Saturday, June 04, 2016


Human beings think with their bodies in very complex and mostly unconscious ways.  The most powerful mechanisms underlying rationality reach down to the cell level.  For instance, what the incredible neuroscience now possible can tell us.  This was in “Nature Communications":  “The scientists discovered two types of neurons that they found particularly interesting: one that tells the brain food is present, and one that tells the brain whether it’s hungry. But the brain seemed to tamp down the activity of those neurons when food was absent as a way of conserving energy.”  This study used snails after lettuce, but it certainly suggests interesting cellular and molecular workings that are probably also in humans.

Maybe explanations of animal perceptions seem to some people to suggest that humans are just animals, to diminish God’s participation in the world, making animals seem too much like machines.  But other people feel that animals ARE like machines and anything that makes them seem human-like interferes with decisions.  They should have no special status or fantasy souls.

Of all the groups trying to understand and resolve problems with grizzly bears, the ones I greet with the most skepticism are the humane societies because those are the groups I know best, having worked with them in the national urban context.  They are where the money is but where it goes not enough people “knows.”  It doesn’t go to the animals.  

Aside from supporting the institution -- as it raises more money to support the institution -- humane societies often become cults for individuals, some deserving and others not.  We used to joke that “Fund for Animals” was for just one animal: Cleveland Amory, their founder and leader until his death.  He insisted on only the best luxuries in his own life.  His family was privileged and he moved in the “highest” circles of society so it was his normal.  He loved sensational journalism and found vivid causes from wild burros to the Sea Shepherds.  His following and profits were huge.

From up close and personal, the Humane Society of the United States is a platform for a zealot with no limits, Wayne Pacelle.  He would not like you to realize how many humane societies there are, such as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals or the American Humane Association, which protects children as well as animals.  Investigate these people carefully before sending them money.  Local is better.  And realize that some animal control operations are more humane than the humane societies purport to be.

From one angle groups that address grizzlies use the same template as the humane societies formed for domestic animals, especially pets.  The ASPCA was founded by Henry Bergh responding to the abuse of work horses before there were automobiles.  Part of humane society work is teaching people what IS abuse of animals and part of it is responding to cruel and neglectful people.  It’s all about individuating the animals, so they have names and stories, and there are sentimental themes about adoption: “forever homes” and so on.  Some run shelters, some enforce laws on a contract basis for governmental bodies, and the Oregon Humane Society has a pet cemetery.

Bart and Doug Seuss

I’m not taking a moral point of view about cats or grizzlies or whatever. I just want to point out that dealing with the animals is quite different from dealing with their terrain, their habitat, but the latter may be more effective.  Vital Ground, which evolved out of the most personified of bears, Bart, keeps its dignity by making that choice.  Specifically, knowing the importance of large uninterrupted spaces of land in order to keep individual bears in breeding relationship to save the species, they locate and buy the little patches of land that interrupt free circulation of bears and help join adjacent parks, wildernesses, and protective private land.  

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society takes the same kind of focus, not for the individual bear, but for the species as an indicator of habitat ecology health and as an umbrella species.  Bears are at the top of the food chain and travel the farthest (close to wolves) so if something goes wrong with them, the whole webwork of life has got to have something wrong with it.   Bear troubles reflect problems with land status.

When dealing with bears as individuals, one enters some powerful behavior loops wired into every mammal from the beginning.  I’m talking about sex, death, conflict, food, protecting babies (all species), agony and attachment.  (Some people are powerfully attached to agony, which seems counter-intuitive but is well-documented.)  These elemental triggers are survival level.

The Oregon Humane Society in Portland is independent of government though they once had the contract to enforce leash law, license dogs (dog licensing is a form of rabies control), and respond to cruelty.  Two women at OHS did their public relations and the three of us were friends, often lunching together to swap ideas.  I’d be the only one in uniform.  Zizi (her real name) was a classic movie star blonde, competent and socially prominent.  You know how much movie stars and their pets go together.  (I’m including Trigger and Silver: cowboys love their horses.)  My bosses (not Mike Burgwin but the management higher up) so badly wanted me to be like Zizi, because they figured that would distract the public and glamorize their own image by association.  They were right.  But I’m not the type.

There was a second woman, smaller, darker, and far more shadowed.  Her private life was dramatic, all about abusive men.  She often had bruises.  When she was trusting, she spoke about the ecstatic bond of violence and said she envied the antelope its intense final moments in the jaws of a leopard clamped on its throat.  Most people react with repugnance and turn away, so we never really learn about it or how much it is part of being human.  The paleo-pushers tend to stick to diet.  

Prostitutes (especially the children who do survival sexwork) know that abuse, even to the point of death, is often part of a “sexual” transaction.  Cops and social workers know how addictive are the molecular circuits energized by danger and the fantasy of finally being redeemed by love.  You could call it Timothy Treadwell syndrome.

Empathy with near-death of the helpless, whether victims of ebola, a refugee child drowned, a child being dragged around a gorilla enclosure, or a tortured puppy, makes us want to see and participate second-hand.  Part of it is wanting to the rescuer and part of it is a kind of affiliation with an overwhelming, uncontrollable force.  Charismatic megamammals with names and stories grab us physically, not with muscles but with molecular surges we call emotion.  Adrenaline, serotonin, auto-highs.  We are far more likely to write checks and make laws about such climax events than we are to spend the same amounts on habitat or land protection or even practical defence measures like electric fences.

The current investigators and protectors who work against the abuse of humans tell us that one in six men has been sexually attacked as a child.  The figures on women are only slightly different.  Consequences to the kind of people who form our culture, our choices and assumptions, are sublimated into how we relate to animals, most of it deeply unconscious.  

If you can tap into some of that — say “Bambi” or “The Biography of a Grizzly” or “Black Beauty” — you’ll have a powerful public response, maybe worth a lot of money.  Rational logic has nothing to do with it.  “Finding Nemo” is another example, even though it was a cartoon.  When people told me they loved the movie, I’d ask them how a child/fish whose mother died, who couldn’t find home, who was always in danger, who was finally trapped by the ultimate threat — a dentist! —could be appealing to watch.  Their eyes would wiggle back and forth in that “tell” meaning “this does not compute.”  Brain-blank.

The same dynamics apply strongly to bears, who are often presented as cubs.  Bears as maternal, bears as monsters, bears as mysterious sleepers, bears as lovers, humans that cross the species barrier, humans who mother cubs, dictators who bare-chested ride flying brown bears — this is all the stuff of myth and emotion. 

Putin knows the Russian love of bears.

It would be stupid to try to suppress or discount such ineffable but gripping mythic dimensions of being human.  But it is smart to ADD the rational, the logical, the research-based knowledge that can keep the balance and prevent deaths.

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