Bear Witness: Observing Wildlife, Seeing Ourselves

The world contracts to a narrow round window containing a horizontal spruce branch and its occupant, a red squirrel, who returns the stare of the binoculars without blinking while efficiently twirling a spruce cone between her forepaws. A flurry of scales float towards the forest floor as she neatly plucks out each nut with precise movements of her teeth. I am not in a mind to notice the marvel of coevolution between tree and mammal playing out in front of me. Nor do I appreciate the way the spring sun makes each strand of her bushy tail glow like a live wire, the way it silhouettes her ears with a neon fringe.

Those ears are my focus, and the glorious play of light on fur is confounding all my efforts to distinguish the colour of small segments of wire that protrude from her metal ear tags. I attached the tiny antennae the first time I trapped her this spring in order to allow me to identify her from a distance. I did the same with every squirrel I could capture within the study area assigned to me for the summer. It is a yearly ritual carried out by all new recruits to this longterm research project – we move on after a few months but the ongoing life-story of each squirrel continues in both forest and dataset. For now it looks like this record will belong to the ubiquitous Unknown Female who appears frustratingly frequently throughout my notes.

I sigh, defeated, deciding to try again on my way out at the end of the day. The binoculars fog up with the exhalation. I let them fall against my vest as I pull out a pencil and enter the observation in neat block capitals in my notebook. The last of the winter’s snow crunches loudly beneath my boots and the lingering chill of winter nips at my fingers through thin gloves. I turn back to the old pipeline trail that cuts a straight line through the marsh between my study grid and the Alaska Highway, shaking my head to dispel the intense focus of peering through field glasses. I raise my gaze to take in the Kluane mountains and discover that the objective observer is actually the subject. I am being watched impassively by a large grizzly standing quietly about 10 metres down the trail.

Bear Witness Squirrel

Photo credit: Kim Melton

I was working that summer as a field technician in the Kluane region of the Yukon, a tiny cog in the wheels of a multi-decadal ecological research project studying Tamiasciurius hudsonicus, the red squirrel whose ululating ‘rattle’ call is familiar to any inhabitant of the boreal forest. Each year a new host of grad students and emerging biologists descend upon the valley to gain experience and contribute to a mind-bogglingly large data stream flowing to ecology departments at universities in Alberta, Quebec, and Michigan. There, the seminal moments in each squirrel’s life are transformed into means, medians, and modes. Students cruise the data in an effort to extract information; amalgamating, manipulating, and transforming until the relationship  of the numbers to small furry creatures living and dying in a far-off forest is no longer obvious.

I continue to oscillate among these ways of being, seeking a place of balance that honours the human need for narrative, respects our ability to relate in an animal to animal way, and also allows other beings their own private lives. I often wonder whether the desire to record, whether driven by science or art, hinders or enhances my perception of a moment.

I was drawn to the work and the lifestyle, as were many of my peers, by twin desires that managed to conflict while pulling in the same direction. On the one hand we had just burst forth from university eager to apply our lecture-hall learning, our faith in science and rationality bright and untarnished. We felt well-equipped with tools that would enable us to further a collective understanding that felt very important and a little vague. On the other hand we sought communion with the natural world, the world that had guided our feet towards the disciplines we had chosen to study. We longed to immerse ourselves in an extra-human landscape to remind us of what has real import and value, and working long days tromping through spruce woods, willow stands and marshlands, we exulted in the strength and stamina of our young bodies. One force drew us into our heads, from where we could watch the world as if through glass. The other drew us into skins that felt keenly the rain and snow and wind and sun, in which we slept hard and ate voraciously, akin to the animals under our observation.

I was taught as a scientist to be cautious about inferring more than was strictly observable, especially when it came to projecting my own concepts of feelings and intention to other animals, a practice known as anthropomorphism. Conversely, much of my childhood company was made up of denizens of wild places and I had (and still don’t) never thought it all odd to caw to ravens, to be comforted by trees, to feel in my bones the aliveness of the world around me. My first memory of a sense of home is a quiet patch of boreal forest carpeted with cranberries, lichen and moss, shared with squirrels and ravens – and bears. These truths began to rub up against each other that summer in Kluane.

I would wake each morning in my 8′ x 8′ plywood and plastic shack to the crackling cries of squirrels and ravens, looking forward to another day beneath mountains and sky. I would don the ragtag uniform of a field biologist complete with instruments for weighing and measuring poking through the holes of my many pockets. The ubiquitous notebook and pencil served to remind me that I was not here to be, but rather to witness and record as I embarked on my daily round of live-trapping and observation. No amount eagerness to display our fledgling abilities in scientific rigour however could keep our bright young minds from becoming attached to ‘our’ squirrels. We were swept up in the narratives playing out across the valley, ascribing all sorts of personalities to the animals we followed, especially those that eluded us time and again. We became emotionally involved, anxious and excited before a birth, or upon seeing pups emerge from a nest for the first time. I, and I do not think I was alone, cried bitterly when an animal died as a result of my interference. When I discovered a death by predation however, the enthusiasm of my inner detective tempered my grief and I pored over the midden searching for clues that might suggest whether the culprit was a slate-grey goshawk, a bright-eyed ermine or a great-horned owl.

I continue to oscillate among these ways of being, seeking a place of balance that honours the human need for narrative, respects our ability to relate in an animal to animal way, and also allows other beings their own private lives. I often wonder whether the desire to record, whether driven by science or art, hinders or enhances my perception of a moment.

The day I was found by the grizzly I was firmly in science mode. At the moment of contact I was feeling frustrated at not being able to collapse my one-way interaction with the unidentified squirrel into a concise numerical record. The bear’s gaze placed me firmly back into the interconnected matrix of the ecosystem. Toppling headlong from my ivory vantage point, I was slammed back into the visceral reality of my breathing body with its accelerating pulse. The pretence of objectivity fell away and I knew myself for what I am: a rider on the messy wheel of life and and death, subject to all of the same forces as the rest of the beings with which I share the planet.


Photo credit: Kim Melton

I don’t know how long we stood there, me looking down from the slight rise I had climbed to better spy my quarry, her (or him) standing athwart the ATV trail, claws resting on plaster casts of prints left in yesterday’s afternoon sun, now frozen solid. The notebook and pencil were forgotten in my gloved hands. Something far more important was happening than a dispassionate observation; an animal was face to face with another animal. Blue eyes ringed in white met dark, deep eyes flecked with gold. Behind the short snout the sun lit up the one of the short ears and the longest hairs extending from the hump that rested like a mountain between his, or her, shoulder blades. Some scribe in my memory centre was taking notes, bits of information that would become the story I re-read and retold in days and years to come, but simultaneously whatever part of this jumble of cells and bacteria and water and electricity is really most truly I, was present.

One part of my brain was flipping through slides of ‘signs of animal aggression’ and found no match. Did the bear feel the mild curiosity I perceived? I cannot ask her, or him, for his, or her, perspective – this is therefore my story alone. As the initial surprise subsided and I found no reason for fear a simple phrase appeared in my mind: The ball is in your court. There was a simple relief in acknowledging that the bear did indeed hold all the cards, that I was under no obligation to take any action. I was receiving. The next move was his, or hers, and it was to give a final sniff in my direction and then turn off the track into the willows, with a silence and grace that thwarted my straining ears’ efforts to detect any sound at all as the slender branches waved back into place and hid the shaggy rump from view. I remained where I was, breathing now but still motionless, allowing my chemistry to rebalance, my pulse to subside, my skin to cool. My next move followed intuition, not logic. I took a deep breath and pushed aside the willows,  heading onto my grid to begin my day of work.

Photos: Kim Melton