The Beauty in the Beast

Photo by Erich Ferdinand | CC BY 2.0

Demons seem to surround us. The irony, though, is that we create these demons largely between our ears, often spawned by autogenerated fears, sometimes rooted in our problematic relations with the world. This theme is omnipresent, in tragic plays, violence-filled films, Trumpian politics…and books of all sorts. Think Odysseus and the Cyclops, Beowulf and Grendel.

My current half-read books are in stacks interspersed with piles of journal papers more-or-less organized according to on-going projects. These stacks and piles bespeak multiple concurrent threads of thought that occasionally coalesce in an urge to say something coherent, typically triggered by a catalytic experience. Which then leads to recollections of other previously-read but topically relevant books ranged on ceiling-high bookshelves which end up in additional stacks. In the end, the desired semi-coherence typically emerges only after the gestation of long solitary walks.

One door-stopper that has come to be a thematic through-thread for me is a book by Irvin Yalom entitled Existential Psychotherapy. Yalom draws on the tenets of existentialism to posit the existence of four enduring human anxieties, even terrors, related to confronting death, overcoming isolation, ascribing responsibility, and making meaning out of a meaningless universe. All humans are perhaps beset by these concerns, managed well or managed poorly. Beneath it all, though, lurks inchoate terror, rarely perceived, typically denied, and often manifest in destructive behaviors.

Which brings me to a perhaps unlikely catalyst.

An Unlikely Catalyst

Steve Stringham and Lynn Rogers—both long-time professional colleagues and acquaintances—recently published a peer-reviewed paper entitled “Fear of Humans by Bears and Other Animals (Anthropophobia): How Much is Natural?” They concluded: “We found…no indication that anthropophobia evolved as an adaptation protecting bears against human persecution. Rather, anthropophobia is more likely a side-effect of ursophobia or xenophobia, or the result of learning through aversive interactions with humans”…where ursophobia is an innate fear of other bears and xenophobia innate fear of aliens of all sorts, not specific to humans. Not surprising. In fact, exactly what I would conclude after a career of observing bears up close and personal.

Which led me to wonder why they felt compelled to publish this paper. The obvious answer being to counter a seemingly pervasive existential need to see dangerous animals as innately terrified of people; or, if not innately terrified, then killed. Whereby fearless yet dangerous animals are deviants from a natural even necessary order.

And the Horrors of Slavery

Which then led me to reflect on the horrific institution of slavery, an abomination that was perpetrated in this country until 1865, and as late as 1886-1888 in Cuba and Brazil. Matthew Parker provides graphic details of the Caribbean slave culture and its destructive effects in his 2012 book The Sugar Barons. The devastation extended not only to the enslaved, but also to the enslaving. The regime brutalized everyone. Apparently not unlike how hunters and wildlife managers see bears, slave owners saw slaves as bereft of rights, unworthy of well-being, and fit only to be dominated, instrumentalized, and used. Among the many resulting atrocities, one favored by slave-owners for punishing rebellious slaves was to cut off one ear, boil it, and then force the offending slave to eat his own body part.

There was (and is) an emotional catch to all of this. We can’t look in the eyes of a bear without subliminally recognizing another sentient feeling being. Even more so with a fellow human-being, whether slave or free. And with that recognition is at least a crude cognizance that relationships built on dominance and violence are unsustainable and volatile. That in such brutalizing relationships is bred a lust for revenge and retaliation; that, given opportunity, the victim will mete out reciprocal cruelties. Perhaps there is a lurking fear that this holds for bears and wolves as well as for people.

Fear begets fear, warping beliefs and identities around a degenerative synergy, unsparing even of the perpetrators. Slave owners lived in perpetual fear of their slaves, but bulwarked by beliefs in not only the bestiality of the enslaved, but also their intrinsic cringing fear. Perhaps the same holds true for those who think animals such as bears have no intrinsic worth and are of use principally as objects to be hunted and killed for sport. Perhaps wildlife managers and sport hunters harbor some lurking unease about the deprivations they exact on sentient animals such as bears that can tear their heads off.

Although worthy of distinction, I suspect that institutions of slavery and sport hunting have something emotionally in common. Both desensitize if not brutalize. Both perhaps spawn a self-realizing sense of vulnerability manifest as unease and fear—even inflamed existential terror. Perhaps both also thereby engender a need for the perpetrator to believe in his capacity for absolute dominance, reciprocated by imagined innate fear and terror on the part of his victim—at least slavish compliance with the subjugating status quo. And, if not, then instant retribution, even death. Thus, for the slave who is unslavish; thus, for the bear brash enough to claim prerogatives among people.

Existential Threats

Bears that paw through our garbage or indifferently amble in our midst are clearly more than a presumed practical problem for most wildlife managers. They are an existential threat. So too are bear whisperers such as Charlie Russell and Lynn Rogers who not only write about the possibilities of rich reciprocal relations with bears, but live these possibilities in the wild. So too are people such as Steve Stringham who have the audacity to suggest that bears are not intrinsically fearful of us. Even worse are those who suggest that bears who experience kindness and benevolence are safer than those who have been persecuted and made fearful. Much is invested in sustaining the belief that bears need to be afraid; that fearless bears are a mortal threat; and that managers need to dominate and control an otherwise out of control savage world.

Filmmaker Werner Herzog in some ways essentialized this contest of worldviews in his documentary “Grizzly Man.” On one side was the putative subject of his film, Timothy Treadwell, a man who had lived intimately among coastal brown bears for over a decade. Timothy gave bears names; overtly anthropomorphized them; and advocated for kindness rather than cruelty. But Timothy ended up dead, perhaps killed by a bear that, if human, might have been called a psychopath. But Werner was the one who made the film, which, in the end, struck me as being more about Werner than about Timothy. Werner indulged throughout in heavy Germanic monologues about the savageness of nature and the untrustworthiness of the wild. About how we should never expect kindness in exchange for vulnerability.

Tacitly, then, what? I was never clear, other than that Werner lived in a state of chronically inflamed existential fear fueled by the very existence of wild brutish bears and wild brutish nature. Better, then, perhaps to think of bears as not only terrifying, but also terrified? Follow this path, though, and there is little room for empathy, and who’s to say people don’t belong in the same Herzogian morass of reciprocating collective terror. Why not, then, volitional brutishness? Why not, then, slavery?

Transcendent Connections

But it was not always so. Admittedly looking through a glass darkly, people for millennia almost certainly lived a different relationship with nature—with bears, lions, and other large threatening animals—prior to the advent of domestication and the invention of a dominated wild. Ancient peoples, but including some up through modern times, lived in a state of enforced even embraced reciprocity. Dependence and vulnerability bred respect manifest in legend and lore, some of which has survived into modernity. Bears were not to be feared as much as honored and respected. People were supplicants and kin, sometimes literally so as enshrined in stories of women marrying bears and birthing shape-shifting half-bear half-human offspring. There were no pretensions of bears living in chronic intrinsic fear of people. Such pretensions could not withstand the test of reality. Nor were such pretensions a necessary bulwark at times and in places when and where Western human chauvinism had yet to wreak havoc.

I have no doubt that ancient northern peoples, sitting around evening fires, would have been bemused if regaled by modern-day wildlife managers, transported back in time, advancing their thesis that bears were intrinsically fearful of people or, if not, in need of harassment to make them so, and if not that, then death. More likely, the ancients would have been mortally offended, our modern-day wildlife managers confined to their version of a straight-jacket—if they were feeling benevolent—or more likely, offered up in flames as sacrifice to offended bear-brethren…which is a thought.

Pre-agricultural, even pre-industrial people often imagined and then told enduring stories about intimacy with animals of all sorts—ugly, beautiful, witty, wise, wily, strong; buffalo, monkey, dog, hyaena, crane, swan, even snake and frog. But most often bears. Maria Tatar compiled one collection of 37 such surviving stories in a book entitled, appropriately enough, Beauty and the Beast. And, of course, Disney exploited this particular story to great commercial success. People sought—even now seek—union and connection with other sentient animals based on a shared experience of animate warm-blooded life. Better yet if these animals are furry intelligent omnivores that tenderly care for their offspring and manifest miraculous near death and rebirth.


Like Jean-Paul Sartre, I see the current widespread alienation of people from themselves, animals, and nature—infused with fear and pretensions of domination—as some sort of collective modern psychopathology. There is nothing virtuous about brutalizing other beings in attempts to affirm virility and negate omnipresent certain death. In fact, we have laws against cruelty to domesticated animals. And, as a practical matter, anyone who knows dogs also knows that a fearful animal is far more dangerous than a well-adjusted trusting one—whatever the source of that fear. Yet sport hunters and wildlife managers seem to inhabit an alien realm in which brutish behavior is lauded, fear something to instill, and, better yet, craven fear a native intrinsic state for animals.

For me there is no doubt about what enriches my wanderings in the woods with grizzly bears. I relish negotiating space, near or far, with fully autonomous intelligent beings that could dispose of me with a single swat—feeble human that I am. I am enlivened, stimulated, attentive, and connected. On occasion my adrenals are exercised, but, so far, I remain unscathed. I have no pretensions about the benevolence of bears. They are indifferent, reactive, aggressive, curious, sometimes fearful, but certainly not in awe or craven or solicitous in my presence. And I like it that way.

As in so many of the old stories, reconciling and overcoming fear is a fraught undertaking. Yet we all experience an urgent need to transcend our individual isolations. For those blessed with the opportunity and cognizance, a particularly profound transcendence arises from connection with the powerful, perhaps indifferent, living forces of nature and sentient beings with whom we share this earth.

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David Mattson worked for the grizzly study team for 2 decades. He retired from the US Geological Survey two years ago. 

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