How our love for bears on social media could be causing them harm

·3 min read
A black bear and her cub pictured on a ski run on Blackcomb mountain in Whistler, B.C., in this June 2009 file photo. According to the B.C. Conservation Officer Service, human-wildlife conflicts are on the rise in the province. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press - image credit)
A black bear and her cub pictured on a ski run on Blackcomb mountain in Whistler, B.C., in this June 2009 file photo. According to the B.C. Conservation Officer Service, human-wildlife conflicts are on the rise in the province. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Liz Barrett took to social media to express her distaste after a recent viral video of a black bear in Whistler, B.C., garnered over eight million views on TikTok.

The wildlife photographer says the video posted in mid-July, showing a black bear approaching a woman at a bus stop, demonstrates what she calls the wrong way to handle a bear encounter.

"You could have just raised your voice and chased it away. Instead by capturing the moment you encouraged it and created a sensation," she wrote in a Facebook post.

According to B.C. Conservation Officer Service (COS), the same bear was later put down because it was showing food-conditioned behaviour.

"You passed it on to social media … Thinking that these bears are cuddly little things that you can turn around and take a selfie with," she told CBC. "Inevitably the bear is the one that suffers."

The B.C. COS said human-wildlife conflicts are on the rise in the province, after the months of April to June saw the highest number of calls to its Report All Poachers and Polluters line in over 10 years.

Is social media causing bears harm?

Devin Pawluck, the WildSafeBC co-ordinator for the Squamish to Lillooet regional district, said that while taking photos and videos of bears might not directly harm them, it can lead to the animals becoming more comfortable around humans.

"You want to be responsible and respect their space and never encroach or entice an animal to come towards you to take any kind of video or photo," Pawluck said.

Erin Ryan, a specialist in wild animal welfare at the B.C. SPCA told CBC that social media has completely changed the field of wildlife photography.

She says the field used to be exclusively reserved for professionals with long telephoto lenses who keep their distance, but now anyone can be a 'wildlife photographer' with the camera they have in their pocket.

"There has been some research showing that for a lot of people who grew up in the age of social media, that seeing a bear is almost just as important to them as sharing the photo that they saw of the bear," Ryan said.

Christine Miller, with North Shore Black Bear Society, says she understands the draw in capturing the "beautiful, magnificent creatures." But, she says, getting up close with a phone could create issues for the bear's future.

Miller pointed to another recent viral video of a bear chasing geese in a Burnaby park.

"When you're following a bear like that, filming it and, you know, giving a commentary that's harassing the bear, the bear should be given space to find his way," she said.

B.C. COS said the bear was trapped and put down "due to his behaviour compromising public safety."

Pawluck added that it's not natural for a bear to approach humans and when it does happen, there were likely other factors involved.

B.C. Conservation Officer Service
B.C. Conservation Officer Service

"In general, bears don't want anything to do with us, but they are attracted to the food and they will come to find sources of food," Pawluck told CBC.

According to Pawluck, when bears and a community are in close proximity to one another, it increases the likelihood for habituation and conflict.

He says social media can also provide great resources on how to live, play and work safely in wildlife areas.

In an online post, the B.C. COS also asks people to do their part in "keeping wildlife wild" by educating themselves on what to do if they encounter a bear.

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