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Still Ontological, I Believe

As I recall, the picture was a selfie. My student was one of many people who come up here from the lower 48 to teach somewhere in the K-12 system. She was taking a course from me to help satisfy her certification requirements to remain in the state system.

…And there she stood in the picture with a polar bear walking along the beach in the background behind her. No, she wasn’t that close. She was fine, but really, it was a fantastic picture. I could imagine her showing it to people and chattering on about it for years to come. I was happy for her, and just a little jealous, but mostly happy for her. It had to have been a cool moment.

…which is what I said.

To my surprise, a frown immediately captured her face and her shoulders slumped as she looked down. For all the coolness of the pic, it was evidently not part of a happy story. She struggled to explain why. It turns out that someone shot the bear mere moments after she had posed for the picture.

No, this is not a story of criminal activity, at least not that I’m aware of. The hunter was an Alaska Native, and yes, they are allowed to take polar bears for subsistence activities. Still, I couldn’t help but feel for the student in this instance. To see a bear go from shared space in a selfie to dead on the beach in a matter of moments must have generated a kind of moral whiplash.

(Clunky metaphor, I know.)

I can’t help thinking the sudden transformation of the bear from a living breathing subject that one might want to share space with in a selfie to a dead animal must have been a bit shocking. I suspect the issue here is more than the sudden death of the bear; it’s this sudden change in the way circumstances invite her to think about him. One minute, she was celebrating the presence of the bear, and the next it was no longer a presence to be celebrated.

Is a bear fit for a selfie? Or is it fit to eat (and perhaps to wear)? You can answer both of these questions with a ‘yes’, but it may be a little disturbing when both answers play out at the same time and in the same place, and most particularly, with the same bear.

I thought about this over the last week or two as a polar bear had been hanging out near the college where I work for several days. Wildlife had to shoo him off a couple times. For those of us at the college, he was both a source of excitement and at least a trace of anxiety. More than a few of us grabbed our cameras, but even as we took pictures, several wondered if he wasn’t a little too close. He wasn’t so close as to generate immediate alarm, but he was close enough to make us all a little more careful as we went outside. In time, we began to worry about his own fate as well. If he didn’t move on soon, would officials end up shooting him?

I don’t know what happened to the bear. I have some ideas as to why he was here, and I believe he moved on eventually, but I don’t know this for a fact. For the present, the possibility itself, that he could have been shot is the interesting point. What would it mean to me, I wondered, if the bear in these pictures had been killed within days (or perhaps hours) of my taking them? It isn’t simply the possibility that he might die on his own. Hell, cycles of life and all that! No, the point is that a picture of a bear that might be killed because he is close enough to take pictures of him makes for something of an ironic photo subject.

The whole thing reminds me of the old bit from Marshall Sahlins on how you tell the difference between an animal you can’t eat and one that you can. Perhaps, I think, taking a picture with a bear is a bit like giving it a name. It’s one way of imparting a sense of personhood to the creature, one way of making it part of the world of lives about which you have some fucks to give. This is especially true if you hope to tell tales of the creature at some later date. I suppose it depends a bit on the picture, just how much the taking of a picture actually imparts meaning to its subject, but a selfie with a bear is probably on the maximum end of the personalizing spectrum. (We put ourselves in pictures with people and creatures, we like, not usually those who loathe or simply don’t care about.) At the other end of this spectrum, I guess we’d have to count most of the pictures taken by trophy hunters over a fresh kill. If trophy pictures impart meaning to the animal, I can’t help thinking it’s one of conquest. In contrast, I reckon most of those taking a picture of a bear want to talk (and think) about their encounter with an exotic living creature. They might want to think of him, for a time at least, as alive and well and going about his business long after the picture-taking two-legged has found its way to warmer homes and (hopefully) eager ears. At the very least, such stories are compromised by the thought that the very encounter that produced an image of the creature in question could also have reduced it to meat headed for the dinner table.

Good to eat and good to selfie, but not at the same time.

So, if the camera ensouls an animal, so to speak, the gun would seem to do just the opposite, at least for some people. Beyond the actual act of killing an animal, the willingness to do so would seem to transform an animal into something less than personal; it shifts from an end in itself to a means of sustenance.

Or does it?

Certainly not for indigenous hunters. If anything, their own traditions are saturated with motifs attributing personhood to animals. Whalers up here consistently speak of the bowhead as giving themselves to the hunters voluntarily, and similar themes can be found in hunting traditions of indigenous peoples around the world. For example, the oral traditions of hunting peoples often contain references to a time when animals spoke as humans do. As often as not, the loss of this quality in such stories will occur by choice, and as often as not that choice is motivated by the needs of human hunters. In some stories, animals may still take human form under designated circumstances. The upshot is a world in which role of animal and hunter is the conscious decision of persons who must be respected if the relationship is to continue.

But I don’t think the notion of hunting as a respectful enterprise is entirely limited to indigenous traditions, or indigenous people in general. Talk of respect is quite common among hunters, all the more so for those who do so as a means of feeding themselves. Animal rights activists may well dismiss this as convenient rhetoric, but the lives of subsistence hunters are far more intimately involved with the cycles of nature and the lives of animals than those of your modern citizen. There is little reason to believe those who invest a significant portion of their thought and their activities on the animal world come away from this with little but a utilitarian sense of those animals. It might be different for commercial hunters, and likewise for a certain scale of commercial farmer, but the people I know up here who feed themselves from the ducks, the geese, the caribou, and yes, the whale, live lives fairly filled  with thoughts about these creatures.

Which brings me back to the shock that shock of becoming an unqitting witness to the harvest of an animal. I reckon, it must be a bit more unsettling to those who’ve never participated in such activities. Folks may know that their beef was once a cow; their bacon was once a pig, and their chicken was once, …um, a chicken, but most have never witnessed (much less contributed to) the process by which the one becomes the other. For the average consumer of market meats, the consumption of animals is easily imagined as an entirely objective process. Vegetarians may escape this tangle of dissonance, but a fair number of those uncomfortable with hunting are fairly caught right up in it. Their discomfort is at least partly a function of seeing (or thinking about) a process which normally occurs out of sight, but which is absolutely essentially to their own sustenance. In contrast, participating in single hunt can be a lasting reminder that the food on your table was once alive. I’m not saying, everyone draws this lesson, but I certainly did (it’s been a log time), and I believe I see similar views in those around me now.

…all of which means, ironically enough, that shooting an animal may not equate to depersonalization after all, at least not for everyone. I reckon, it will always be a bit shocking for those unaccustomed to such activities, and it would be that much more so for anyone unfortunate enough to be sharing a selfie moment with a creature just before seeing it go down, but the real difference in worldview may be less a question of those who appreciate the lives of animals and those who don’t so much as a question of those who remember their own lives come at the expense of others and those for whom that connection is fuzzy at best.

The bear, from a couple weeks back (click to embiggen). He is, I believe, still alive. I’m sorry the pictures aren’t that great. I of course wanted to stay much closer to a door than he was to me.