The fuss began on the website of the Reno Gazette-Journal. On Sunday the newpaper posted a story with the headline “Seriously people, stop taking ‘selfies’ with bears.” The story, which was on people allegedly intruding on the annual salmon feed at Taylor Creek near Lake Tahoe, continued “We’ve officially arrived at the point where people need to be told taking ‘selfies’ with bears is a bad idea.”
I’m not disputing the risks one puts oneself to by getting close to dangerous wildlife. A bear is a beautiful but powerful animal, and should be respected from a distance. But, to paraphrase Tom Stoppard, once again the media is a reporter doll – wind it up and it gets it wrong. We’d “officially arrived at the point where people need to be told” back when photography became a pastime for the masses. In other words, instead of blaming people with their IPhones and Androids, they should blame those people’s great-grandparents with their Kodak Brownies.
If you doubt me, consider the photo below:
This photo is from the 1915 book On The Trail: An Outdoor Book For Girls, by Lina Beard and Adalia Beard. In the pages of this tome, available for free at Project Gutenberg, the authors give instruction for women on camping, canoeing, hiking, and general outdoorsmanship. Some of the advice is sound, some of it is dated, and some of it is laughable. The caption to the above photo is “A bear would rather be your friend than your enemy”, and it easily beats the suggestions a woman leave her jewelry and silver at home for the funniest moment in the book.
But the authors Beard didn’t on their own come up with the idea that you can get close to bears and photograph them. The books The Bears of Yellowstone and Death in Yellowstone contain historical anecdotes of visitors to America’s first National Park thinking the bears, brown and black, were part of a free-range petting zoo. Its clear that unsafe behavior around bears is, unfortunately, an American tradition.
Social media can be a tremendous boon to the outdoorperson, and to promoting participation in the outdoors. But as with anything there will be people who misuse it. Its a shame they do. But let’s not fall into the media-driven trap of blaming Instagram for people’s unsafe behavior. That’s been going on a long, long time.