Many of you in Japan, and some of you overseas, may have seen the recent footage of a bear that was running through the streets of Hokkaido, the northern most island of Japan. I happened to see it only because my wife was watching it on her phone as I was passing by. It was frightening and tragic.
What most of you likely don't realize is that this is part of a very dangerous media narrative in Japan about bears. The truth is that the bears have a lot more to fear than we do here, and are on the verge of extinction. Last year alone close to 6000 bears were killed by humans in Japan.
I have an intimate knowledge of this subject because in 2020 I met a bear in the woods very near my home. It left me in the hospital for a week, but my injuries were relatively light, and that was not luck, and it was certainly not bravery. It was mercy. The bear that I surprised because I was not properly wearing a bell (or doing anything else to alert wild animals that I was crossing into their threshold) was a mother bear just following her instinct and telling me to stay away. And once she did that, she let me be. I will never forget how she walked back into the woods and then faced me again, but let me go. Strange as it may sound, despite the fear, pain, and panic I was in at the time, there was an understanding that we were not separate.
Her mercy was repaid by being trapped and killed a few weeks later. I carry her spirit now, and believe me, it is a complex burden to bear - I fear for my safety and for the safety of my family because of the frequency that bears are in our area and yard, and I struggle to work up the courage to do the solo adventuring in the mountains I used to do.
My story brought me eventually to an organization called Kumamori, an organization in Japan whose mission is to protect the bears by protecting their habitats, ensuring they have healthy places to live so that they do not have to seek food near humans, whom they are rightfully very afraid of. They are also fighting to change laws in Japan so that relocation programs can be created instead of the existing policy of killing essentially any and all bears that come near humans (or even that get trapped in snares accidentally in the mountains), policies strengthened by the media narrative mentioned above.
Next time you see footage on the news or internet about a bear running wild in the streets, rather than thinking of that bear as a killer with deadly claws and a thirst for blood, think of the bear as your child. Your sibling. Your cousin. Your closest friend. Who is half starved and driven to be among those who would kill them because they have no choice. No habitat that provides sustenance. And the end of their desperate story is to get shot.
I have had the teeth of a bear in my arm and its claws in my legs. And I emphatically do not want to live in a Japan that does not have bears. We are not separate from the 'beasts' in the woods. If we are to thrive, they must thrive too.
For those of you interested, some recommended steps to take:
-When you enter wild places, enter with the respect required as the weakest species in that environment.
-Alert the animals in the wild of your presence with a bell or calls or clapping - the life you save will as likely be that of the animals that live there as it will be your own.
-If you are in Japan, become a member of Kumamori (Japanese only for now).
-If you are not in Japan, find another organization to support that protects wild ecosystems and their inhabitants.
-If you can’t resist sharing links to media about bears attacking humans, share a link to this post while you are at it.