Goodnight Bears 

Baby and Buster are gone, but a bigger question remains: Do we care too much?

click to enlarge Black Bear with cubs.

Black Bear with cubs.

Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, sporting a safari-type jacket, chastened those who had criticized him for appearing to care more about the bears than about the city's human tragedies. The bears, in life and after, taught children to care for wildlife and nature, he says, "and so these bears are making a contribution even in their death."

We've all heard the story now. On Saturday, Feb. 18, a mother and her 4-year-old son had gone to Maymont for a picnic. They approached the black bear enclosure from the less-visited northeastern side, where there's a high bluff above the rest of the bear habitat. The boy clambered over a low wooden fence and put his hand through the chain-link fence to pet the bear, his mother told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

But she apparently told a city health official a different story. She told the director of the Richmond City Department of Public Health on Feb. 23 that she "put herself and the boy over the first fence," according to the city's initial report on the incident. He reached his hand through the fence to pet the bear.

The bear bit the boy's hand. The mother then told the health department director that the bear "realized he'd done something wrong and scampered away," according to the initial report.

The mother took her son to Bon Secours St. Mary's Hospital, where he was treated for a puncture wound and released. The necessary agencies were notified: the city's Department of Public Health, the Virginia Department of Health, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and, finally, Maymont.

On Feb. 23, 14 people from all the above organizations discussed the matter and determined the only course of action was to test Maymont's two black bears for rabies. The decision was hard, but "at the end, nobody said no," says Maymont Executive Director Geoffrey Platt Jr.

The bears were killed by injection and tested. They were not rabid. They were buried in a landfill but later retrieved, cremated and buried with ceremony.

The city erupted in grief and anger. People were furious at the unnamed mother, at her son, at the authorities who killed the bears and at whoever decided to dump them in a landfill. Conspiracy stories flew about just who knew what and when. Calls and e-mails flooded City Hall to an extent never before seen during Wilder's administration.

On Saturday, one angry young woman berated Platt for not speaking at the ceremony to apologize for what happened. "We weren't invited to speak," a weary Platt later explained.

"This has been awful for us," he says. Maymont has borne the brunt of the backlash, Platt adds, but the foundation was the last to know what was going on. If the incident had been reported to them right away, he says, "things would have turned out very, very differently."

A few questions remain unanswered:

Who's to blame for the bite?

Attorney Michael Morchower, who represents the mother of the child, says the city's at fault. "The part of the story you're missing is the city's potential liability," he says, "because they are ultimately responsible for the safety of the public."

Maymont belongs to the city and is operated by the private Maymont Foundation. The city code, in section 10-323, says "the person in charge of wild, nondomestic or feral domestic animals at a fair, show, display, or exhibit within the city shall cause adequate barriers to be installed and maintained to prevent the public from coming into direct contact with the animals or with their excrement."

Industry standards for outdoor bear enclosures include having two sets of fences, says John Derych, spokesman for the American Bear Association. Derych has not visited Maymont, but the description of a 2-acre habitat with a pond, rock ledge and natural vegetation sounded like "an ideal enclosure," he says.

The upper perimeter of the Maymont bear enclosure is defined by a tall chain-link fence. About 10 feet beyond that is a 4-foot board fence that would have been easy for anyone, including a child, to scale or slip through — a fence, Morchower says, that does not say strongly enough, "Keep out."

Morchower says there's no warning signage where the mother and her son approached the bears. But there is one sign attached to the chain-link fence on the northeast side of the enclosure that says, "Wild animals are dangerous/ Do not feed." Several more such signs hang along the southern side.

No one blames the bears. Black bears are curious but skittish, Derych says. "Most bears are just happy to do their own thing."

He himself was bitten four years ago while crouching down to photograph a captive bear. A female bear lunged and bit him twice in the stomach, severely bruising but not breaking the skin.

Derych shouted, "Jane! No!" The bear sat down and started to pant, he says, just like a dog that had been reprimanded. No one was concerned about rabies, he recalled. "The bear's still alive, I'm still alive."

Did they have to die?

"I think it's unfortunate that the bears had to be euthanized, but I think it was necessary because of the possibility of rabies, no matter how remote that possibility was," says Michael R. Vaughan, a well-known bear researcher at Virginia Tech.

Another bear expert, John Hadidian with the Humane Society of the United States, says killing the bears was "a very bad decision and a rush to judgment," according to a report by Robin Starr, executive director of the Richmond SPCA.

"It's a hard decision," Derych says, "but I just think it was wrong that they killed the bears quickly."

The mother said publicly that she wanted her son to get the rabies shots to spare the bears' lives. But her opinion was not taken into consideration in the decision to euthanize them, the city report found. The city code says an animal "that bites or otherwise injures a human being and which is suspected of being rabid by the director or by an animal control officer shall be euthanized" to check for rabies.

People may have perceived the decision as having been made by an unfeeling bureaucracy, which made the situation worse, says Scott T. Allison, chair of the psychology department at the University of Richmond. "It just seemed like all these steps that were taken just compounded the tragedy," he says, from the quick nature of the decision to the disposal of the bears in a landfill.

The mayor's decision to re-inter the bears at Maymont with a ceremony and memorial was "a good thing," Scott Allison says. "That was a healing step."

The follow-up investigation suggests that all is not lost, he says, that Richmond may yet learn something as a community. "It's good to see that some good came out of it," he says. "It did bring people together. It did allow politicians to correct mistakes."

Vaughan takes a more practical view. "I think the best memorial you would have to these bears would be to educate people about the inappropriateness of feeding wild animals in general," he says.

Why are we so attached ?

There's just something about bears. They're cute, they're doglike, they're endearing.

They're also strong, wild animals, feared by hikers and sought by hunters. In the 2004-2005 hunting season, Virginia hunters reported killing 1,130 black bears — about average for the season.

"I think people somehow identify with them," Vaughan says. The truth is, however, "they're just a big, large carnivore."

The same week the Maymont bears were killed, the Discovery Channel aired "Grizzly Man," a documentary film about a self-proclaimed bear protector, Timothy Treadwell, who spent 13 summers living with the brown bears in Alaska's Katmai National Park and Reserve.

Treadwell, a former drug addict, believed he had learned to communicate with the grizzlies. He touched them, filmed them and fiercely loved them. Treadwell and his girlfriend were killed by a bear in October 2003.

Yet even Treadwell's death has failed to deter copycat fans from attempting to live among the Katmai bears. "It's people like that that show themselves getting close to these wild animals that gives people the idea that you can do it," Vaughan says.

The cuddle/carnivore dichotomy shows up again in Maymont's reluctance, until Saturday, to reveal the bears' names to the public. At the homemade memorial at the bear enclosure, someone had blacked out "Buster" and "Baby" in heavy marker everywhere the words appeared.

Platt says he doesn't know who censored the names. Maymont does not officially name the wild animals, he says, because the park doesn't want people to think of them as pets. Caretakers had named the bears anyway.

Many Richmonders felt they had a personal relationship with the bears. The depth of the reaction to the Maymont bears' death may stem, in part, from their special status as a shared community resource, says Kevin Allison. Allison (no relation to Scott Allison) is an associate professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University.

It seems everybody — Richmond schoolchildren, families, couples and newcomers — goes to Maymont at least once. Thus the park feels as if it belongs to the entire city, more than to any one neighborhood or community. The bears were ours. So their death is "somewhat a loss for all of us," Kevin Allison says.

Some people have asked why there's more outcry about the bears' death than about most murders and other human deaths in the city. It's a hard question to answer.

Two weeks ago, Mayor Wilder was asked if he felt it was odd for people to grieve and rage more over the killings of two bears than they do over homicides. "No, I don't," he said. "People recognize immediately the innocence of the bears."

Are not murder victims innocent?

Ordinary human violence is a much more difficult to process, experts say. Conflicts are often categorized by race, class and neighborhood. It's difficult to sort out who's at fault and what role the community plays. It's hard even to think about the awful, everyday crimes that plague the city.

"It may seem somewhat simpler when you've got one kid, one family and two bears," Kevin Allison says.

He posits a startling thought: "We may have a clearer sense of connection to the bears at Maymont than we do to each other, across different communities."

Perhaps, in this instance, the relationship between human and bear is closer and more personal than relationships between fellow Richmonders. Whether that's a problem or just human nature is something we'll have to figure out for ourselves. S

Richmond's Other Death Rate

The bears are gone. But how many other animals are being euthanized in metro Richmond? Last year, 5,297 dogs and cats were put to sleep in Richmond and Chesterfield and Henrico counties.

Though this number seems daunting, Tamsen Kingry, director of development for the Richmond SPCA, says most of the animals euthanized at the SPCA were too sick or injured to be saved. In fact, Richmond was ranked the fourth-lowest euthanizing city in the country last year by Maddie's Fund, a pet-rescue foundation in California.

For animals on the fence, Richmond is the place to be. Many animals that might get put down in other cities are given a second chance here.

"For the city of Richmond, it was 23 percent euthanized in 2005 with a save rate of 72 percent," Kingry says, "which is a pretty big accomplishment."

Overall, the number of animals euthanized in Richmond is falling, she says.

"The euthanasia numbers in 2005 were down from 2004," adds Kingry. "That number continues to improve through our partnership and collective efforts."

Henrico County had to euthanize 1,679 dogs and cats last year. Lt. Shawn Sears, Henrico County animal protection supervisor, says "a good number of those animals are basically feral animals — dogs and cats that are wild."

Not unlike the Maymont bears, mind you. Still, those numbers only scratch the surface. The total number of animals euthanized in the state — including livestock and noncompanion animals (pets) — was more than 135,000 in 2003, the most recent year reported by the Virginia Department of Agriculture .— Katie Gantt


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