Bear Culture

A large outdoor mural in the main plaza of Urcos, Deparment of Cusco, Perú. The mural includes important icons of the local culture: an Andean bear, an ukuku, and El Señor de Qoyllor Rit’i.

A large outdoor mural in the main plaza of Urcos, Peru, includes important icons of the local culture: an Andean bear, an ukuku, and El Señor de Qoyllor Rit’i.

Russ Van Horn is currently in Peru to study Andean (spectacled) bears. Read his previous post, Bear Care in Conservation Terms.

In my last post, I rambled on about why conservation of Andean (or spectacled) bears, and conservation in general, matters, from a scientific viewpoint. This time around I’ll wade into some of the other reasons we work for conservation.

The e-mail that started me on these two posts highlighted a Web site showing some hunters with big game “trophies.” In this case, the trophies were taxidermy mounts of large mammals, mostly carnivores. In the background was a stuffed Andean bear, and the presence of this stuffed bear disturbed the e-mail’s writer and at least some of its readers.
Aside from some legal and conservation issues, what was it that bothered people? Was it merely the carcass of a dead bear that got people riled? No, I doubt that was it, because bears die all the time. Was it because the stuffed bear was disgusting looking? Maybe some people thought so, but I think Andean bears are pretty neat looking; there are plenty of stuffed bears in natural history museums, and most people don’t take offense at them, so I don’t think that’s what irritated people.

I think what struck a nerve was that the stuffed bear had presumably been hunted in order to provide an experience for the hunter, and the trophy represented this experience. The reason the hunter wanted this experience, and this trophy, was because at least some of his values (the photo showed only men) were different than those of the people who were later repulsed by the picture. People value bears, and nature in general, for different reasons, and those non-scientific values are important to consider for conservation of nature, and of culture.

Bromeliads in cloud forest near the village of Capiri, Peru

Bromeliads in cloud forest near the village of Capiri, Peru

In my last post I included a quote from Aldo Leopold that referred to the importance of not losing species. Many people believe that there is value in each species, whether or not it has economic value to people. They represent living evolutionary history and have value just because they exist. Andean bears have value, and so do bromeliads. That fact that one has bigger teeth and claws than we do, and the other doesn’t, is beside the point. Both are worthy of conservation. Bears, however, play a big role in human culture and bromeliads don’t. Probably everyone reading this knows what at least one species of bear looks like, even if they’ve never seen a bear. Most people reading this, however, are probably wondering what in the world a bromeliad is, even though the odds are that you’ve seen more bromeliads in your life than you’ve seen bears. Many bromeliads have spectacular flowers and glossy leaves and are widely grown as ornamental houseplants.

So, why do we pay more attention to bears than bromeliads? Well, I think the big teeth and claws are part of it. When I was a little kid growing up in rural Minnesota, for me one of the best parts of going to pick wild blackberries was the chance that I might see a bear also going to pick wild blackberries. I was a little scared of black bears, but I respected and admired them, too. In an odd way, I guess my attitude toward black bears was a little bit like my attitude toward my older brothers. I wasn’t unique in thinking of bears as being a little like people.

Because some of their behaviors and some aspects of their physical appearance appear like those of humans, many human societies have considered bears to be unusual animals, not quite like other wildlife, but not quite like humans, either. As I mentioned in my last post, Andean bears don’t hurt people, yet these bears are important in traditional culture where they live. One thing that has puzzled some biologists interested in Andean bears is that although the art of some pre-Hispanic cultures depicts many species in great detail, there are no depictions of Andean bears. Bears leave so much evidence of their existence, as tracks, leftover food, and feces, that it seems impossible that these earlier people didn’t know about bears.

Dr. S. Paisley, who’s worked on Andean bears in Bolivia and Peru, has hypothesized that these people did know about bears, but the people didn’t think of bears as animals, so they didn’t portray them as animals. Those of us descended from the European cultures do think of them as animals, so we simply don’t recognize Andean bears when they’re portrayed as something else.

In a post I wrote last June, I referred to the festival of Qoyllor Rit’I (see Andean Bears: Field Research Continues). This is a major spiritual and cultural event for the Andean people living east of the city of Cusco, Peru. During Qoyllor Rit’i, hundreds of people make an incredibly difficult pilgrimage to a sacred site in the high mountains. Along with the pilgrims go people costumed as ukukus, a term that sometimes refers to tricksters serving a spiritual function, that sometimes refers to mythical hybrids between Andean bears and humans, and that sometimes refers to Andean bears. The bear may not have often been depicted in historical art, but it clearly has cultural value.

Different species of animals and plants have great cultural significance around the world. The Kuhl’s lory (a small parrot) has great meaning in the traditional culture of the Cook Islands, yet it has been driven extinct on several islands on which it used to live. When it was recently reintroduced to one of those islands, the local people celebrated the return of an icon and restoration of a lost part of their culture (see post Return of the Lory). If the Andean bear disappears, what will be lost from the culture of the Andes?

Every society that has ever existed interacted with plants and animals, and they have value to us. By conserving species, we conserve part of what makes us human.

Russ Van Horn is a senior researcher with the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.