Mali: The Wayward Bear

Read Suzie’s account of Mali: the first grizzly bear to happen upon OrcaLab in over 50 years.

grizzly bear on beach

By Suzie Hall

Exit 2020, pursued by a bear.

As the rest of the world suffered pandemic pandemonium, we three on Hanson Island were sent our own reason to stay indoors and keep caution: a curious grizzly bear named Mali. It has proved difficult to talk about, as a story I feel I am still processing and one which deserves immense respect. Despite the highs and lows and bizarre turns this year has taken – Mali has probably been the most significant element, and I want to remember him for decades to come.

He became a permanent feature of our lives for ten whole days, and each day felt more heightened than the last. Media coverage felt frustratingly political, and I suppose my motivation for this post is to share a little of his character and celebrate his life, and the lessons he has taught me.

In short: There has never been a grizzly bear seen at this property before, and we had no prior experience of bear etiquette. He became unfortunately familiar with our property, our space and our smells. Worst of all, he found his way into some trash – the factor which most likely led to his untimely demise.

My most vivid memory is our attempt at coexistence. We followed the advice given to us: establish a boundary with the bear. Make it clear where he can and can’t go until he eventually moves on to find a mate.

One bright afternoon in early April, after his usual morning forage in the tide-line, he made his way through the forest towards the lab and house. He was going to cross our imaginary boundary. We stood in his path and waited for him to approach. I remember glancing left and right, at Megan and Quin, as we opposed the advancing grizzly bear; our feeble, fleshy bodies 50 metres from his raw power, teeth, and claws. For a fleeting moment, I wondered if this would be our end. What the heck were we doing? And yet, in an instant, my doubts were gone. Mali seemed completely peaceful. There was no sense of aggression or malicious intent, only a young grizzly trying to find his place in the world.

He would possibly have walked right by us with little interest had we not fired a bear-banger. The deafening boom shook us all, and Mali turned on his heels. Seeing a grizzly run at full-pelt is not something I’ll likely forget. We made our way back to the house, congratulating ourselves for establishing our boundary. Job done, victory won.

Within the hour, he had broken into the house and dragged several food bins out of the pantry. Boundary abolished.

We spent the next two days in a painful limbo, evacuated from the island while Conservation Officers assessed the scene. A bear who learns that food lives inside paints a target on his head. We received the news he was going to be shot. We received the news this had been overturned, and they were going to relocate him. We spent those days in emotional turbulence, wondering if our action or inaction had put this bear at risk.

Eventually, he was successfully snared and tranquillised. On April 7th he flew over our heads, dangling beneath a helicopter – back to bear country. Bear country felt uncomfortably close, given how far they can travel in a day. There was an eerie sense of calm as we assessed the damage: broken structures, upturned fridge, giant paw prints on the living room window. As the media celebrated his successful relocation, we lived in constant anxiety of meeting those big, brown eyes round every corner.

A few days later, we received a report that he had been sighted halfway between his relocation spot and Hanson Island. He was almost certainly coming back. Grizzly bears invaded my dreams, smashing down doors and windows. Every small sound magnified; every rustle in the bushes a crick in the neck.

And then… he was dead. Shot by a man on his private property, only a few miles away. We don’t know the full details, but it is likely Mali had once again been too curious, and the man had felt threatened.

More emotions were stirred: grief at the loss of this beautiful life; relief that we no longer had to live in fear; guilt for feeling relieved, and that we may have aided in his habituation. I still flit between the three, although gratitude has slowly started to overcome them all.

I am endlessly grateful to Megan and Quin, as we rode this roller-coaster together. I hope we can visit Mali’s grave this year and pay our final respects. I am grateful to everyone – too many to name – who had a hand in relocating this bear and guiding us through.

I am grateful to those who share this post so that Mali might be remembered and his story a cautionary tale – our ecosystems are changing and we have to act accordingly. Perhaps this was an anomalous year, or perhaps this will become the reality for the Broughton Archipelago and neighbouring areas.

Above all, I am grateful to Mali, whose presence will always be felt on Hanson and in my heart. For a short while, I felt the spirit of a grizzly bear and saw the earth through his eyes. The spring was new and the trash was tasty. The world was an oyster at my clawed feet.

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