I was the happiest man on earth to be able to spend my days walking with a bear.” ~ Patrick Rouxel, documentary filmmaker for environmental conservation.
As the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources continues to promote the annual destruction of 4,550 black bears using packs of dogs, the most common reaction I get from people is, “You mean 4,550 in the entire country?” When I answer, “Wisconsin alone,” they ask, “WHY?”
Because people enjoy killing? Manhood is tied to cruelty? The abuse of wildlife is a tradition. The DNR is funded by selling licenses to kill. The general public has been taught to abandon wildlife to killing interests.
As the Wisconsin bear kill continues, there is another story being told, of endangered sun bears in Indonesia and how they suffer as their forests are cut down for palm oil plantations, destroying their home and that of brother orangutan. Like orangutans, the mother sun bears are killed and the babies go to zoos and tourist attractions.
As Patrick Rouxel, a wildlife filmmaker and founder of Sun Bear Outreach, was leaving Indonesia, a little sun bear orphan cub was brought into an orangutan refuge. Wendy was gentle and playful. When Patrick returned five years later, he found Wendy in a zoo, stressed and unhappy. In his film “Life Is One,” Rouxel said, “Like so many bears, imprisoned since childhood, she would never climb a tree, or know the freedom of the forest floor.” His films show how bears captive in cement cages lose their minds, rocking back and forth.
On a more recent trip, as he documented in “Life Is One,” another baby sun bear, Bunbun, was in the refuge. Rouxel was determined to return her to the forest. He built bigger and bigger cages for her, bonded with her, and then let her take her first steps of freedom to reclaim her identity as a bear. He took his first steps to become a bear walker.
Bunbun was on the move constantly, morning until night, climbing, engaging with monkeys, tearing up rotting logs, immersed in the flavors and smells of the forest. She stayed close to Patrick, as she would have to her own mum (usually for two years, like black bear cubs and their mothers).
Rouxel said the way she moved and held her head showed a lot about her happiness. At night, they returned to her safe enclosure with extra food. Rouxel had a little shack in the forest. As Rouxel explained in the film: “I was living the happiest days of my life — being the happiest man on earth to be able to spend my days walking with a bear.” He said he was “experiencing the joy of giving life to a child — the most compelling and beautiful task I had ever given myself. … Her blossoming was my happiness.
“I love the way Bunbun belonged to the forest. They were made for each other. The forest made Bunbun’s beauty come out, wrapping her in bliss in perfect harmony.
But after three months, Rouxel had to leave for a few days and left Bunbun with people he trusted at the refuge. When he returned, she had disappeared, and was not found again. He feared she may have gone toward people and been captured and sold or killed. Week after week he searched for her, finding many sun bear, orangutan and monkey babies chained and caged, many forests slashed and burned. He said, “I had lost Bunbun, but they had lost everything.”
During his search, he found another small sun bear cub alone due to the illegal trade and in need of help. He named her Bernie, and promised not to lose her. And then another cub named Wawang, a little older than Bernie. He had them implanted with tracking devices in order to be able to find them within 300 yards for three years. He prepared for three months, then took them to the forest. They stayed together to tussle and play. “Life Is One” shows a lot of feet in the air and running up trees and pulling each other down.
Rouxel called Wawang “Mr. Happy,” as he was always joyfully playing.
Once again, fate played its cruel hand and after six weeks, the bears ran off out of range with night closing in. Rouxel found Wawang’s lifeless body in the morning, with signs of his having been killed by another bear. Bernie was hiding up a tree.
Bernie became more and more independent and finally left and did not return. Since then, she has been spotted twice — lately with her own small cub.
Rouxel closes “Life Is One” by saying, “Today we do not tolerate slavery … it is time to acknowledge for all wildlife freedom and respect and dignity … a reminder that we are all connected and that we owe respect and compassion to those we share the planet with.”
Wisconsin’s DNR needs this message from our citizens: “All we need is love.”
And we desperately need the majority of citizens to care and stop the killing of bears by a cruel minority.
Protect the Endangered Species Act under threat by federal legislation.
Our wolves are in immediate danger as ranchers, farmers, hunters, trappers and hounders continue to lobby to kill this endangered and ecologically important species. Sen. Tammy Baldwin has joined Sen. Ron Johnson in pushing legislation to return wolves control to the DNR, which will reinstate the annual slaughter. Please sign and network this petition and contact legislators. It is an election year.
Our wildlife is endangered. Sign a variety of petitions here.
This column was originally published in the Madison CapTimes on September 23, 2018.