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Is it wrong to connect with individual wild animals like 480 Otis? NPS/M. Fitz.

Is it wrong to connect with individual wild animals like 480 Otis? NPS/M. Fitz.

Why National Parks Can’t Ignore Individual Animals

By Katmai NP Ranger Mike Fitz

Individual animals are undoubtedly important to the public (just read about Cecil the Lion) and their stories can be a catalyst for change, but a recent Yellowstone Science article, I Am Not a Scientist, calls this a “myopia.” It describes how a focus on individual animals limits our ability to preserve wildlife populations. I wholeheartedly disagree. In contrast, I argue it is more difficult to know, understand, and appreciate wildlife populations without connecting to individual animals. Naming an animal, referring to its individuality, or connecting with it isn’t a weakness of the human condition or near-sighted. We must recognize the role of the individual in wildlife management, conservation, and especially in public appreciation.

Tracking the movements of individual animals forms the foundation of many modern wildlife population studies. The purpose of these studies is not to place the individual above the population or the ecosystem, but to learn what the individual can tell us about the population and the ecosystem. Not only is knowledge and recognition of individual animals important in scientific studies, but it is also extremely meaningful to non-scientists who want to appreciate and connect with the lives of animals.

I’ll admit my bias: I love to identify individual bears at Brooks River. Bears are smart, long-lived, and habitual. Even casual observers can distinguish individual bears through physical and behavioral characteristics. Through my work as an interpretive ranger at Brooks Camp at Katmai, I’ve used information from bear monitoring research and personal observations to understand and learn about bears. (I even wrote a book about it, Bears of Brooks River.) As a result, when I talk to the public about bears, I use my knowledge of individual bears to relate ideas about bear biology, ecology, and population dynamics. The toughness and resiliency of bears may seem detached, abstract, and distant without anecdotes about how a bear survived despite a broken jaw. Without the stories about and life histories of individual bears at Brooks River (some of which we see every year for their entire lives), then much of the information I interpret is less likely to resonate with the public. It is less likely to provide people with opportunities to make meaningful connections with wildlife and become advocates for wildlife populations.

If you have to refer to animal by name or number then so be it. Naming an animal is not myopic and it does not anthropomorphize it. Only the meanings and interpretations of the animal do that. (This is a topic I explored in a previous post, To Name Or Not To Name?) Individual stories and even names provide context and a chance for people to move from specific to broad concepts.

In late October 2015, a nine-month-old cub stumbled and collapsed in view of the webcams on Brooks River. For at least two days, it lay there, dying slowly (necropsy results determined it likely died from infectious canine hepatitis). People were understandably concerned for its welfare. The bearcam chat onexplore.org was filled with comments about the cub and its fate. The park received many questions asking how we would help it. Some people demanded we intervene (at one point I was called a “mouse” for not acting). Most, however, watched and conversed with us and other bearcam viewers. Through a variety of platforms, and especially by chatting in real time with webcam viewers on explore.org, we were largely successful in interpreting the situation and providing viewers with the information necessary to at least understand national park policy and why park staff chose not to interfere.

An ill cub lies on the ground while its mother and sibling sit nearby. People all over the world watched the cub with rapt attention.

An ill cub lies on the ground while its mother and sibling sit nearby. People all over the world watched the cub with rapt attention.

This situation allowed us to use the cub’s plight and the mother’s vigilance to interpret important aspects ofbear biology and behavior, whether or not bears experience emotions, and NPS policy. We had to focus on the cub’s story. To simply explain that Katmai’s bear population is large and healthy and the death of this cub doesn’t matter to the population would be insensitive and ignore the needs of webcam viewers.

In I Am Not A Scientist, Charissa Reid postulates that thinking of wild animals as individuals causes us to narrow our focus about what national parks are here to protect. In the same paragraph, P.J. White, a biologist at Yellowstone, suggests that visitors can give celebrity status to wild animals. White continues, “Though some argue this helps connect people with nature, it also creates unrealistic expectations and issues for managers tasked with sustaining viable populations of wildlife rather than a zoo-like atmosphere where beloved animals are guaranteed protection.” This doesn’t have to be the case. A “zoo-like atmosphere” is much more likely to manifest when wildlife managers, biologists, and interpreters neglect to engage the public in conversations about how individual animals provide context for the larger population.

I am not a scientist. I envy those in science and admire their attention to detail, creativity, and skills. My opinions, in no way, should be misconstrued for a lack of respect for scientists and science. However, do wildlife biologists and park managers not make meaningful connections with the wild animal they’ve studied? They’ve never been surprised or stunned by an animal’s skill or intelligence? They’ve never gleaned insight about a species’ survival instincts by observing an individual animal? They’ve never felt empathy for a suffering animal? Many, if not all, biologists and wildlife managers at national parks make connections with individual animals and that helps them better understand and appreciate wildlife. Why should the public be denied the same opportunities?

Failing to recognize the importance of individual animals in the public mind ignores the reality of human nature—we are more likely to connect to individuals than populations. Naming animals or referring to them individually is not myopic. Using an animal’s life history, characteristics, and behavior to relate information about populations and ecosystems is not wrong either. It is necessary.

  • http://www.maddenenterprises.net/ Maddog

    Well said Ranger Mike! Long Live Otis! and ALL MY BEARS at Brooks!

  • Deborah

    Nice essay Ranger Mike. Did the bears drawn on cave walls represent a single bear known to the hunters or did that bear represent all bears? We could argue either way because we know that in some cultures the bear was/is a powerful symbol with attributes humans value and even hope to share. Yet a drawing of a bear can also be for all bears- the world around us with everyone joined together to celebrate bears seen and unseen

  • mosaic_world

    thanks for a thoughtful article. I will need to read the Yellowstone article and reflect on both a little bit.

    I had a mini heart attack seeing Otis’ photo with the title b/c my immediate thought was to be worried something amiss had happened to him.

  • Sandra Brown

    Thank you, Ranger Mike, for a thoughtful, articulate article. I also agree fully and unless we connect in some way, on some level with nature and these animals entrusted to us, we won’t care whether they live or die. Forerunners who gave us insights into animal behavior like Jane Goodall, opened us doors for us we would never have known. And she had no trouble naming and relating to them while still doing research.

    On a personal note, my beautiful dog was diagnosed with cancer shortly before the cub became sick. I watched the sibling and mom care for and watch over the cub until its death as it coincided with my own dog’s fast death shortly after that . Both gave me so much insight into how animals live, die, grieve, love and eventually let go. It’s hard to explain, but it helped my own journey letting go of my own sweet dog. No, it’s not science, but we’re all connected, whether we give animals names or not.

    • mosaic_world

      sorry for your loss

  • debra turnbull

    Well done, Ranger Mike. When I first started watching the bears 3 years ago I was amazed at all the bears at Brooks Falls. What got me coming back more and more was the recognizing of individual bears. Because of that I learned a myriad of things I never would have learned otherwise. I learned all about salmon, seasons in Alaska,
    eagles, and most of all bears. I started watching the bears just out of curiosity, it was something different to do. Now I look forward to bear season every year and have learned so much about bears. All of this because I loved seeing the difference in individual bears. Thank you Ranger Mike, for all you have taught me.

  • lingo13

    I thank you for writing this. I have great admiration for all of the rangers of the world. My opinion is just mine, but I disagree with the concept of this post. I understand that the basic need for understanding in todays world is to save habitat for the animal to survive, but I do not like wild animals becoming so familiar either via a cam, zoo or any other way that they are now taking on “personalities” or being anthropomorphized. I find it kind of sad that as a human, as much as so called “they” say we are intelligent, I think we really are not. I think the Native Americans had it right…respect the animals that feed, clothe and shelter you. They respected the population, not the individual animal. Respectfully Lingo13

  • mosaic_world

    on reflection, I think one point that I agree with the Yellowstone story is that cute or celebrity animals do not deserve species preservation more than other animals. however, I think the weakness in that author’s logic is that it seems like scientist conservationists want to take away an anthropomorphic relationship to wildlife without any substitute. if there is a better way to understand conservation (species relationships and ecology), then scientists should share that in lay terms with people who are already interested and emotionally invested, and sometimes even financially invested in conservation efforts.

    I agree with Ranger Mike that it is natural for people to want to form relationships and emotional connections. I don’t think this prevents people from wanting to have a factual understanding of the animals they name and form attachments towards. I think if people cannot form an emotional connection, they will be far less likely to contribute towards conservation efforts (which gives pandas a definite advantage).

    I have the additional wish that people could somehow see wild animals in person. I watched the San Diego Zoo polar bears for months before visiting their exhibit (alas, I cannot afford to take the trip to Churchill and I will grant that captivity is a debatable topic separately). just seeing their amazing size gave me a different sense of these animals as not just cute pets but really a creature of awe. I wish for some way to be reminded of appreciating animals on their terms and not just on our terms (based on our values or convenience).

  • Ivymoss

    Love this story and I SO agree!

  • Debbie

    Very well written and “said”, RM. We thank all of you rangers for helping us understand the world of animals and nature. All of us are better humans for this opportunity.

  • Bearfootin

    Awsome article Ranger Mike. I am a Black Bear caretaker currently working (rehab) 8 bears to be released back into the wild. We have to be able to Identify them. Fish and Wildlife give them an eartag number we could call bear number #????
    Very hard when you have multiple bears. SO we name them for human identification they know no difference an makes no difference in there world, we keep them as wild as possible with limited human contact.
    How could anyone Identify all bears at Katmai by just numbers. I could go on an on. I really don’t think OTIS cares one way or another.
    I think it’s wonderful that the world gets to experience good, bad and sad raw real wildlife as it should be.

  • tigerliz

    Thankyou Ranger Mike Fitz for an interesting and informative article and Thanks to You and All the rangers who take care of the habitat and wildlife at Katmai. In a world where human life is cheap, suffering grows daily and there is a seeming never ending stream of violent crime and war; Katmai and places like this offer us much more than a look at the animals. Named, numbered it matters not one bit to me. The educational aspect of observing and understand our fellow creatures, bears or birds is worth its weight in gold and the commentary provided by the rangers is wonderful (and Free :). I have witnessed bear abandoned and felt sadness and then bear adopted and felt joy. To see chicks snatched from their nest was awful, but to see the ones fledged and flown is marvellous. Either way, joy or sorrow it is LIFE. My main point however is this. While the negative news focuses on death, doom and destruction, we can if we choose look to these sites. Look and see the hummingbird hatch, the mother bear fish with her cubs, the male bear stoically fish for hours on end. We can, if we Choose to, look at these marvellous creatures, doing what they do and Remember that while men kill each other, destroy people and property, This Also is Happening. Turn away from the doom and gloom and remind ourselves that this IS a Beautiful World, filled with miracles of life and wonder. And that this also is happening now. I often remind people that we can choose Peace, we can choose to look for the beauty, and we will find both. There is more in the world than senseless people with killing machines. There is great wonder in our world and from my animal brethren I learn a great deal and at times bow my head in respect of their intelligence and dignity. I will be forever grateful that I found this site and offer my sincere thanks to web cam operators, bloggers, rangers and all who help to bring these miracles of nature into our own lives.
    with my very best wishes to All xx

  • http://midwesttraininggroup.net Hotpeppergyrl aka Rose Iowa

    Thank you Ranger Mike for this informative article. I have the utmost respect for all Rangers and how much I have and will learn from watching out bears. I look forward to the up coming season with our bears qnd possible seeing everyone in person this year..
    The cams at Katmai are an important part of my life of enjoying wildlife, be it bears.. Moose.. Fox and every other animals that cross the cams.
    Thank you Rangers for what you all do..

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