Shooting of bear in North Vancouver ignites debate over lethal force by conservation officers
Plum the fruit-loving bear was shot and killed this week in the community of Deep Cove
In the minutes after the death of the black bear that Nancy Bleck and her North Vancouver neighbours had come to know as Plum, she wanted to pay her last respects.
The B.C. conservation officers who shot the animal in response to a 911 call this week let Bleck and a friend kneel beside the bear. Bleck put her hand on Plum's carcass.
"She was warm. It was so fresh and so upsetting," Bleck says.
"And after we had that moment — it was such a heart-wrenching moment — after we had that moment, and they trucked her off, that's when the family [who called 911] came back out to make sure she was gone."
Bleck says that's also when someone claimed they heard the family laughing.
That claim made it into news coverage of the bear's death, and into the social media storm that ensued — ratcheting up tensions in a classic B.C. battle pitting neighbours against neighbours and animal lovers against conservation officers.
'A fever pitch'
There are the residents who saw Plum as a part of the neighbourhood — a wild animal, perhaps, but one that could be moved along, shooed and protected if only human beings would take necessary steps like getting rid of fruit trees and securing garbage.
Then there are those who send out email chains and put up signs warning each other not to call conservation officers if they see a bear — for fear they'll kill it.
There are those — as was the case in Plum's death — who call 911 anyway because they see a bear pushing on a window pane and get frightened.
And caught somewhere in between are the conservation officers tasked with resolving conflicts between humans and wildlife — but who critics claim are too quick to reach for the trigger.
"It's reaching a fever pitch," says Lesley Fox, executive director of the Fur-Bearers, a national organization dedicated to protecting fur-bearing animals.
And no matter what side of the divide you sit on, Fox says she fears it's going to end up with someone getting hurt.
"It is a dangerous situation when you have people who stop relying on a service [like conservation officers] — or who ostracize and punish others who call."
'Where are their boundaries?'
Fox believes Plum's death, along with similar incidents in recent years, are proof of the need for a deeper examination of the role and response of conservation officers.
One of Bleck's neighbours said she would have put herself between the officers and the bear if she had the chance. Last year, three Coquitlam residents were accused of obstructing justice for doing just that in a case that made the headlines, but not the bar for prosecution.
Fox says the debate fits in with the ongoing global conversation about the use of lethal force and policing.
She says shooting a bear should be a last resort, following an exhaustive, well-documented trail of attempts at enforcement — including tougher penalties for humans who break rules around bear attractants — and proof that a bear is actually a danger to human beings, not just an irritant.
According to provincial statistics, B.C. conservation officers killed 564 black bears last year after responding to more than 21,000 calls.
Fox's group wants third-party oversight when conservation officers kill. And they want to see officers spend more time handing out tickets and issuing orders against errant homeowners.
"It's about civil liberties," she says.
"A police officer or conservation officer: Where are their boundaries? What can and can't they do? And I think that's a conversation in part we're having about policing. It's about the application of force. When and when is it not necessary? What's too much and what's too little?"
The many versions of Plum the bear
So what actually happened to Plum?
Luci Cadman, who does educational outreach for the North Shore Black Bear Society, insists that while Plum was well known in the neighbourhood she was not known for being a problem.
"Bears are curious animals, absolutely. She might have been checking out her reflection in the glass," she says. "But never once did we have any kind of report to say that she was aggressive or that she was approaching people's properties aggressively — or anything like that."
The man who oversees the Lower Mainland's conservation officers, Insp. Murray Smith, says the bear wasn't killed for looking in a window.
"We also had multiple, multiple, multiple reports of a black bear in the same geographic area that had been into garbage, that had been in people's yards, that had been eating fruit off the fruit trees," he says.
"The information that we've had over tens upon tens and tens of reports is that this bear had been in and around people continuously. And so now it no longer has a fear of people, from the reports we had. And it was into unnatural human food sources and consequently that bear is a public safety risk."
Smith says the bear was moving without fear of humans through a neighbourhood that houses schools, daycares and public parks. He says she wasn't just a "docile" animal — echoing a point that has appeared in blogs, commentary and Facebook posts accusing some of Plum's fans of "Disneyfying" a wild, unpredictable creature.
Smith takes Fox's point about use of force. He says the conservation service is open to scrutiny. And they agree that more enforcement is needed.
"With my staff in the Lower Mainland, that's been the direction, is we're going to do more enforcement until people get the message. Because we're tired of having to euthanize bears. And I know the community is as well," he said.
'That's a lot of bear calls'
Cadman, the educator, joined the bear society after moving to North Vancouver from England, where there are no bears. Bleck moved to the North Shore from East Vancouver.
But it's different living on streets that back onto mountains and in houses that are part of wildlife corridors.
The properties that were part of Plum's habitat list for millions of dollars. Bears come with the package.
Smith says he's fine to "agree to disagree" with people who insist on seeing conservation officers as villains.
He says they've had 4,300 bear calls in the Lower Mainland so far this year: "That's a lot of bear calls."
"It's really easy to blame the conservation officers. We euthanized this bear, but you know, we weren't the ones who killed this bear," says Smith.
"It was everyone who didn't pick their fruit. Who didn't secure their garbage. And left other attractants like compost and birdseed out. And allowed the bear to stay in the neighbourhood."
An oath to co-exist with wildlife?
Fox doesn't think it's entirely fair to throw the blame back at neighbours. She believes most people know the right thing to do.
But she says education won't work unless it's accompanied by meaningful penalties for people who break the rules.
"We all need to take responsibility, because as British Columbians, we don't have a choice. If you want to live in this province, I almost feel like there needs to be a duty or an oath that you'll co-exist with wildlife. That's the deal," Fox says.
Meanwhile, another bear can be expected to take Plum's place.