"In all my 20 years of so of performing I have never experienced anything quite like this!" That was blues and jazz musician Jeff Healey speaking to the crowd at the Kaslo Jazz Etc Festival, following three gunshots, a crowd rising to its feet with a cries of "No!" and a black bear running, its stomach opened by a shotgun wound, into the water of Kaslo Bay to drown beside a paddle-boat containing children, in full view of Healy's audience of 1700 people. After a quick discussion with the other members of his band, The Jazz Wizards, Healey decided to keep playing and let others react to whatever was going on, and the sounds of traditional jazz filled Kaslo Bay again.
Festival organizer Jim Holland didn't go up on the stage right away to explain the situation to the audience because he was consoling his 9-year-old son, who had witnessed the death of the bear close up. Holland also had to control some people who were throwing rocks at the RCMP constable who shot the bear. They were shouting at the officer, accusing him of being a murderer and a coward. "It came pretty close to spinning out of control," said Holland.
The main stage at the Kaslo Jazz Etc. Festival is on the water, just off the shore of Kaslo Bay Park. You can sit and watch the performers from the sloped grass of the park, and if it gets too hot you can go for a swim beside the stage, in the clear water of bay in which there are always a few canoers and kayakers who are also part of the audience. Your kids can play in the sand by the water beside the stage and it's easy to keep an eye on them. The backdrop for the performances is Kootenay Lake, with the peaks of the Purcell Mountains in the background. Behind you, in the back of the park, are vendors with food and crafts from around the world, and a secondary performance stage. If you're from the Kaslo or Nelson area, you'll meet lots of friends and acquaintances. If you're from some bigger place, you'll probably wonder why.
All this is surrounded by forest. And in that forest, between the festival site and the two-lane winding highway that runs up Kootenay Lake, are a few cherry trees gone wild years ago that no-one picks except black bears. The bear that was shot and then drowned in the lake was pretty serious about those cherries.
The result was nothing unusual: several bears are shot by police or conservation officers every day in B.C. It's an ordinary and usually hidden occurrence. But this bear death, which occurred on Saturday, July 31, took on a new significance because it had an audience of 1700 people. We are a society of people unaccustomed to witnessing death. And we are increasingly willing to see value in the life of a wild animal. Many people at the festival responded to this incident with a level of emotion and empathy that would, not so long ago, have been reserved for the death of a human being, and in times before that, only for a human being of our own race or group.
Conservation officers slashed
The bear first turned up near Kaslo Bay several days before the festival. It was very tame, but it didn't act aggressively. It wandered around in a nearby campground in the middle of the night, making the tenters nervous. The festival organizers ran it off with dogs several times during the week. On Friday, the day before the festival, they called in a Conservation Officer, Len Butler, who intended to tranquilize and relocate the bear, but he couldn't find it. He advised Holland that the bear would not come back once the festival filled up with crowds and loud music. He said he would be available throughout the weekend festival if they needed him. But he wasn't.
When the bear showed up Saturday morning, Butler was down at Ymir dealing with some grizzlies that had to be moved. Butler is the only conservation officer for a large area of the West Kootenay. Before recent provincial government cutbacks, there were three. Local Liberal MLA Blair Suffredine told the Nelson Daily News he doesn't think the cutback had any effect on the incident at Kaslo Bay Park.
On Saturday afternoon the bear was in a tree very close to the beach where there were children playing. Holland reports that many adults were trying to get close to the bear, children in tow, throwing fruit to it, pushing past festival security people to get closer. Holland called the RCMP. Two officers came and decided that in the interest of public safety the bear should be killed. They used a low-power shotgun because of the danger of high-powered ammunition ricocheting off rocks and hitting someone. The result was that they had to shoot it three times, tearing open the bear's abdomen as it ran toward the lake.
'Wanted to send our love'
Once the bear was in the water, reports Holland, people wanted to get close to it, and he had to plead with people to keep their distance. "We wanted to throw flowers on the water to send the bear our love," I later overheard one person say.
Jim Holland was amazed at this. "Why don't people understand that you don't approach a dying animal?"
Most people in the festival audience, although concerned and surprised, returned to distractedly listening to the music. A few wept openly. Several people decided to leave and declared they would never return to the festival again. There was talk of trauma and grief.
Jim Holland told me he had to talk to his 9-year-old son about "this is what guns do." Trauma at the death of a bear is a new reality in B.C. I grew up on a cattle ranch in central B.C. in the 1950s, where my father and all our neighbours shot black bears on sight. As a young boy I saw several bears shot, and I watched my father shoot and butcher cattle and pigs. It was disgusting and it stank, but I don't remember being traumatized. I took my cue from the emotions of the adults around me, which the kids at the jazz festival did this summer with a set of very different emotions.
How far are we prepared to move over to give wild animals room? Should the jazz festival have been shut down? The organizers were not prepared to do that. Should everyone have just left that bear alone? Maybe, but we didn't--we tried to feed it, and then we shot it. Should the festival have announced that a bear is about to be shot, and asked them to please stand back? "I'd have had people climbing that tree to protect the bear," says Holland. As a society we are not willing to give much ground to wildlife--development continues, encroaching on animal habitat, killing off grizzly populations and making the black bears tamer and potentially more "threatening" to us.
This incident made the provincial media, and it has been discussed a lot on the street in Kaslo and Nelson. It's made us think about what value we place on the life of a wild animal, and what it looks, sounds, and smells like to kill an animal. The adults and kids in Kaslo Park that day were given the valuable educational opportunity to witness a violent death. We got to see "what guns do."
Conservation Officer Len Butler told the Nelson Daily News that he thought the RCMP made the right decision under the circumstances.
Sacred bears in town
Jim Holland thinks we should have volunteer organizations modelled on volunteer fire departments or search and rescue, to deal with wildlife conflicts. The Vancouver Sun reported recently that Whistler Town Council is considering hiring and training someone to deal with wildlife conflicts, because their Conservation Officer has to cover an area similar in size to Len Butler's.
Whatever we do, we have an interesting conjunction of forces to deal with: fewer conservation officers, dwindling wild bear habitat, more "habituated" bears, and more people prepared to view a bear's life as sacred.
While we ruminate on where that will all lead, check out the cherry tree in the woods at Kaslo Bay. There's a new bear there. Jim Holland says it arrived the next day while he and his crew were taking apart the festival site.
Bill Metcalfe, host of Nelson Before Nine on Kootenay Co-op Radio (KCR) , contributes regularly to The Tyee.