Saturday, November 29, 2014

Bears love donuts, and so do we

Note: This program first aired October 25, 2014.
I’ve been trying to avoid election propaganda and advertising this election cycle, not having a TV goes a long way towards that goal. As a naturalist though, it is hard to miss the rhetoric around the upcoming referendum about bear hunting methods here in the state of Maine. Bear baiting in particular got me thinking about how we’re really not so different, the bears and us.

Bear baiting is a hunting method where by food is left in the woods consistently in an attempt to attract the bear and train it to return to the same spot repeatedly during the hunting season. The hunter hides in a blind near by and shoots the bear when it returns. Here in Maine the season for hunting with bait is most of the month of September, and the baiting/habituating process can begin as early as the end of July. Typically the food used is old fast food, fryolator grease, and donuts and pastries, though really anything can be used.

So why does bear baiting work? And by work I mean, bears come to eat the food. The obvious answer is that they are hungry. As wild animals they spend their entire lives looking for something to eat. For bears, their need is even more extreme. They need to eat enough to not only survive, but also get obese enough to survive a winter of not eating. In the wild they work hard to get these calories from berries and other fruits, insects both adult and larval, live prey and scavenged carrion. Up to 90% of their diet is plant based, mainly fruits, which come in waves during the growing season. Strawberries, then pin cherries, then blue berries, then raspberries, then choke cherries, you get the idea. With this in mind it isn’t a great leap to hypothesize that bears are adapted to seek out sweet flavors, if fruits make up as much as 90% of their caloric intake.

I know another animal that seeks out sweet flavors, and like the bear, this habit can be its undoing. Humans are adapted by evolution to seek out sweet flavors, salty flavors and fats. These three tastes represent nutrients that were extremely limited or difficult to come by in our evolutionary history. By evolving a preference for them we have trained our cells to seek them out. This by the way is another way to define addiction, and it is no exaggeration to state that humans are addicted to sweet, salts and fats. But being addicted to something that is very limited in the environment, not to mention also beneficial in small quantities, isn’t so bad a thing. The problem of course is that these nutrients are no longer limited in the environment, but we are still addicted to them. This fact, along with changes to our microbiomes, sedentary lifestyles and increases in chronic estrogenic chemical exposures have led to the obesity epidemic we face today.

Bears, just like us, seek out sweet and fat, a slave to their genes. They, unlike most of us, are seeking obesity. Baiting bears with donuts holds up a strange sad mirror, reflecting poorly on our own sad lives. Their weakness, their physiologic need mirrors our own, with bad results for both of us. Bears love donuts, and so do we.