Arcturus was placed in the sky by Zeus to protect the Great Bear and accompany it and its smaller partner for eternity.   

           Could our community take a cue from the Ancients, and embrace a tradition of becoming a Guardian of the Great Bear?  Or are we destined to be unconsciously driven by the worst fears of our materialistic culture and financial gurus who label a “bear” market as being dangerous?  And in particular, are we in Durham riding our aggressive male “Durham Bull” mentality to the point that we cannot find room in our hearts for the more nurturing feminine symbol of the Mama Bear?  Is the Durham Convention and Visitor’s Bureau only concerned about human visitors?

          Perhaps we could organize a citizens Bear Watch program, responsible for keeping records and photos of bear visitations to our community.  I have located such groups in Albuquerque, New Mexico and on Vancouver Island,  British Columbia.  This group could also be involved in educating the public on how to respectfully greet, give space and enjoy the occasional incursions of this wild former resident, now returning as a visitor to the Carolina Piedmont.   Anyone interested in starting such a Bear Watch program locally, please drop me a line ...

  photo by Jan Orendorff on her property in Durham, NC