Let’s Cool It With the Bear Attack Stories

In Massachusetts, where most of my family lives, my mother attended a town meeting on the increased presence of coyotes, shortly after Trump’s election. State officials and conservationists patiently explained that coyotes were unlikely to attack humans and that they were in any case important to the ecosystem: People shouldn’t kill them. One irate and frightened woman begged to differ. “It seems the coyotes have more rights than I do,” she fumed.

My mother interpreted the bizarre statement as a sign of America’s widening ideological chasm—and certainly, the woman’s understanding of her own victimhood in relationship to the coyote is profoundly reactionary in the classic sense of the word. But given the shark and cougar panic sweeping the progressive northeast, it’s also beyond ideology, a bigger problem of modern human consciousness.

In addition to getting in the way of reasonable wildlife policy, environmental educators say, predator panics alienate people from nature. Humans are part of an ecosystem that depends on a balance of animals and plants, and when we overreact to threats, by killing predators recklessly or failing to nurture and protect those animals we find scary, we throw those ecosystems out of balance. Even worse, predator panic leads us to see “nature” as something threatening and outside of ourselves, which of course has troubling implications for climate change, a crisis that we cannot address without understanding ourselves as part of—and interdependent with—the natural world.

Some educators and conservationists are responding with predator positivity, urging the public to move past our present state of terror and treat the animals with care. Text advertising a current exhibit on sharks at New York City’s American Museum of Natural History, for example, promises the show will combat the image of sharks as “fearsome predators,” instead “demonstrating that while sharks pose few threats to people, we pose a serious threat to their future.” In a letter to The Wall Street Journal disputing the bald eagle story, a raptor advocate insisted that the birds pose little threat to pets; indeed, he fears that the newspaper’s sensationalist story could incite retaliation against eagles by frightened members of the public.

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