What IS that sound? I couldn’t tell. I was growing annoyed at my inability to identify who was screaming.
It was a moonless night. Cold, like the kind of cold you expect to feel at 8,000 feet in October. Traffic was stopped in both directions, with the exception of the one Audi driver, unconcerned with the reasons for complete cessation of movement on an overused mountain highway fifteen miles up from one of the nation’s trendiest cities.
I stared into the ditch, visually scouring the mountainsides. Looking for a body, a prone creature, lying in the gravel beneath granite cliffs of the canyon walls.
Somewhere, he must be somewhere. I couldn’t train my eyes on him.
The man standing next to me on the shoulder spoke up quietly. It’s the cub you’ve been looking for, he stated simply.
Consciousness caught up in the tragedy of the moment. Sometimes in trauma, it takes time to realize the reality right in front of you. I’d never heard such cries from an animal before.
The bear cub, his sibling and mama had just been down in our mountain valley, looking for trash on which to feed.
They’d run from our valley, up the hill, towards other homes on the ridge to the north. Ran to places more amenable to and less aware of their behaviors. Ran in a panic after being hazed away, right across the stretch of highway between Boulder and Nederland, a highway of posted speed limits between 40-45 mph. Ran right across the motorized path of a woman making her way home after her own day’s attempt to eek out a living.
The bears have been attempting to eek out their own living on the abundance of human discards. Some people in the mountain community have been making it easy for them. Trashcans – not all of them bear proof – are routinely left unlocked. Refuse is dragged out to the end of the driveway for the morning pickup. The last act before turning into bed. Food scraps litter the ground. Bird feeders hang in trees while residents slumber. Transients on West Magnolia Road campground leave spaghetti cooking in pots on unattended illegal campfires, bags of potato chips and Cheetos in their broken-into and later, broken-down vehicles.
People down in the gilded City of Boulder complain of monetary fines issued on account of trash left for bears, protesting they don’t want to awake at 5am to haul their trash to the curbsides. Protesting, loudly, they reason that the responsibilities for mitigating human impact upon wildlife are too heavy for them to bear.
These are times of climate change. Bears, too, are squeezed into diminished existence. Long gone are the days of abundant food supply. In its place, they are finding fragmented habitats, fancy homes and garages and driveways, where wilderness once stood. Encroachment of humanity into urban-wildlife corridors means bears are lured in by easy food sources. Nothing is more appealing to a starving bear than the sugary, fatty discards of our human existence.
I walked over to the woman sitting in her car. I could see spattered blood on the bumper and quarter panel.
Are you hurt? I asked.
No, he – he just – she began to cry.
Bleh! Bleh! Bleh! I looked over at the bear cub. Some of the eeriest sounds come from the mouths of animals in distress. As the cub stood crying and shifting his weight from paw to paw, I joined him in the visual search for its mama and sibling. A pool of blood on the highway informed the extent of his injury.
I walked back to a stopped car. I informed, we’re trying to help an injured bear cub hit on the road, please – just go past slowly.
Bleh! Bleh! Bleh! Loomed in the backdrop. Yellowish headlights revealed his body limping in circles on the shoulder of the highway, searching between the stopped cars.
I looked up at the highway at my husband. He was standing on the shoulder next to the guy who’d informed me of the cub’s location. He was looking around in the darkness for something he wasn’t going to find.
Explanations are hard things to locate when all best efforts have failed.
I’ve lived in a mountain valley above Boulder for half a lifetime. My husband has joined me not long ago. Together, we store our trash in a bear proof can along with the recycling in a Tuff Shed far from our home. We’re frequenters at the county dump. He brings in the bird feeders each night, puts them out at 5am every morning. We haze bears when they do show up – because we realize, they are becoming habituated somewhere nearby – we are intent on discouraging getting habituated in our own valley.
Just then, red and blue rescue lights joined the yellowish headlights. I inhaled.
Bleh! Bleh! Bleh!
The officer walked over.
I stared up into the darkness, tracing the outline of the ridge to the north of us. Golden stars jeweled the sky. It was bare of any larger bear profile, of a mama waiting on her injured, lost and distressed cub. The one that had been trailing behind as they fled across the dark highway. The last one – the slowest one, perhaps – to get caught in the wheels of the oncoming motorist.
I prayed the officer’s revolver would stay snapped in his holster.
He walked up. I explained. That we lived in the valley. That we’d heard the sound – that sickening sound, of an animal being hit by a car, and come running. That the bears had just been down our way.
He looked at me, blankly. Is anybody hurt? He asked.
Not that I can tell, I responded.
Nederland Emergency and Fire trucks appeared. Any injuries here?
Just the bear cub, I didn’t want to say. I worried they might end his opportunities to heal and survive into another day, far too quickly.
Bleh! Bleh! Bleh! Desperation reflected in his eyes off the yellowish headlights.
I walked back across the highway. The police waved on patient motorists. Firemen directed traffic. I couldn’t hear much beyond the commotion, just the sounds of the cub in distress, abandoned suddenly by his collision with humanity.
The minutes wore on. I grieved for the bear. I grieved for the mama. I longed for a different reality.
Silence filled in where cries lived just moments before. All I could hear was the sound of the cub crying. He cried until he decided, injured and wobbling, to turn and ascend the mountain ridge where we thought his mama might be waiting. In the yellowish headlights, the inside of his left front leg revealed raw sinew, muscle and blood. I watched blood drip on the rocks leading up to the ridge.
It will take a while to wash away the memory of that evening. It will take a rainstorm to wash away the blood on the rocks.
In the meantime, the bears in the mountain community continue to endanger themselves by dining on the discards of humanity. Many people are drawn to mountain living for the immeasurable relief it provides from the ills of urbanity, for the beauty found in the landscape, for the peace of mind. Sadly, without conscious awareness of the other inhabitants whose livelihoods cannot be made somewhere else, the four-legged and winged creatures here are adversely impacted. The vulnerability of bears is all too apparent. Dozens and beyond are euthanized each year in Colorado due to “bad bear habits.” They aren’t “bad bear habits” – they’re “bad people habits.” They originate from human behaviors that can only be stated as lack of awareness or sheer inertia, to support the continued healthy existence of bears.
We need better human “bear-havior.”
The cries of the bear cub have been lingering in the air like the darkness that hung over us all on that moonless night. Sometimes, the cries of an animal in distress are occasioned by acts of human intention. Yet in others, such cries are caused by conscious disregard. It takes awareness of the ways and being of other creatures to live closely alongside them. It takes mindfulness of their habits – the environment in which they live, the conditions of that environment and our own impact upon it – to afford them every opportunity to thrive in their own lives. Above all, it takes willingness and intention, to adjust our own habits of living to accommodate others.
A bear’s existence is not separate from us, but intertwined therewith. To be an enlightened person means to be responsible for understanding the impact of our behaviors on others.
The bears depend upon our doing this better. Once fearsome predators from which we fled, their existence has, paradoxically, become dependent upon our learning different ways of being in the world. They will continue to suffer and fatally decline at the hands of our laws and policies, if we fail to take their needs and vulnerabilities into account.
Is it too much to ask, to cultivate better “bear-havior,” before it’s too late?