Smart beasts

This week, our columnist Rob Brown talks big brained mammals

We are fascinated with and biased toward big brained mammals. Proof of this is provided by the growing interest in whale watching, now a significant part of the tourist industry. This human interest explains why when the movie “The Cove” revealed the barbarity of Japanese dolphin fishers, the horror of it catalyzed international outrage.

Most of the so called civilized world watched in fascination as Jane Goodall delved deeper and deeper into the ways of the wild chimpanzees of Tanzania, learning much about them and much about us over a 40-year span. We were horrified when Dian Fossey, another of Louis Leakey’s proteges, was brutally murdered by poachers who resented the fact that she was alerting the rest of the world to their cruel illicit trade in gorilla parts.

We simply could not get our heads around the barbarity of men who could heartlessly slaughter these great sentient creatures to sell their genitals to oriental apothecaries whose customers mistakenly thought ingesting them in powdered form would somehow increase their sexual potency.

What kind of vile person would be capable killing a gorilla to so that its paw might be made into an ashtray? Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas, Leakey’s Angels as they came to be known, had shown us that chimps, gorillas, and orang-utans were more intelligent than we thought, and were capable of profound emotions. They helped us understand that the great apes were a lot more like us than we thought. This wasn’t hunting. It wasn’t hunting wildlife. It was more than killing. It was murder.

These primates had the misfortune of living in parts of Africa and Asia inhabited by some whose general ignorance leads them to commit barbarous deeds. It’s true that the apes that in North American Zoos lead something less than a splendid existence. We are justifiably shocked by the rough treatment given the great apes of Africa. We’d like to think that if those intelligent creatures inhabited our forests they’d be spared such brutish treatment. But, would they really? Is there a great a difference in wildlife management between Terrace and Tanzania?

Giant, extremely intelligent creatures do inhabit our forests. They are called bears. If you think a bear is just a big lumbering creature with limited intelligence, think again. Remember those circus bears – the ones trained to ride bikes roller skate, play musical instruments. These are complex tasks requiring a high level of intelligence and cognitive ability. No other animal, other than simians, can master them.

While working to rehabilitate zoo bears, noted bear behaviourist, Else Poulsen, reported that she watched in amazement as a female grizzly ran her paws over herself in a washing motion to indicate that she wanted a bath and used her nose to point to the part of her body that she wanted washed. Poulsen frequently observed bears pointing to the affected part of their bodies with their noses then biting down on their down on their paws to indicate pain. In  one surprising instance, Poulsen saw a young bear make the same gesture to indicate emotional pain when it was shunned by a pair of older bears.

Stephen Herrero, whose book Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, writes of a radio collared black bear that was being tracked simultaneously by a researcher on foot and the scientist’s father in a plane overhead. After it had built several nests in different locations, crossed a stream, backtracked some 50 yards, then slipped into some dense brush, without eluding its tracker, the bear then carefully walked over a snow field atop rocks that had appeared as the snow melted in the heat of the sun during the course of the day.

Two years ago a large black bear, attracted by the garbage and neighbourhood apples had made several appearances in the neighbourhood. Someone had called the Conservation Officers. Officer Kluivers drove up. I persuaded him to hang a sign at the end of the road. He returned later with a trap. In it he put rotting meat and garbage. That evening the bear appeared. As I watched from my living room window, he took a turn around the cage. Then he stood up on his hind legs, shook the trap defiantly, insulted, it seemed, that anyone would expect him to fall for such an obvious ruse. The door slammed shut and he ambled off.

Bears use tools. They scratch themselves with branches. Polar bears have been seen bludgeoning walruses with chunks of ice.

Ursinologists, scientists who study bears, tell us that bears play. The express a range of emotions, exhibit behaviours akin to altruism, and demonstrate self awareness. They are smarter that your dog and probably more intelligent than a three year old kid. They are easily as intelligent and perceptive as the great apes.

Our government allows men to kill them for money, for fun, and for their fur.

More next week…stay tuned.