Monday, December 29, 2014

Killing the bear - killing hope

"The Bears' Famous Invasion of Sicily" is a story for children written by the Italian poet and novelist Dino Buzzati. It tells of how the bears came down from their mountains, defeated humans, and took over the government to create a society in which humans and bears live together in harmony. It is, of course, a fairy tale and some recent events in the Trentino region, in Italy, show how difficult it is for humans and bears to live together in harmony. And this is bad both for bears and for humans.

There have been many shocking events in this eventful 2014, but the one that shocked me most took place in the Northern Italian region of Trentino, where a wild female bear named "Daniza" was hunted and killed in the name of security for the tourists of the region. A minor story, for sure, but one that explains a lot about the behavior of humans and the problems we have when we try to manage our wold.

The story started this August in Trentino, when someone named Daniele Maturi stumbled into a wild female bear (known to humans as "Daniza") and her two cubs while searching for mushrooms in the woods. According to Mr. Maturi's own narration, he remained there to "observe the bears" instead of retreating as quickly and quietly as possible. The bear reacted attacking him, wounding him slightly, before retreating into the deep forest with her cubs. This generated a widespread public outcry, with calls for the elimination of the "dangerous animal," until Daniza was hunted down and killed by an overdose of anesthetic. Officially, it was a mistake, but more likely it was the result of the age-old attitude that says that "the only good X is dead X", where X can be Indian, bear, or anything deemed to be not human, or not human enough. In the end, Daniza's cubs may not be able to survive after the killing of their mother, but human cubs will be able to walk in a sanitized and safe forest where they won't risk to be attacked by anything larger and more dangerous than a squirrel. 

This sad story casts much light on the attitude of people in Italy about bears and about wilderness in general. It appears that in Trentino there exists a lively "anti-bear" movement - mainly organized by the Northern League -  which, among other actions, had organized a dinner based on bear meat in 2011 intended to demonstrate what, in their opinion, was to be done with the wild bears of the forest. After that the story told by Mr. Maturi appeared on newspapers, hotel owners reported that many of their customers had canceled their reservations, out of fear of the wild bears. From the debate on the press and on the web, it appears that quite a number of people were genuinely concerned that their children could be devoured by wild bears if  they were to take a walk in the parks of the Trentino region.

On the other side of the debate, Daniza was praised for her restraint in not having killed the human intruder, when she could have easily done so. Mr. Maturi, instead, was insulted and vilified in all possible ways because of his idiocy in not leaving in peace a female bear with her cubs. He was also accused of being part of a conspiracy designed to cast bears in a bad light and favor their elimination from the forests of Trentino (the latter accusation automatically implies the former).

Most of the debate seems to have missed the fundamental point of this story, which is that both humans and bears simply acted according to their genetic set-up and, probably, couldn't have behaved otherwise. We cannot exclude that Daniza the bear was intelligent enough to choose not to kill Mr. Maturi to avoid angering humans too much. But, most likely, she simply behaved according to the way female bears have always behaved: aggressively defending their cubs against all perceived. On the other side, Mr. Maturi, politicians, and most people, simply behaved according to the way human beings have always behaved; exploiting everything they perceive as a "resource" and aggressively eliminating anything they see as an obstacle. Countries other than Italy may have a less nasty attitude toward wild bears but, everywhere, if wilderness is an obstacle to profit, wilderness always loses. 

To an IQ test, most human beings (possibly including also Mr. Maturi) will score better than most bears. But, if human beings are individually smarter than bears (at least in their ability to manipulate abstract symbols), that doesn't mean that they are smarter than bears as a species. They way they behave, actually, shows no signs of intelligence as they are simply marching straight on, ruthlessly stomping over everything they see as stopping them in their path. It is our destiny as human beings to destroy what keeps us alive; but, in the end, it is unavoidable: it is what we are. Could we change for the better in the future? Probably not: killing the bear has killed the hope for that. The bell for Daniza is ringing for us.

BTW - one result of the Daniza story was a nation-wide call on boycotting the Trentino region. You might consider that: perhaps not all hope is lost.. 


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)