[Editor’s note: The following essay was written as a eulogy for the Black Bear Memorial Service held in Lake Eola Park, Orlando, on November 1, 2015. Far too long for delivery there, it is offered here for the consideration of those who attended and those who could not. Comments inconsistent with the spirit of the eulogy will not be approved.]
A Conversation with the Bears
Many of my fellow humans would ridicule the idea of conversing with the bears. What makes you think, they would ask, that such a thing is possible? Why would you even want to?
I do not know that such a thing is possible. But I do know that I must try. For I have things I wish to say to them, and I am sure they have things they wish to say to us – if only we would listen.
Many humans believe that we should not attribute to animals the qualities that we have long presumed make us unique and superior – qualities like consciousness, sentience, and the ability to feel emotions.
They continue to believe this even though our best science increasingly proves that these presumptions are false.
Every day brings new realizations that animals we have considered primitive are capable of feeling pain. For large mammals like the black bear, it is incontestable that they are aware of themselves, their surroundings, and one another; that they feel emotions in much the same way that we do – emotions like grief, fear, and empathy; and that their lives matter to them.
In some of the world’s more advanced jurisdictions – places like New Zealand and Quebec – the profound implications of this science have begun to find expression in human legislative codes. For some reason, however, in the State of Florida, the “science-based” policies of human wildlife “managers” continue to treat wild animals as little more than an exotic recipe item for overfed consumers or as decorations for human homes – just another commodity to be exploited in the maximization of human pleasure.
Many humans believe that a Supreme Being gave them dominion over the Earth and every creature that lives upon it. They interpret this as a license to do as they please, without compunction, remorse, or fear of consequences spiritual or temporal.
But having just witnessed the manner in which some of my fellow humans deal with animals, I refuse to believe that any Divine Creator could ever countenance a wanton slaughter of some of his most splendid creations. In a State with the motto, “In God We Trust,” what we have just witnessed was nothing less than a desecration.
These combined attitudes of human superiority have brought our planet to a desperate crisis. We are in the midst of a great extinction event, losing other forms of life at frightening rates while impoverishing many of our own. Our oceans are polluted and dying. We are running out of clean water to drink. Our climate is becoming unpredictable and dangerous. Yet human authorities tell us that our wild animals – who have done nothing to cause these crises – are the ones who must be “managed.”
Hundreds of years ago, the men who lived on this land did not consider themselves superior to the rest of nature. They believed they were a part of it, and they acted accordingly. They believed that all life was connected – that they could speak with it, and that it spoke to them.
It is in the spirit of these men – long ago displaced by the same forces of greed and ambition that are destroying life on this Earth – that I wish to converse with you, the bears – my neighbors.
One week ago, a great crime was committed against you.
There are no words, and no actions, that can ever compensate you for your loss. Human concepts of justice or even of retribution can never erase your pain and suffering. Impeaching the Governor of the State of Florida, firing the appointed members of the Fish and Wildlife “Conservation” Commission, permanently revoking the hunting licenses of those who murdered your mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters – none of these things, or even more drastic measures, can restore your lives, reunite your families, or make the Forest whole again.
Even though this can be of no consolation to you, I need to tell you how this crime felt to me, and to many of those here with me today. It felt as if cold-hearted killers broke into our homes, strapped us helplessly to a chair, and forced us to watch as they shot our companion animals, slit open their warm, soft bellies with sharp knives, emptied their guts onto the floor of our living rooms, and then strung them up to see which one of them had done the best job of killing.
We knew in advance that this crime was about to be committed. We warned our fellow men and appealed to the human authorities to intervene and protect the lives of the animals we love. But instead of preventing the crime, they sold our animals to the killers – our animals, who were not theirs to sell – and came to our homes to cheer the killers on. When the deed was done, they warmly congratulated the killers and sent them on their way with a hearty slap on the back. Then they drove off in the expensive vehicles we bought for them, emblazoned with the words, “Patrol. Protect. Preserve.”
In public forums before the governing human authorities, the killers were welcomed, and provided with a platform from which they exhorted us to “respect authority.”
But now, let me try to listen to you.
What must you have thought, what must you have felt, when the humans unleashed their surprise attack upon you? You had been safe in your Forest home all your life; you had little to fear from any of the creatures who came into your home, including the men who imagined it to be theirs alone.
When you heard that first shot, followed by a cry from your brother – an intense cry you had never heard before, but which you somehow understood on an instinctive level – did your fear allow you any moments to question what was happening?
Why are they doing this? What do they want? What did we do that was so terrible as to warrant such a vicious, large-scale attack?
Have we killed any of them? Have we destroyed any of their major food sources? Have we burned down their houses and left them homeless refugees in their land? Have we driven metal monsters through their living rooms, killing and crippling anything that stood in our path?
Have we soiled the pristine waters of the springs with our effluent? Have we buried alive countless gopher tortoises under concrete tombs? Have we imported exotic animals and plants that do not belong here and which wreak havoc on our native species? Have we consumed so much water that there will be nothing to drink within the next two decades? Have we filled the Gulf of Mexico with oil and chemical dispersants, poisoning an entire food chain? Have we destroyed half the Everglades – that amazing River of Grass – by arrogantly imposing our designs on an ecosystem we did not understand?
What, exactly, did we do?
And what is wrong with these men?
They say that they respect the right to life, but they “harvest” us like sacks of potatoes. They say they are “conservative,” but instead of conserving the Forest they attack it, burn it, and convert it into sterile monocultures and plywood castles. They say there are too many of us, when we number only a few thousand, and they number in the millions. They say that some of us are a “nuisance,” yet they continue to leave food for us in their neighborhoods, inviting us in. They talk about taking responsibility for one’s condition in life, but they punish us for all the problems they have caused.
These creatures make no sense to us.
Your confusion is understandable. These men only make sense in a world that is not governed by principles of equity or enlightened intelligence.
We can tell from their actions – which say far more than their words – that they do not value life. They do not value the land, the air, or the oceans. They do not value this Earth and they do not value the future.
Instead of these tangible, life-supporting, and wonderful aspects of existence, they value numbers on spreadsheets, special pieces of paper, and opportunities to dominate others of their kind and the world around them.
So to you, the bears – my neighbors – I make this promise today. Those of us who bore witness to the slaughter of your families – those of us whose appeals to human authorities were denied – we will never forget the crime that was committed against you. We will resist the evil that has seized the souls of the men who control this State. We will be with you in body and in spirit. And eventually, when enough other humans have come to their senses, the men (and women) who declared war against you will be held to account.
I pray that somehow you will hear me: That those of you who are still breathing the same air as me, walking upon the same ground as me, and feeling the warmth from the same sun, are connected to me, even though you do not use human modes of communication.
And I pray that those of you who were taken from this land we share – this land that sustains us all, bear and human alike – that somehow the energy that animated your magnificent bodies remains part of our mysterious universe, monitoring the fate of your brethren, and waiting, perhaps, to roam through the Forest once again.