Wolf Song of Alaska News

Wildlife Brings Nature Closer to Home

Bill Sherwonit / Compass / Anchorage Daily News / August 9, 2006

Lately I've noticed several commentaries by Anchorage residents who bemoan the presence of wild animals in our city, especially those perceived as dangerous. As one who celebrates urban wildness in its many diverse forms, I'm continually amazed that people would wish to empty our city of moose or bears -- though really I shouldn't be, given the enormous range of human perceptions and attitudes toward others who are different, including other people.

It's as if these people wish to turn Anchorage into a kind of fortress that insulates and protects residents from wild critters. In fact, that's exactly the argument made by Guy Sines in his recent Compass piece, "Wild animals don't belong in urban setting."

Guy argues that humans have historically built settlements at least partly to keep wild animals at bay. While that may be true, the nature of the world has changed dramatically since those times. Nowadays we humans pose a far greater threat than any other species and have no need to protect ourselves so completely from roving wild beasts.

The moose that Guy so fears present a good case in point. Though he's apparently been charged several times and carries a firearm to ensure he doesn't "become a link in the urban food chain," Guy is way more likely to be shot, robbed or otherwise harmed by a human than hurt by a moose -- or bear. In fact, severe injuries from urban-moose attacks are so rare that they merit major media coverage. Meanwhile scores of moose are killed locally by people, mostly when crushed by drivers. And around Alaska, hunters annually kill thousands of moose. So which species presents the real danger?

Laws and regulations have changed, too, along with human attitudes. One reason that few moose and bears inhabited Anchorage four decades ago (when Guy was growing up on the lower Hillside) is that large mammals were routinely shot when spotted within the community's borders. Nowadays most Anchorage residents, including many who hardly qualify as "bunny huggers," prefer to share the local landscape with bears and moose rather than kill or drive them away.

And contrary to Guy's argument, my circles of friends, relatives and acquaintances provide strong evidence that urban residents throughout the U.S. and beyond share this supposedly "asinine" perspective. Talk to the visitors passing through town, and you'll find they envy Anchorage's abundance of wildlife.

Guy's opinions remind me of a piece that former columnist Mike Doogan wrote a few years ago, titled "Acknowledge it: City is no place for wild land." Like Guy, Mike saw things in black-and-white: Cities are for people and their civilized trappings. Parklands, moose and bears -- and presumably other forms of wildness -- belong elsewhere.

This desire to empty Anchorage of its wildest elements points to one of our culture's biggest problems: the tendency to separate humans from the rest of the natural world.

As poet, essayist and social critic Wendell Berry has noted, we too easily split our world into parts: wilderness, which is "out there" and sacrosanct (at least to some of us); and everything else, which can be treated any darn way we please. In our cities, we can trash, exploit and develop nature however we please.

As I've argued before, the farther we humans have to go to find wild nature, the easier we forget our connections to it. We behave more carelessly, in ways that harm other life forms, when they are abstractions instead of flesh-and-blood neighbors.

Parks and moose remind us of our ties to the larger world. They bring nature's mysteries closer to home and present opportunities to move beyond our narrow human perspectives. We must resist the notion that there's plenty of wildness "out there," because many people rarely leave the city. And we all need to touch wildness in our lives.

Bill Sherwonit is a nature writer who lives in Anchorage .

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