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While the bear as a species has been around for hundreds of thousands of years, humanity has found a way to greatly affect the entire population. Different bears, from grizzly bears to sun bears, are now normally scrutinized by modern day humans, with problems such as excessive poaching, human polluting of a habitat, and hunting. Once a symbol of worship, the bear is viewed more as an enemy than an ally in the modern world. The bear has proven to show that through its cultural background and repeated demonstrations of cognitive thinking, the species should be granted enough respect that it is no longer affected by human actions, and left alone to serve its role within an ecosystem.
Specifically looking at the grizzly bear, this predator is ‘the second largest carnivore on earth’ (Bieder 40). While it is second to only the elephant seal, the grizzly maintains this status due to its extensive diet. Ranging from roots on the ground to prey that can be up to the similar size, the typical size for a male is ‘up to 860 lbs, [while] females are 455 lbs’ (Bieder 41).
One key characteristic that grizzlies can be identified as is their back hump which all bears have, yet a grizzly tend to have ‘a [more] muscular hump on their back’ (Sterling 14), helping them appear more intimidating. These grand animals are capable of taking down an animal solely with this characteristic, yet the forty-two teeth and their ‘long front claws’ (Sterling 15) extremely aid the process. Together, these characteristics make digging roots or catching prey an extremely easy task.
While grizzlies tend to move according to their diet and how numerous resources are, most grizzlies can be found in ‘Siberia and North America, especially in· the American and Canadian West and in Alaska’ (Bieder 40). This small habitat is due to many anthropomorphic problems that have led to grizzlies becoming a name on the Endangered Species List. While a low reproductive rate and ‘small litter sizes of one to two cubs’ (Bieder 140) greatly affect the population , human problems such as ‘hunting, trapping, poaching, road construction, poisoning, and the conversion of bear habitats’ (Bieder 139) hurt the species as well. These problems have left a number between ‘800 and 1,000 grizzlies’ (Bieder 140) to remain on the continental United States, a number that is depressingly low. With land areas such as ‘Canada’s Yukon territory or Yellowstone National Park’ (Bieder 140) being used to aid free grizzly movement, the population of grizzlies has risen in recent times.
While grizzlies are not highly respected in modern times, they were once seen as a stronger animal than the rest, and for this were greatly respected by many Native American tribes. This belief was named Animism, which basically applies a human soul to a non-human entity, whether it be an animal or a plant. In most Native American tribes, the bear was considered the main animal spirit, which gave it a greater part of power within the entire animal kingdom. Animism also gave many beliefs as to why bears should be respected, as the bear would have to be pleased so hunters could acquire food for the tribe (which was seen as being released by the bear spirit). Even when hunting, there was a belief that the bear spirit could ‘switch roles with the human hunters who pursued them’ (Martin 40), which made many tribes believe they were just as much a prey as anyone else. While Animism gave many core beliefs to the bear, many tribes such as the Modoc tribe of California actually believe all Native Americans descended from grizzlies, giving much more respect towards the species in whole. Sadly, as many tribes fell, so did the respect and values for the grizzly bear and bears in general. Thankfully in recent years, studies that have been conducted have helped the species be seen in a greater light again.
Looking at the two studies that focused on bears found in the Western world, the first involved concept formation within American black bears. This study, conducted in 2012 by Jennifer Vonk and company, utilized a touchscreen computer to test concept formation. Being the first of its kind, the study was able to show positive results that left black bears in a positive light. While showing these bears were able to form concepts at concrete, intermediate, and abstract levels, Vonk had also produced results that ‘were comparable to that of great apes’ (Concept Formation in American black bears) , even while the black bear is a non-social species.
Keeping with black bears, another secondary study that had portrayed some sorts of cognition was again conducted by Jennifer Vonk and peers, this time looking at quantity estimation and comparison in black bears. While showing again that as a non-social species, Vonk proved that black bears are still capable of itemizing ‘moving stimuli and subsets of stimuli’ (Quantity Estimation and Comparison in black bears). Furthermore, the bears that were tested appeared to use area as well, leading to scores that were once again similar to primates who had undergone an identical test. While Jennifer Vonk had conducted two studies that were entirely new and the first of their kind, Bonnie M. Perdue’s work with sun bears at the Atlanta Zoo gives humans a whole new perspective as to how cognitive a bear truly is.
The study was conducted solely by Perdue while in Atlanta, with her hypothesis being that by using computerized testing, one could greatly measure a sun bear’s cognition and cognitive abilities. Using two sun bears named Sabah (an 18 year old female) and Xander (a 19 year old male) who were already being housed in the zoo, Perdue conducted a three part study. The first was computer training that Sabah and Xander had to go through. At first, dots of honey were used to encourage interaction with a computer, which was placed behind a grate that was in front of the subject. At this stage, the entire screen of the computer was a solid red. As testing went on, the red would split to half of the screen, eventually dividing until it was only a smaller red square. If a subject correctly hit the square, a flavored pellet would dispense, and a ‘correct’ tone would play, notifying the bear that they answered correctly. Incorrect responses resulted in no pellet, and a different tone that indicated a wrong answer. Once Sabah and Xander had proficiently achieved this stage, the red square would begin moving, only adding difficulty to the task.
Once this stage was finished, Perdue conducted two more studies, with the first being behavioral observations on the subject that was not being tested with the computer. If Sabah had been testing, Perdue would have an observer watching Xander in the observation room. Any sort of behavior from aggression to backwards walking was recorded. Of course, variables such as temperature, time of day, and enrichment items that were present were noted variables of change. After both bear had been tested and observed, the last study was a preference assessment on both subjects. With four trials in which either the computer or a standard device could be used to get pellets, the bear was given the choice of which one to use. The computer program had presented fifty trials that utilized the red square test, while the standard device would yield a large number of pellets after being shaken. Preferences were recorded, as well as the duration of the interaction, which would either last ten minutes or until the bear had successfully completed the program.
After all three had been completed, and the results were analyzed, both Sabah and Xander had shown to have been successfully trained in using the computer. Both were able to effectively use it within a few sessions, which could evidently show the cognitive abilities of learning and problem solving, as both Xander and Sabah understood the problem and completed it even with increasing difficulty. Concerning the behavior of the two, both had even shown a significant increase in pacing. While Xander increased roughly three minutes, Sabah had increased two in total (Perdue 5). This pacing of course seems to point towards anticipation, perhaps highlighting that the bears possess the ability of learning as they know it will soon be their turn to interact with the computer. Lastly, the preference assessment highlighted that both bears chose the computer 100% of the time, even in scenarios where the standard device was originally used, the subject would ‘re engage with the computer’ (Perdue 6). Overall, both Xander and Sabah had ended up spending more than 60% of their time with the computer.
These results can easily benefit the idea that sun bears (and bears in general) have a deeper level of cognition than previously thought. While Perdue had been correct with her hypothesis, she was also able to witness these abilities being used first-hand. Sabah and Xander had obviously portrayed signs of learning and problem solving through the actual computer testing. Perdue believes that this sort of testing scheme is a great fit for bears. Computerized testing had been previously conducted by Vonk to show concept formation and quantity estimation with black bears. With this study further exploring the abilities of problem solving and learning within bears, computerized testing seems to be a catalyst for change with testing bear cognition. With studies like these, it is hard to realize that even in the modern world, bears are not treated with the respect they deserve as cognitive beings.
Looking at how the human-bear relationship is, one perspective that could highlight the majority of the population is the Utilitarian perspective. Looking at the core belief of this perspective, one must know that it is thought humans should ‘perform the act that will bring about the best consequences for all those affected by the outcome’ (Encyclopedia of Bioethics pg 189). Taking a closer look at the human-bear relationship, this belief will lead to what is the current status of humans and bears, typically being seen as humans viewing bears as pests. With a whole variety of anthropomorphic problems that affect bears, this perspective will cause one to believe that the bear and its’ habitat is simply detrimental to humans, and has no real reason to exist. Besides, the ‘suffering is a necessary price to pay in bringing about the best consequences’ (Encyclopedia of Bioethics, 189). Typically, Utilitarians believe no animal should be harmed if there is not a good reason, however this view may be tainted when considering how much the bear is affected simply for man’s greediness for more commercial land.
From the viewpoint of the bear, this species can agree with the idea that pleasure should be seeked out, while also avoiding pain. One can look at Sabah and Xander, who chose the more complicated test to receive flavored pellets, rather than the plain pellets. Beyond just the study, it is natural for any animal to avoid pain and instead look for pleasure. Sadly, a majority of the population tend to disagree with this statement, and do not consider animals such as the bear cognitive enough to do so. With this viewpoint, Utilitarianism remains the dominant perspective as human needs are addressed no matter what the consequences are. Whatever serves the greatest good for the greatest number is the usual solution, usually affecting a species such as the bear and hurting the relationship between the two.
It is not just a Utilitarian perspective that can be used to analyze the human-bear relationship, as the Rights view that stems from Kant’s beliefs can be applied as well. This perspective pushes for the ‘respectful treatment of the individual’ (Encyclopedia of Bioethics 191). Whether human or animal, each species in this relationship must be treated with respect, rather than using another to reach a certain mean. While this viewpoint believes that humans have their own unique life story, it also believes animals do as well. Looking specifically at bears, it is once again easy to realize that these cognitive beings do not look for painful experiences as much as pleasurable ones. A grizzly has its own interests, from health to companionship, and learns from its experience (as proven through a variety of studies conducted with not only grizzlies but black bears and sun bears as well). Even Sabah and Xander can help humans realize that bears have expectations that certain things will happen. Even with this sort of information that the Rights utilize, humans still do not treat bears with much respect, thus making the relationship much more one-sided than it should be.
Looking at the rights that wild bears have, the list is thankfully extensive (however still slightly tainted from anthropomorphic problems). While they enjoy rights that are related to their freedom, one can compare these free bears to those that are found in zoos. Any sort of bear within a zoo has less rights than they would have had while they were free, as the zoo keepers generally decide what is best for them. Granted bears within zoos may be secure and find companionship, or eat/drink whenever they please, this is about as extensive as the list goes. The basic right of freedom that any cognitive being should possess is gone, with bears in zoos having certain limits that severely affect their daily life. The more bears that are put in zoos and have their rights stripped from them, the worse the relationship between man and bear becomes.
Throughout history, the relationship between man and bear has varied greatly from time to time. While bears were once worshipped and highly respected, this is no longer the case as the majority of the human population believes bears are simply brutes, and nothing more. This sort of viewpoint, whether in the Utilitarian or Rights perspective, must be dropped as it only hurts any sort of ethical spotlight that bears could be seen in. When more humans finally realize that bears are a deeply cognitive species, and studies like Vonk’s and Perdue’s are seen throughout the world, perhaps than any sort of anthropomorphic problem towards bears will cease, and the two could live unbothered by one another.
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