Another wild animal with a fan base among humans has met a violent end, when Grizzly Bear No. 211—known to his human friends as Scarface—was shot dead near Gardiner, Montana. Scarface was the best known of about 750 grizzlies who call Yellowstone National Park home but who, like the Yellowstone bison, sometimes stray across the invisible lines marking the park on a map.
When a homeless domesticated animal is brought into a shelter, one of the first things the creature gets—right along with food and veterinary care—is a name. In the animal rescue world, it’s called a “shelter name.” Having a name makes the animal more attractive to potential adopters and it’s also convenient to the shelter workers, who are aware of a trait that nonhuman animals share with humans: individuality.
The people who take on the task of protecting wildlife fall into the same habit of naming nonhuman animals for much the same reasons. Advocates for wild animals get accused of anthropomorphizing creatures in a mushy-headed and silly way. The argument is that naming wild animals is something children do.
While that may be so, children are onto something. Nonhuman animals, domesticated or not, are in fact individuals. Meaning, they are not all the same. They are more or less beautiful, photogenic, friendly. It’s good to remember that they are more or less dangerous. Wild animals are wild, and to name is not to tame.
In animal refuges, preservation areas, national and state parks, people who do the hard work of preserving the diversity of life on the planet get to know their four legged residents as individuals and sometimes the names become public, making this or that creature a “spokesman” for its species.
Grizzly bears—and bears generally—are having a hard time finding living space in the 21st century. Bear figures prominently in the lore of indigenous peoples, and Bear has had popular runs as the Teddy Bear (Brunus edwardii), Teddy Ruxpin, and the inimitable Smokey.
These popular bears served to counterbalance the fear the grizzly inspired in the settlers. The original scientific name was Ursus horribilis, and we saw why last year when Leo DiCaprio, playing the historical trapper Hugh Glass in The Revenant, won an Academy Award for a part that included a bear mauling that was painful to watch.
DNA sequencing produced a new understanding of the grizz as a subspecies of brown bear, Ursus arctos horribilis. Grizzly bears are listed as endangered in parts of Canada and threatened in the lower 48 of the United States. They are holding their own in Alaska.
This was the context of Scarface becoming a rock star among the grizzly population in Yellowstone National Park. Male grizzlies fight among themselves during mating season and Scarface had sustained injuries over the years that made him easy to pick out of a bear lineup, particularly his damaged right ear. In the ongoing research into the habits of the grizzlies in Yellowstone, Scarface had been captured, collared, and released 17 times.
Scarface did survive to a ripe old age for his species, 25. In his prime, he weighed 600 pounds. He was down to 338 pounds and biologists expected this last winter to be his last. They meant a death from old age, not from gunshots. Social media were full of outrage from biologists and wildlife photographers, for whom Scarface had become a symbol of the species struggling for survival against climate change and the invasion of bear habitat by humans.
Shooting a grizzly is unlawful except in self-defense, but Scarface had a long history with people that made him an unlikely candidate to attack a photographer or a hunter. Because of the Endangered Species Act violation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has opened an investigation into the circumstances of the shooting. Several photographers, decrying the shooting, declared that Scarface was the most photographed bear in Yellowstone.
If so, that’s something Scarface had in common with Hollywood, the elk who greeted photographers at the J.T. Nickel Family Nature and Wildlife Preserve in the Cherokee Nation until he was shot by some “sportsman” who took Hollywood’s head and left almost all of the meat to rot.
Last year also marked the trophy killing of Cecil the Lion after he was baited a short distance outside a national park in Zimbabwe to make the travesty of a hunt legal. The man with the plan to kill Cecil was Dr. Walter Palmer, a dentist from Bloomington, Minnesota.
People who take on the task of protecting nonhuman animals often give them names because humans seem to care more for the welfare of animals with names. It’s a good thought, but it was insufficient protection for Cecil the Lion, Hollywood the Elk, and now Scarface the Bear.