Stop crying, Hope’s number was up

She was a bear who captivated millions but Gordon Buchanan, the man who filmed her, says we should not be sentimental about her death at the hands of a hunter

As told to Audrey Ward
16 October 2011
The Sunday Times

I spent last year in America filming two wild black bears, Hope and her mother Lily, for a series called The Bear Family and Me. Lily was the subject of a study by Lynn Rogers, a biologist based in Minnesota, and in the lead-up to Hope’s birth, his team put a camera in Lily’s den.

I hadn’t yet left for the States and I marvelled at the technology that allowed me to watch this animal that was living underground in Minnesota while I was sitting in my kitchen in Glasgow.

I wasn’t the only one gripped. When the programme aired in January, 3m viewers tuned in and over the course of the series Hope became the most famous bear in the world — bar Rupert and Paddington, of course.

I learnt that these creatures were not the terrifying beasts of lore, but if approached correctly could be gentle towards humans.

I even let my young children sit next to a large male black bear — something that I would not have imagined when I first went to bear country.

Last month, while I was working in British Columbia, my wife called to say that Hope was missing and days later I learnt that a hunter had shot the yearling while she was feeding at a baiting station.

The reaction was astonishing.

Online message boards filled up with comments such as “I’m going to miss Hope so much” and “I’m so devastated. I cry every time I think about it”. There were also a lot of angry comments.

The details of the hunter have not been published but if they were he would probably face harassment — a hunter who previously shot one of the study bears in Minnesota received death threats and had to move house.

You might be surprised by my reaction to Hope’s death. Yes, she was boisterous and adorable, and she brought out my paternal instincts. The day we found her after she had been abandoned by Lily she was close to starvation. She put her paws up on my lap and I hand-fed her grapes. It was magical.

And yes, it’s a real shame that someone shot a bear that I had spent a lot of time with and one that was immensely popular with so many viewers. But let’s put these creatures and their fate in their true context.

People often have an empathy and an appreciation for wild animals but the problem is they don’t have a rational view of how nature works. As a cameraman for Autumnwatch and Springwatch on the BBC, I’m used to people being overly sentimental about animals. I remember we had a particularly strong reaction to a series in which we filmed newborn grey seals.

Hundreds of thousands of these seal pups are born in the autumn and it’s a tough time of year for any animal to be born. The sea rises, you’ve got high winds and storms and there’s a huge loss of pups, but that’s all part of nature’s plan. While filming we found a seal pup that had lost its mother and we tracked it for a whole day. The next day when we went back to the beach we discovered it had died overnight.

Death is something that happens to thousands of pups every single year but several people criticised us for not getting involved. What was I supposed to do? Pick up a seal pup, shove it in my jacket, then take it home and somehow try to find seal milk? Nature had decided it wanted that animal to die but some viewers said we should have tried to reunite it with its mother. Others said we could have taken it to one of the hundreds of seal sanctuaries around the country.

I acknowledge that there are grey areas. When Hope was abandoned by Lily, I was back in Britain. I wasn’t that bothered; I thought: “We’re going to have to let nature take its course.” But when I returned to Minnesota I felt quite differently.

I knew Hope would die if we didn’t get involved and, ultimately, there was a scientific basis for intervention because she was a study bear. We gave her a little bit of supplementary food and we managed to keep her alive and she started doing really well after that. She was then reunited with her mother. The process proved invaluable for the study team.

Ultimately the majority of animals die so a few can prosper, that’s just how it is. Consider a lion hunting a wildebeest. I would never go out and stop a lion from killing the wildebeest. To do that would have a detrimental effect on the lion; lions have to eat.

I think people need to get things into perspective and put their efforts into trying to have a greater understanding of how nature works. I’m a wildlife enthusiast but I’m just interested in them as a species. I celebrate nature in all its forms, understand that nature is cruel and accept that suffering and death are a big part of nature’s way of working.

The difference between my view and that of animal lovers is that they don’t like to see suffering of any sort. They often anthropomorphise creatures, but putting human characteristics onto an animal doesn’t help you understand that animal, it gives you a false impression of what an animal really is. That’s something that as a wildlife film-maker you have to avoid.

Obviously with Hope things were slightly different, as she was shot and that’s not natural, but I’m not against hunting at all as long as the animal is not an endangered species and as long as there is a good moral justification for it, such as eating that animal or shooting it to protect the environment or another species. I accept that the person who killed Hope didn’t do anything wrong. He was a hunter with a ticket to shoot a bear and he did it legally.

Often, indeed, it is our responsibility to hunt. If we’ve removed a top predator, it’s our job to try to perform the role that they carried out. Take deerculling in Scotland. Wolves were hunted out 300 years ago by man so without these top predators the deer population exploded and it had a detrimental effect on woodland. That in turn had an effect on other species.

Trophy hunting, however, where an animal is killed in a way that requires no real skill, the meat is discarded and the body is mounted in a position to make it look as scary and intimidating as possible so that people might think the person who killed it a hero — well, that’s just complete nonsense.

A few people suggested that Hope’s exposure to the research team might have made her less fearful and increased her chances of getting shot. The deal Lily and Hope had with the research team was that in return for a handful of nuts they would let the team follow them for the rest of the day, and for two handfuls of nuts they could put a radio collar on them.

Despite the level of exposure to humans, the bears were very careful. Occasionally when we were out with them they would suddenly get nervous, and then I’d hear voices in the distance and the bears would run away. A big part of what governs their life is fear and I think Hope was always wary of the dangers humans posed. Sadly, this one time, a hunter got the better of her.