Recently a friend took a photo of an overturned Telluride dumpster with a mess of trash pouring out and put it up on YouTube. Anyone who has spent as little of as one summer in Telluride knows how to interpret the photo. A bear was here last night and boy did he (or she, or they) have a good time.
I commented on the picture, coming at it from a bear's perspective. I said something about forests being great for berries and insects, and the meadows provide all sorts of tasty rodents, but if you're a bear looking for a really good meal you can't do better than tipping a dumpster or turning over an unlocked polycart. It seemed like a harmless comment at the time. I could have said that in a drought year like this, the pickings in the wild are likely pretty slim. I could have said it's a bummer for the property owner or businesses that now have a big mess to clean up. I've been there. I've done that. I could have said Telluriders need to double down on their determination to prevent these scenes from reoccurring. It's a losing battle but one worth fighting. I could have said all that, because it's true and relevant, but I went with my first impression instead.
One response to my comment was, “I think it's sad to see a wild animal rummaging in garbage for food. They survived thousands and thousands of years without it.” By social media standards that's an especially mild rebuke. Thank God Donald Trump's name was not invoked by either party. We all know how that insertion can inflame a discussion. As far as I know, the president has not yet been blamed for marauding bear behavior.
I don't think bears are concerned with human concepts of what ought to be sad or shameful for them. I don't think they see much difference between what we put on our tables and what we throw into the bin. Their evaluation isn't so arbitrary. Bears think instead of what's edible and what isn't. They put priority on food that's loaded with calories and nutrients and tastes really good, and consider the rest only when the good stuff is in short supply. I've watched Northwest coast bears searching the shoreline rocks for limpets and barnacles, and grazing on sedge, then happily leave all that behind when the salmon are running. If humans considered salmon garbage, as we once did lobster, it wouldn't effect bear opinions one inch. It just happens that, for now, we share the same high opinion of salmon.
Is scavenging human refuse new to bears? Not really. American Indians left us no records to go on prior to the arrival of Europeans, but it's safe assuming that bears have been poking around their camps and settlements for ready snacks for as long as humans have been around. Before humans, bears have been picking up whatever other hunters left behind. A bear doesn't really see much difference between the remains of a deer they stumble upon that's been killed by a cougar, and what's left behind by a human hunter. No shame, no guilt, just plenty of good eating, something to celebrate.
I'm not sure why this is hard to appreciate. For millions of years, humans, and earlier hominids, were poor hunters dependent on what better hunters left behind. Protein is essential to our diet and our lack of large teeth and jaws, claws, speed, and strength left our strangely-configured ancestors unable to obtain it in sufficient quantities except by scavenging from other's kills. We should relate to bears on that level as well as many others. We have so much in common. Both are apex species. Both love resting a great deal. Both love scratching themselves or sloshing around in a pool on a hot day. Both love a good meal. Both get by on their smarts. Both are very smart.
I watch a popular YouTube broadcast. It’s a vlog titled “Nomad Trails.” Last year the delightful couple that produce it set off from their Finnish homeland to see the world by bicycle. While traveling across Europe on their way to Africa they take advantage of what they find along the way. Outside one village that may mean picking fruit from bushes and trees. In towns, they like checking out the refuse bins behind a grocery store, often scoring more edible vegetables, fruit and bread than they can carry. They'll even stop to slice off a tasty steak from a road-killed deer. It's great seeing people capitalizing on the bounty most of us choose to ignore or stigmatize. It’s nice to question our attitudes, and the prejudices of society in general.
Maybe they picked up a few ideas from bears. You could do worse.