When I first heard the story of the man killed by a female grizzly bear in Yellowstone Park this week, a question immediately popped into my head: was the man armed? After all, hiking in bear country without a gun is more than naive, it borders on suicidal. These are wild animals, not placid pets in some open-air zoo.
When hiking or camping in areas frequented by large, carnivorous animals, savvy outdoor enthusiasts nearly always have a gun. And they carry serious hardware, not the relatively anemic pistols used to defend against mere human predators - they know that a 9 millimeter Glock would likely only anger an 800 pound brown bear.
When I camped in Yellowstone some years ago I kept a Ruger Redhawk 44 Magnum close at hand. In Alaska, most people don't go out to their own mailbox, let alone go for a hike in the wilderness, without a large caliber firearm. Experienced Alaskan guides often carry a 12 gauge shotgun loaded with magnum slugs.
But this was Yellowstone after all - a national park. The very word "park" has a reassuring ring to it, and besides, most people who visit any facility run by the Federal government tend to trust that it will be safe. The media reporting of such events is no help either. Press reports contribute to a false sense of security by invariably downplaying the risk, claiming that such instances are "very rare," often even obliquely blaming the human victims:
Now, it is certainly true that we shouldn't blame the bears - these are wild animals, after all, doing what they have been doing for thousands, even millions, of years. One cannot "reason" with a grizzly bear, especially one protecting their young.
The real responsibility for such occurrences between people and animals rests primarily with a culture that has become so insulated from the harsh realities of the natural world that seemingly intelligent people seem to have lost any semblance of common sense. They act as if they believe that wild animals are just like they're portrayed in the "The Lion King" animated movie - all those lovable critters living in peaceful harmony. Kumbaya.
"Nature" shows aren't much better. On a typical National Geographic program, for instance, you will often see some guy standing barely twenty yards from a huge Black Rhino or a Cape Buffalo, whispering his excited commentary for the audience, with seemingly no regard for his personal safety. What you will not see is the man positioned discreetly behind the camera crew, with his 460 Weatherby Magnum big game rifle aimed directly at the animal, ready to do what is necessary should the beast suddenly decide to charge.
You didn't really think that the Discovery Channel would send out highly paid cameramen and crews with no protection at all, did you? But reality must take a back seat to fantasy - can't risk offending those more "sensitive" viewers by letting them catch a glimpse of a gun. So once again, the naked truth is camouflaged and sanitized, preventing the public from seeing nature as the genuinely dangerous place that it is, and what is required to deal with it.
Famous big game hunter and writer Robert Ruark was once asked, "Mr. Ruark, what's the secret to surviving in Africa?" In the terse style that was his trademark, he gave his now legendary reply:
"Bring enough gun."
Unfortunately, public policy is seldom created by people with Ruark's wisdom and experience. One example is that, for many years, firearms were prohibited in parks like Yellowstone. The result of such "politically correct" thinking is that the average park patron concludes that a gun must not be unnecessary. As a result, far too many people place themselves in dangerous situations without having any effective means of dealing with what should be a thoroughly predictable risk. And more than a few of them have been horribly mauled, and even killed.
Naturally, when advising people of steps they might take to protect themselves from bear attack, the "experts" recommend every tactic imaginable. Everything that is, except carrying a gun. Seems they just can't bring themselves to even mention the one thing that could actually make a difference in a worst case scenario:
When Timothy Treadwell, the "Grizzly Man," was killed in 2003 by a starving bear in Alaska, it was portrayed as a "tragedy" by the press. But Amie Huguegard, his girlfriend who was helping him on his research, was also killed - literally eaten alive by the same bear. But this was not a tragedy - it was an example of abject stupidity. It also illustrated Treadwell's flagrant disregard for the safety of the young woman who had placed her trust in him.
If Timothy Treadwell wanted to risk his own life by going unarmed in the presence of massive, powerful, wild animals, that was his prerogative. But when that young woman signed on to be his assistant, he had an obligation to do whatever was necessary to protect her life. And "bear spray" doesn't cut it - in Alaska, protection means a gun. A really big gun.
Because like it or not, in the real world, it is not just every individual's right to protect themselves and their loved ones - it is their responsibility. Whether hiking in the wilderness, or simply walking around the lake in some urban public park, expecting "the government" to keep you safe is not merely foolish - it is downright stupid.