Yellowstone grizzlies: don't shoot the messenger


Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, a self-proclaimed Bible-based advocacy organization, has a solution to this year’s unusual fatal grizzly bear attacks season:  “shoot these man-eaters on sight.”  This mass slaughter of bears, according to Mr. Fisher, is directly sanctioned by the Bible, because


God makes it clear in Scripture that deaths of people and livestock at the hands of savage beasts is a sign that the land is under a curse. The tragic thing here is that we are bringing this curse upon ourselves.

Hate to say, but Mr. Fischer has it right.  Oh no, I don’t mean about shooting the grizzlies, that’s a flat-out insane idea.  Or about the notion that a whole species of beautiful and majestic creatures that are central to the entire Yellowstone ecosystem can be thought of as a curse, that’s also pretty nutty.  But if one wants to think of the odd grizzly bear attack as a “curse,” as Mr. Fischer suggests, then he’s right about the fact that we may be helping to bring it on ourselves. 

The biblical passage that Mr. Fischer is referring to comes from the Book of Leviticus, chapter 26.  In the previous chapters, God has handed down an array of laws for the Israelites, new immigrants to the promised land.  And in chapter 26, He gives them the Or Else.  In rather stark and brutal language, the author of Leviticus lays out the consequences for disobedience, which include, among many other horrific things, wild animals running amok and terrorizing the population (Leviticus 26:21). 

Of particular interest here is that out of all the laws given earlier in the book, the author singles out disobedience to divine laws governing land management as triggering these curses.  If the people become greedy toward the Earth and overutilize it, denying it its Sabbath rests in order to rake in more material gain,

Then the land will enjoy its sabbath years all the time that it lies desolate and you are in the country of your enemies; then the land will rest and enjoy its sabbaths. All the time that it lies desolate, the land will have the rest it did not have during the sabbaths you lived in it.

Fast forward about 3,000 years.  Human-induced climate change – a result of our overutilization of the Earth’s fossil fuel resources – is decimating whitebark pine populations in the Yellowstone region.  Since whitebark pine seeds have historically been a staple of Yellowstone grizzly bears’ diets, the decimation of whitebark pine trees – a high-elevation tree – has major implications for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and its iconic bears.  In search of replacement foods, the bears will be forced to search for food at lower elevations, where they are more likely to bump into humans – who are increasingly likely to be present as a result of overdevelopment.  And when hungry and desperate bears clash with humans, bad things sometimes happen. 

So if you want to refer to Leviticus to describe a few grizzly bear attacks as a “curse,” you should also refer to Leviticus to see what kind of behavior brings on that “curse.”  It would seem that, rather parallel to the warning given to the ancient Israelites, modern humankind’s overuse of the land’s resources has set in motion a series of events that may be contributing to, among other things, clashes between wild animals and humans. 

So is the solution to this supposed “curse” to shoot the messenger – more particularly in this case, the bears?  I challenge Mr. Fischer to find that in the Bible.  

What one actually finds in the Bible, without even looking too hard, is a whole lot of compassion and respect for animals.  All creatures are cared for by God, and to be treated well by us, whether they are wild or domestic, useful to humankind or thoroughly inconvenient.  The commandment to keep a Sabbath year of rest from agriculture – the breaking of which unleashes the wild animal curse in Leviticus – was given expressly for the benefit of, among others, the wild animals: 

For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused.  Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what they leave. (Exodus 23:10-12)

Centuries later, the psalmist echoed the divine care and concern for wild animals in Psalm 104:

He makes springs pour water into the ravines; it flows between the mountains.  They give water to all the beasts of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst.... The high mountains belong to the wild goats; the crags are a refuge for the coneys....The lions roar for their prey, and seek their food from God.

The coneys, as I have previously pointed out, were of absolutely no use to humans of that era, yet the psalmist writes of their value to God, who created their mountain habitat.  And the lions, rather like grizzly bears, can be downright fearsome to humans, yet God cares whether they have enough to eat. 

Wild animals of the Bible are a reflection of God, their Creator, and a means of learning about Him.  Job, in his misery-fueled wisdom, calls on his listeners to learn divine wisdom from animals,

 But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you.  Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? (Job 12:7-9)

as does Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount:

Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! (Luke 12:24) 

While Mr. Fischer believes that ascribing heightened importance to the human species renders all other creatures unworthy of God’s care, Jesus evidently did not share that view. 

Wild animals in the Bible are a source of constant praise to their Creator, along with the rest of wild nature:

Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures and all ocean depths, lightening and hail, snow and clouds, stormy winds that do his bidding, you mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars, wild animals and all cattle, small creatures and flying birds. . . ."

(Psalm 148:7-10). It would seem that eliminating a species that we find inconvenient, in biblical terms, would be more or less like taking a razor blade to God’s hymnal. 

And, of course, God did not command Noah to take with him two of every kind of animal that he found to be useful and harmless.  And when he finally got off the boat, God’s promise not to destroy the earth again was made not just to Noah but also to the wild animals, who were expressly made partners in God’s covenant sealed with the rainbow:

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: "I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you -- the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you--every living creature on earth. . . .This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you . . . . (Genesis 9:8-13) 

Finally, in the prophet Isaiah’s vision for the healed and restored Earth at the end of days, the dangerous creatures are still with us.  But we have learned to live peaceably with them (yes, even the bears):

The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the cobra’s den, the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain. . . .(Isaiah 11:6-9)

It is no surprise, given the abundance of biblical compassion for animals, that spiritual leaders throughout Christian history have urged care and respect for them.  Such as St. Birgitta, who said in the fourteenth century, “Let a man fear, above all, me, his God, and so much the gentler will he become toward my creatures and animals, on whom, on account of me, their Creator, he ought to have compassion.”  Or St. Basil, who said eleven centuries before that, “We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high dominion of man with ruthless cruelty so that the voice of the earth, which should have gone up to thee in song, has been a groan of pain.”

So before any of Mr. Fischer’s readers set out to free us from the “curse” of dangerous animals – which I think would have to include wiping out dogs, by the way, which cause 45 human deaths for every one death caused by a grizzly – I hope that they will devote some reading time as well to the Book on which Mr. Fischer purports to rely.  And perhaps decide that our energies might be better spent trying to lift the consumption-induced curse of overdevelopment and climate change, rather than blaming its victims.