When it comes to the ethical treatment of house pets, livestock and working animals, the opinion of the Winnipeg Humane Society carries a lot of weight.
For 108 years, the WHS has served as a tireless advocate for the welfare of animals within the context of urban and agricultural environments. But when it comes to the ethical treatment of wildlife, this otherwise credible organization appears to be out of its element as of late.
Over the past two weeks, the humane society has condemned Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship for returning a black bear that was illegally taken from the wild back into the very same wilderness. This is regrettable, as it does not serve the public well.
The cub was abducted from the side of a road by a well-intentioned St. Malo man who claimed the creature was struggling to survive. Unfortunately, black bear sows have been known to leave their cubs alone for up to 10 hours and it's just as likely the animal was in no danger whatsoever.
Nonetheless, the animal's captor gave the cub a name -- Makoon -- and treated it like a house pet before provincial wildlife officials took custody of the young bear. The public interest in the animal prevented officials from destroying it, so the province placed it in isolation at Assiniboine Park Zoo before eventually deciding to release it into the wild.
That decision was sound for two reasons. For starters, this black bear would have the opportunity to remain a wild animal, as conservation officials said publicly. The reason they would not say is this: Wavering in the face of public opinion would only encourage more people to disregard wildlife regulations and common sense in the future.
In a world where many humans no longer have a relationship with nature, it's understandable some ordinary people maintain a Disneyfied view of wild animals as cute-and-cuddly pets. The Winnipeg Humane Society, however, must be held to a higher standard: It should uphold the wildlife ethics espoused by biologists, conservationists and other wildlife professionals, whose long-term goal is to keep as much of the wilderness wild, as much as possible.
In a nutshell, wildlife professionals want human beings to leave wildlife alone. Most people get that intuitively and would never consider removing a terrestrial animal from the natural environment. There is a word for that act: poaching, a criminal offence in almost every jurisdiction on the planet.
But aside from knowing not to seize wild animals, people who enter the wilderness may not be aware of other wildlife ethics. Happily, the people at Leave No Trace, an international organization that advocates zero-impact wilderness travel, have compiled these ethics into the principles it encourages wildlife-watchers to adopt.
If you're heading into the forest over the long weekend, it's worth keeping them in mind. I've adapted the following tenets from leavenotrace.ca, Leave No Trace's Canadian website:
1. Observe wildlife from a distance. When you see animals, stay away. Don't follow or approach them, because your presence may stress them out and lead them to expend unnecessary calories by running or flying away, stop consuming what they're eating or even abandon their young. Keep binoculars in your pack or in your car if you want to get a good view of wildlife.
2. Never feed animals. This is a potential death sentence. Human food could be bad for wild animals' health and may cause them to change their natural feeding behavior. For example, they may approach people and be killed.
3. Seal up your food and garbage. When you're out on the trail, protect your food by hanging it or placing it in bear boxes or other somewhat tamper-proof containers. Do the same for trash and smelly toiletries such as toothpaste or deodorant. Unwittingly feeding animals is just as damaging as feeding them on purpose.
4. Keep an eye on your pets. Or better yet, leave them at home. Housecats and dogs are natural predators. They have been known to kill or harass endangered species -- piping plovers, for example -- or provoke bears who might otherwise leave people alone.
5. Avoid wildlife during sensitive times. If it's mating season, keep farther away than usual. Stay away from nests and far from animals with their young. Wildlife are also especially sensitive during the winter. And when in doubt -- just don't.