Navigating the Anthropocene: embracing compassion and empathy for the grizzly bears in the age of uncertainty and unpredictability

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‘Super, Natural British Columbia’

I once watched a mother bear with her two cubs. She was resting but carefully watching the little ones chasing each other in the grass, wrestling and rolling down the little hill, and then climbing back and wrestling again. Then the cubs decided that it was time for their mom to get involved in the play. They ran back to her and pounced on her a few times until she nudged them away with her snout. One cub stood up but couldn’t keep his balance and fell down to the side, sliding down the little hill. The mom got up, walked over, and licked the cub reassuring him that all is well in this world.

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I wanted this moment to last forever. I felt joy fill up my heart and pass through my body. I felt happy that I was alive and privileged to share this unique moment with another species. And I wondered: in how many places in the world can people still see such wildness and participate so closely in the life of these majestic creatures — so easily, so often?

The immense natural beauty of Canada. This is the image sent to the world by our government: we are proud to promote images of the calm oceans, mountain ranges with glaciers, rivers and waterfalls. “Big and beautiful”, “laid back” voices say over a promotional video. “You gotta be here”. “You gotta be here” because it is the last of the wild where you can “perch in an elevated viewing platform and witness grizzly bears pouncing on and devouring spawning salmon.” People come because they want to experience moments of connectedness with true wildness and wild animals that they can no longer enjoy in their own countries. Many of them, especially Europeans, know what they have lost and that it’s too late to bring it back. But, at least, they believe, there is still British Columbia with its true wilderness, a home to grizzlies, wolves, moose, elk and many other animals. It is ‘Super, Natural British Columbia’.

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There is a different reality, however. The reality that is not seen in the skillfully produced promotional videos in TV ads and B.C. tourism websites. An image of a dead grizzly bear with his head aiming toward the camera, supported by a carefully positioned log for a better impression, his hooked claws extended to the sides. Grinning hunters squat behind the bear’s shoulders with their rifles pointing skyward…Why don’t we promote this image? Why are we hiding it? Is this not a part of our ‘Super, Natural British Columbia’?

Current approach to wildlife management

Aldo Leopold, in 1933, first described wildlife management as “the art of making land produce sustained annual crops of wild game for recreational use.” [1] But after shooting a wolf and watching “a fierce green fire dying in her eyes” [2], he realized how wrong he was about this utilitarian approach to wildlife management. Leopold’s views changed dramatically over his lifetime, but we still largely follow the approach to conservation he first put forth. The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, first articulated in 2001 by the Wildlife Society and revisited in 2012, is the best reflection of it. It is a set of principles that has guided wildlife management and conservation policies in the United States and Canada over the past decade [3].

The legacy of Leopold’s early views is clearly evident in the model. It still uses words like ‘harvest’ when referring to wildlife. It calls for ‘harvest management’ or ‘furbearer harvest’. These agricultural metaphors continue to inform our practices, turning wildlife management into a purely scientific endeavour that is morally neutral and devoid of concern for the suffering and pain of ‘managed’ animals. Moreover, in spite of being formally articulated in recent years, the premises of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation go back to the 19th century. It was then when hunters, like Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, started to advocate for preservation of wildlife and wild areas in the face of diminishing wildlife populations due to commercial hunting and habitat loss. Similarly, the developers of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation continue to portray recreational hunters as saviours of wildlife and principal actors behind our wildlife conservation efforts.

Increasingly, however, the current model of wildlife management has been coming under criticism[4]. Firstly, by focusing on hunters as the main actors in enacting conservation policies, the model fails to acknowledge a more recent reshaping of the conservation movement. Some researchers, including Canadian environmental scientist Paul Paquet, argue that since the 1960s the whole environmental movement — and with it, wildlife conservation — has been largely shaped by non-hunters and nature enthusiasts — groups that the North American Model disregards. Furthermore, the original model fails on ethical grounds. For example, the interests of hunters who are focused on the management of ungulates for hunting purposes are often in conflict with conservation principles that recognize the ecological role of predators. This model also implicitly rests on the principle that past behaviours represent an appropriate justification for future behaviours. But as critics rightly point out, this is as fallacious as saying that slave labour and gender discrimination should continue because such practices are part of our history.

Overall, therefore, the principles and language used in the North American Model represent the beliefs and attitudes of a bygone era. We no longer live in the 19th or even the 20th century. As Peterson and Nelson conclude — in a thorough critical review of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation — “hunting has little to do with management or conservation of most wildlife species in the 21st century.” [5] True, indeed. Wildlife is not a ‘cultivated crop’ destined to be reaped and gathered when the right time comes. Harvesting of animals has nothing in common with the image of a farmer mowing the hay and turning it into bales. It has nothing to do with picking up grapes and turning them into wine. It has nothing to do with nurturing the land — plowing, planting, weeding and watering — and then watching the efforts of this hard work bear fruit. No, every single animal is a living, breathing creature that has the same right to live as you and I.

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Role of emotions in wildlife conservation

Is being emotional about the fate of animals foolishly unscientific? Is it merely an emotional outburst to say that grizzlies have a right “to exist” beyond their usefulness as a natural resource to be ‘harvested’ for a trophy? Many of those who are pro-hunting tell us that we should set emotions aside and focus solely on science and facts; they argue that we should be rational and dispassionate. But as a world-renown scientist Antonio Damasio has demonstrated, emotions and feelings play an important role in decision-making [6]. They are not in opposition to reason but provide essential support to the reasoning process. Without emotions we can’t reason and make decisions and, thus, fully function in the world. Damasio makes a distinction between various types of emotions, yet he indicates that adult emotions are derived from our experience and acquired knowledge. Consequently, when we talk in an ‘emotional’ way about the need for compassion and empathy for grizzlies, our emotions are an expression of an actual knowledge. We are emotional about these animals because we know — we have an intuitive knowledge — that they suffer and experience joy just as we do.

Importantly, this intuitive knowledge that constitutes a basis for our emotional attitudes towards animals finds substantiation in the current research in animal cognition. Indeed, a growing body of scientific evidence -put forward by internationally recognized evolutionary biologists, wildlife ecologists, primatologists, neuroscientists, and naturalists, including Mark Bekoff, Carl Safina, Frank de Waal and Charlie Russell - shows that animals have rich and complex emotional lives. Many of these findings are based on long-term field observations rather than lab experiments that isolate animals from their environment and expect them to behave ‘naturally’. Other studies employ the latest advances in neuroimaging technology that demonstrate that the same neural mechanisms are at work in animals and humans. Animals, like us, are thus capable of suffering as well as showing empathy and compassion. They experience happiness, sadness, hope, fear, and grief. This knowledge is nothing new, of course. It was Darwin who challenged the way we think about other animals and stressed that the difference between humans and non-human animals is one of degree rather than kind [7]. As Carl Safina, a biologist whose work has been recognized with MacArthur, Pew, and Guggenheim Fellowships, says: “Fear, aggression, well-being, anxiety, and pleasure are the emotions of shared brain structures and shared chemistries, originated in shared ancestry. They are the shared feelings of a shared world.” [8]

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In the context of these research findings, the supposedly ‘unscientific,’ emotionally-driven view of animals attains a very sound scientific foundation. We are and we should be emotional about animals because our emotions intuitively reveal our deeply-rooted knowledge that animals are sentient beings who suffer and experience joy as we do. That the latest science confirms this assertion is both a proof of the richness of animals’ inner lives and a vindication of our deep emotional appreciation of other beings. Ironically, the attempts by government’s and pro-hunting groups to paint the public’s emotional arguments in relation to animal welfare as unscientific are, on their own, blatantly unscientific — a denial of science at its most fundamental level.

A denial of science about animal emotions

The denial of the latest science is an act of convenience and self-interest. By rejecting emotions, pro-hunting groups and the government turn grizzlies into numbers that can be manipulated by statistical models. Moreover, the demonization of grizzlies - by groups such as B.C. Guide Outfitters - as ‘cannibalistic mature grizzly boars’ who are “the greatest natural threat to a juvenile grizzly’ has an implicit goal of presenting hunters as saviours of people, vulnerable wildlife and even bears themselves…Really? If these mature grizzlies were so harmful to the viability of the grizzly population, natural selection would have weeded them out a long time ago. Well, it didn’t happen. The grizzlies had been doing just fine for thousands of years before we entered their world and started to ‘manage’ their populations and habitats. We are not ‘saving’ grizzlies by killing big males for trophies. On the contrary, older and larger males, in particular, are selected by females for mating and are extremely important from an ecological point of view. But this is almost beyond the point. From a moral standpoint, the science of wildlife ‘management’ has to recognize that animals have emotions, and big male grizzlies have an inalienable right to live that transcends any cold-hearted management principles.

There are ethical arguments because ethical concerns must be embraced by the government and inform its actions. They will help in steering wildlife policies in the direction of non-lethal appreciation of grizzly bears and away from ‘managing’ them for the benefit of the few.

We have to start listening to bear experts like Charlie Russell who has spent his whole adult life observing and living with grizzlies, and who can testify to their intelligence, vulnerabilities, predictability of their behaviour and to the uniqueness of their personalities. He demonstrated that grizzlies could be trusted, if we were only willing to build a relationship with them that was based on understanding and appreciation [9]. We have to stop portraying grizzlies as voracious, dangerous beasts and learn to respect them, instead. These are majestic creatures: funny, playful, and curious. Grizzlies have a right to live and experience joy and sadness as we all do. And, certainty, they have a right not to be turned into disposable trophies.

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Humanity at the new juncture of uncertainty and unpredictability

Protecting wildlife has been a complicated endeavour, especially as the human population grows and demands for resources and space increase. Today, humanity is at a juncture where, more than ever, we have to rethink our relationship with nature. Just recently, the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG), an organization comprised of scientists from all over the world, has officially acknowledged that our actions have had an impact profound enough on the Earth’s systems to have tipped us over into another geological epoch, the Anthropocene or the Age of Humans [10]. They decided that the current epoch of the Holocene is no longer an adequate reflection of the highly unpredictable and human-driven social-ecological reality. Therefore, in the context of the Anthropocene era characterized by rising seas, heat waves, shrinking wild areas and mounting extinctions, the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation based on its outdated principles is particularly ill-suited to meet future challenges.

We are bound to face an unprecedented set of challenges; social-ecological systems will continue to be governed by a great level of uncertainty and unpredictability. We are entering the era when, as scientists say, we have to “expect the unexpected.” [11, 12] In other words, we have to expect what is not clearly predicted to happen. The collapse of Newfoundland’s cod fishery in the 1990s was one of these big surprises. It happened in spite of the implementation of the fisheries management strategies based on Maximum Sustainable Yield. The best available science turned out to be inadequate to prevent the collapse that was likely caused by the unpredictable combination of ecological, political and economic factors.

Nowadays, scientists claim that they know better and that we have improved population models to manage our marine wildlife. The same claims are propagated about the management of the grizzly population. This is, of course, misguided optimism. The reality remains stubbornly the same; we are still dealing with dynamic social-ecological systems characterized by uncertainty, surprise and complexity, regardless whether this is a marine or terrestrial ecosystem. No population models can take into account all possible variables that influence the grizzly bear population and predict a clear outcome. We have to deal with factors such as habitat fragmentation and fluctuating food supplies as well as poaching, accidents, and ‘nuisance’ kills. For example, a recent study in Elk Valley in British Columbia’s East Kootenay showed an unexpected 40 per cent decrease in the grizzly population due to human-caused deaths, mainly from car and train collisions [13]. Such findings reinforce the argument that we know very little about what’s happening to the grizzly bear population in our province. Furthermore, what we know today based on incomplete data may not mean much in the very near future. Ecological and social factors interact at various levels and intensities and might be further influenced in an unpredictable manner by climate and land use change. Adding hunting to this already fragile environment can push the grizzly bear population over the threshold and toward extinction. Which is ironic because the one thing scientists know for certain is that they don’t know where this threshold lies.

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Importantly, however, we have been repeatedly warned that we might be approaching such a threshold. The red flag was raised when grizzly bears were listed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) as a species of Special Concern [14]. Unfortunately, this clear warning has been disregarded by our government. Not only did the government fail to respond to COSEWIC’s warning and its recommendation to give the grizzly a higher status of protection under the Species at Risk Act, but it has allowed for the slaughter of grizzlies to continue, using the scientifically-flawed ‘sustainability’ argument as a justification.

Compassionate Conservation

Realizing that we live in the era where abrupt changes in the structure and function of social and ecological systems are a rule rather than an exception and accepting the undeniable fact that animals are sentient beings that deserve our protection will be crucial for the successful navigation of the Anthropocene. We have to approach current social and ecological challenges with a different mindset and be ready for a profound redefining of our actions and behaviours. We are already undermining our life support system. Scientists warn us that we have pushed our planetary boundaries of climate change, biological integrity, land use systems and biochemical cycles into a ‘danger zone’ where we face a risk of “irreversible and abrupt environmental change.” [15] Our prerogative should be, therefore, not to repeat the past mistakes but to learn from them and prevent further harm to our ecological systems. This includes a greater respect and appreciation for other living creatures. As we enter the new epoch and are exposed to the growing body of knowledge about the wonders of animal life, we have to start healing the wounds we have inflicted upon this planet and our co-habitants. Indeed, we have no moral right to make an individual grizzly bear pay with its life for the so-called protection of its species, only because we have put this species on the edge of extinction with our own actions. Killing for the sake of conservation has no place in our society, regardless of how it is justified.

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This is, in part, an ethical argument because, as already argued, ethics and morality can no longer be put aside; on the contrary, they have to be at the core of our conservation efforts. Science and ethics or morality are not in opposition to each other, and letting empathy and compassion guide our management decision will only enrich our relationship with the natural world. Grizzly bears are not abstract numbers to be calculated and refined with ‘improved’ statistical models. They are individuals who have a role to play in ecosystems, and they have their own families and a right to enjoy being with them as we enjoy being with those who are closest to us. They haven’t done anything wrong, and if they have done anything it is to contribute to keeping our ecosystems healthy; ecosystems that we depend on for our own survival. It is our time to recognize this and pay respect to these majestic creatures.

Politicians and scientists should thus embrace a guiding principle of compassionate conservation: ‘First do no harm’ [16]. This precautionary principle should teach us to deal proactively with complex conservation issues rather than wait till we push grizzlies or other species to the brink of extinction. At the same time, our wildlife management strategies have to embrace the vision and opinions of the wider public and clearly acknowledge the role that non-hunter naturalists, minorities, and women play in today’s conservation efforts. When we hear that 91 percent of British Columbians are against the grizzly trophy hunt, this overwhelming view has to be taken into account in developing conservation polices.

We have to begin to right the wrong. As a society, we can no longer accept that the very creatures that elicit so much joy and wonder in many of us are hunted down and killed. They cannot be taken away from us, and they cannot be taken away from their own families.

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We are still privileged to have iconic grizzly bears roaming about our forests and mountains, but this is a privilege we should not take for granted. Fortunately, the choice is ours to make. We do not need to hold on to the outdated model of wildlife ‘management’ that views socio-ecological systems as statistically predictable and animals as emotionless entities that can be managed like crops. We now know that neither of these is true. Let this knowledge guide our actions. Instead of leaving those who come after us with a natural world that is woefully impoverished, let British Columbia be known for embracing its wild inhabitants with wonder, compassion, and empathy.


[1] Leopold, A. 1933. Game management. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.

[2] Leopold, A. 1949. A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[3] Organ, J. F., Geist, V., Mahoney, S. P., Williams, S., Krausman, P. R., Batcheller, G. R., … Decker, D. J. 2012. The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. Bethesda, MD: The Wildlife Society

[4] Nelson, M. P., Vucetich, J. A., Paquet, P. C., & Bump, J. K. 2011. An inadequate construct? North American model: What’s flawed, what’s missing, what’s needed. The Wildlife Professional. (5):58–60. Available at:

[5] Peterson, M. N. and Nelson, M.P. 2016. Why the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation is Problematic for Modern Wildlife Management, Human Dimensions of Wildlife.

[6] Damasio, A. 1994. Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain. New York: Avon Books.

[7] Darwin, C. 1871. The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex J. London: Murray

[8] Safina, C. 2016. Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. New York: Henry Holt and Company

[9] Russell, C. and Enns, M. (2002).Grizzly Heart. Living without Fear among the Brown Bears of Kamchatka. Random House of Canada

[10] Carrington, D. 2016. The Anthropocene epoch: scientists declare dawn of human-influenced age. The Guardian. August 26. Available at:

[11] Folke, C., Carpenter, S., Elmqvist, T., Gunderson, L., Holling, C. S. and Walker, B. 2002. Resilience and sustainable development: Building adaptive capacity in a world of transformations. Ambio, 31, 437–440.

[12] Folke, C. 2016. Resilience. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. Available at:

[13] Clayton T. Lamb, Garth Mowat, Bruce N. McLellan, Scott E. Nielsen, Stan Boutin. 2016. Forbidden fruit: human settlement and abundant fruit create an ecological trap for an apex omnivore. Journal of Animal Ecology

[14] COSEWIC. 2002. COSEWIC Assessment and Update Status Report on the Grizzly Bear Ursus arctos in Canada. Available at:

[15] Steffen, W., Richardson, K., Rockström, K. et al. 2015. Planetary Boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science. 347: 6223

[16] Bekoff, M. 2014. Rewilding Our Hearts. Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence. California: New World Library.

Article was published on OBECA

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