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Bear as a Second Lanugage

A primer on how to understand what bears are telling you



Special to Pique Newsmagazine

With black bears, there's no innuendo.

There's no double entendre or silent treatment, no mixed signals, false accusations or reading between the lines. Bears wear no "social mask," they never worry about manners and they never lie.

When a bear wants to communicate, he sends a direct message. With his stance and facial expression, a few grunts, huffs and teeth-clacks, even a charge, he says something very specific. Whether ordering cubs up a tree for safety, inviting another bear to play or warning hikers they've come too close and telling them to back off, bears' signals are loud and clear.

It's no wonder people who study bears say they're easier to figure out than humans. No matter what language or dialect we speak, humans have a tendency to stifle our emotions, mislead our friends, invite contact we don't really want and shun those we love. We guard our feelings, fly off the handle and send the wrong messages so often it's surprising we get along at all. We are definitely an unpredictable lot.

"Bear communication is much simpler than human's," says Sylvia Dolson, Whistler's unofficial Bear Lady. "(Bears are) easier to predict, much easier to read. When you understand bear behaviour and communication, there's no need to be afraid."

Over the past 15 years, Dolson has photographed hundreds of bears, observed them in their natural environment for days on end, seen cubs emerge from their den, witnessed matings and "shooed" them away from populated areas. She's written two books about bears - A Whistler Bear Story and Bear-Ology - gives educational presentations, is the director of the Get Bear Smart Society and is regularly consulted by the RMOW on policies that will reduce bear/human conflicts.

At 53 years old, this petite, soft-spoken blonde doesn't claim to be fearless. "I'm afraid of the dark. Jumping out of an airplane. Walking down East Hastings at night. I'd be afraid if I met a cougar. I would freak if I was in the water and there was a shark. Fear is of the unknown. It's not what you know. I have an understanding of bear behavior, so there's no need to be afraid."

Dolson says there was a time, before she began studying bears, that she would have panicked if she saw bear fresh scat on the trail where she was hiking. "Now, I kick it around, see what the bear ate recently, and wonder where I can find him to get a picture."


Misunderstood and Maligned

Through the ages, bears have been demonized, humanized, romanticized and commercialized. They have been honoured in ceremonies and rituals and used to sell Coke and root beer. They are the consummate stuffed animal and Hollywood's forest monster. We have been conditioned to regard bears as roly-poly softies and as blood-thirsty menaces. Rarely have we been taught to truly understand them.