Chris Pecora

Bears and Brains

Smarter humans needed.

By Kevin Van Tighem

Winston Churchill said “History is written by the victors.” In other words, consider the source before believing an assertion. Another example of “he who holds the pen” relates to intelligence. For centuries the prevailing view was that humans are the only intelligent species. All other creatures rely on instinct and habit. But of course, when humans assert our monopoly on intelligence, there’s a fairly huge conflict of interest involved. Self-interest dictates that intelligence has to look like what our brains do.

How do we recognize intelligence? The Cambridge English Dictionary defines it as “the ability to learn, understand and make judgments or have opinions that are based on reason.” That’s a definition created for humans, by humans. According to us, intelligence is an attribute that only evolved when our predecessors came down out of the trees and starting dodging big carnivores.

My first encounter with Bear 64, several years ago in Banff, got me seriously questioning whether humans have a monopoly on intelligence.

Like bears. Bear 64, for example—a grizzly who lived near the town of Banff for 24 years before disappearing about three years ago. She raised at least two sets of cubs in the most crowded corner of Banff National Park. All her cubs ultimately died unnatural deaths because the lower Bow valley is a tough place for a bear. There’s lots of natural food there, but the area is a jumble of roads, a railway, parking lots, ski resorts and a major town. A bear can find many ways to get into trouble.

Or to avoid trouble. Indeed, my first encounter with Bear 64, several years ago, got me seriously questioning whether humans have a monopoly on intelligence.

It was a spring morning at the western entrance to the town of Banff. As usual the place was crawling with motorized tourists. Bear 64 emerged from the woods east of the Norquay road, two half-grown cubs in tow, and paused at the edge of the road clearing. She evidently wanted to take her cubs west, across the road, into the rich forage of the Vermilion Lake wetlands.

As she tested the air and studied the situation, cars began to stop. She glanced at each car briefly, but the stationary vehicles were of little interest. She was more interested in figuring out how to get her cubs safely across the road without colliding with a moving car.

Doors began to open. People with cellphones jostled to the edge of the asphalt. As the crowd grew, muttered exclamations of excitement grew to a happy babble. Bear 64’s cubs, evidently more interested in play and food than in the growing herd of intelligent humans beginning to hem them in, wandered about as if nothing unusual were happening. I could see that their mom was getting a bit stressed as she tried to keep an eye on them and at the same time figure out her options in an increasingly chaotic scene.

She looked right, left, back, forward—and finally made up her mind. Carefully avoiding eye contact with any of the excited paparazzi, she gathered her cubs behind her and stepped up onto the pavement. The nearest people snapped hasty pictures and retreated, some running, to stand by their vehicles. Others who had been hastening across the road paused and stared in sudden fear.

Bear 64 ushered her cubs through the last remaining gap among the cars, veered left to avoid some people emerging from behind a camper, and walked calmly down into the safety of the forest.

Once again, as she had done pretty much every day of her long life, she had used her learning to understand a situation and make a rational judgment about how to deal with it. Her intelligence had kept her and her cubs alive for another day.

Watching the behaviour of the humans, however, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a conversation I once had with a Waterton-area rancher. He said that for many years the prevalent view among his neighbours was that there was no point putting cattle up the Front Range canyons, because too many would get killed by grizzlies. “When we started putting cow–calf pairs up there instead of yearlings,” he said, “the loss rate dropped right off.”

Yearling cattle aren’t particularly bright when it comes to bears. When seeing something new, they often crowd in for a closer look, almost like they’re tempting fate. When surrounded by others they lose any vestige of intelligence and react instinctively, like a dumb mob.

I’d just watched a crowd of so-called intelligent humans act like yearling cattle, just as they too often do when a bear appears on a roadside. Bear 64 was the only one there who demonstrated intelligence. But she, and all her offspring, are gone today.

Bears are intelligent, but their survival requires us to be as smart as we profess to be.

Kevin Van Tighem’s latest book, Our Place: Changing the Nature of Alberta, was released in spring 2017 by RMB.




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