#130 was nicknamed Tundra when she was a yearling cub. What meanings are associated with that name? Does her nickname change the way you perceive her? Is it appropriate to name wild animals?
Bears at Brooks River are assigned numbers for monitoring, management, and identification purposes. Inevitably, some bears acquire nicknames from staff and these nicknames are shared with the public, but naming wild animals is not without controversy. Is it appropriate to name wild animals?
Personnel at many bear watching areas in Alaska, like Brooks River, attach nicknames to frequently seen bears. Names undoubtedly alter the way in which we relate to an animal. For some people, a named bear (or one with ear tags or a radio collar) may seem less wild, and more pet-like, than an unknown counterpart. Names also carry meaning, intentionally or not.
What stigmas would you attach to a young bear nicknamed Fluffy versus a large male bear named Killer? How would those stigmas alter your experience when watching that animal?
With those questions in mind, the randomly assigned numbers attached to individual bears are certainly more neutral. Yet, for some people numbers are more difficult to remember than nicknames, and over time a bear’s number may become just as anthropomorphizing as a nickname. Rangers and biologists would have difficulty referring to #747 by anything other than his number. #747 has become his “name.” No matter how we relate to these animals though, at Brooks River the bears with nicknames remain wild animals. Management decisions are never based on whether or not a bear is named and the bears are completely unaware of the numbers and names assigned to them.
This essay can be found in the 2015 edition of Bears of Brooks River, which will be available to download free-of-charge from Katmai’s ebooks page. In the meantime, you can still download and read the 2014 edition.