Shattered Minds: Trauma Scarring the Lives of Bears

Gosia Bryja, PhD
13 min readJan 28, 2024
Image: Marc Olivier Jodoin/Unsplash

“If conservation only preserves wildlife numbers and bodies without tending to wildlife minds and societies, then it will fail.” Dr. Gay Bradshaw in Carnivore Minds: Who These Fearsome Animals Really Are

Stress — we experience it every day. It is the difference between what our minds and bodies expect and what we experience in the environment. Most of the time, we can do something to ease the stress. Physical stress, such as feeling cold, can be mitigated by putting on a sweater or going back inside to get warm. On the other hand, psychological or emotional stress, such as an argument with our partner or co-worker, can be alleviated by simply stepping away from the situation for a few minutes to “cool down” or talking it over with a friend to get a helpful perspective. But when stress becomes chronic or is too overwhelming, then it becomes damaging mentally and physically. Then, it becomes a trauma.

We often think of trauma as a human prerogative, but it is a malady that we share with other sentient beings. This is why Rats, Mice, and now even Octopuses are used in place of people in experiments ethically banned for humans. Nonhumans are used to find out how the human brain, mind, and body function because all animals share the same capacities to think, feel, and experience consciousness. Indeed, we may look different on the outside, but inside, we are the same.

This is why Bears, Elephants, Deer, Orcas, and other Wildlife develop Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This understanding led Dr. Gay Bradshaw to pioneer the field of trans-species psychology, encompassing neuroscience, psychology, and evolutionary biology. Bradshaw challenges the socially constructed boundaries separating humans from nonhuman animals. Her exploration of shared similarities in brain structures across species serves as a lens to examine the toll of PTSD. In her book Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us About Humanity, Bradshaw explores how human-caused violence caused the breakdown of African Elephant culture. These giant herbivores, revered for their peaceful nature, crack “under the grief and shock of seeing their families gunned down, ivory tusks ripped off still-breathing bodies.” Traumatic experiences, resulting from culling, poaching, and habitat loss, lead to enduring psychophysiological changes in the Elephant brain and behaviour. Traumatized Elephants exhibit symptoms reminiscent of human PTSD, including hyper-aggression, asocial behaviour, and depression. None of this is surprising. PTSD, Bradshaw asserts, “is a natural response to unnatural conditions.”

Bears, Benjamin Kilham writes, “are part of sophisticated societies that we are only beginning to understand.”

What applies to humans and Elephants also applies to Bears. Their emotional complexity makes them prone to psychological scars. Bears are not solitary, aloof animals, as often portrayed, but, instead, they exhibit remarkably intricate social relationships based on alliances formed with other Bears. Once established, these social rules enable them to thrive within overlapping home ranges. Bears, Benjamin Kilham writes, “are part of sophisticated societies that we are only beginning to understand.” They have different types of social behaviour that parallel human social behaviour. As Ellie Lamb, a Bear specialist and a guide, says, Bears “are gentle and empathetic. The females, most of all, are fair and peaceful to get along with.” They demonstrate altruism and have a well-developed system of justice, punishment, friendship, and food-sharing. They also display intricate communication patterns that “bring coherence to a physically dispersed community.”

When such sentient beings confront a violent world, physical and emotional wounds are bound to accumulate. Again, as Bradshaw writes in Talking with Bears: Conversations with Charlie Russell, “Dwindling habitat and a sustained policy of shoot on sight have created ‘unhappy Bears,’ individuals stressed and traumatized by witnessing their Mothers killed and being targets themselves of ranchers and trophy hunters, generation after generation. Most methods used to ‘manage’ and ‘conserve’ Bears exacerbate the situation. Noisemakers, ears splitting ‘Bear jammer’ sirens, rubber bullets, darting, trapping, translocation, and death have worked their way into Bear minds and society.”

Source: Our increasing urbanized landscapes/Google Earth

This is the world of our creation; this is the world we have destined other beings to inhabit. With every step, Bears’ paws touch remnants of their original home now metamorphosed into densely populated swaths of land cut with roads and filled with houses and commercial structures.

This is a treacherous land; many Bears perish when hit by cars or trains. Countless others are killed in the name of the spurious rationale to ensure public safety. Here, human ignorance becomes evident. Matters of life and death get decided based on whether a Bear touched garbage or peeked into someone’s window. A Bear spotted rummaging in the backyard or crossing the street is not seen as a creature whose native home was erased but as a dangerous “pest.” One call from a fearful resident is enough for a B.C. Conservation Officer Service to end a sentient life.

Seen in its entirety, the death toll is horrifying. Between 2011 and 2023, almost 6,500 Black Bears and over 200 Grizzly Bears were killed by conservation officers in British Columbia. Such an unimaginable slaughter enacted in the name of public safety is neither ethically nor scientifically justified. Instead, it’s cruelty for cruelty’s sake. As Dave Garshelis, a well-known Bear research scientist, says, “Fatal black bear attacks on humans are so rare that they occur, on average, once per year across North America.” Lynn Rogers reiterates the low likelihood of the danger by stating that “about one black bear out of 1 million will attack a human.”

Source: Predator statistics — Black bear, BC, 2024

And yet, it doesn’t matter for the human mind still ensnared by a hunt, trap and kill mentality. In their book Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age, Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce discuss the “knowledge translation gap” that makes us deny the reality. An adherence to misguided attitudes and practices underpins human cruelty to large carnivores despite the preponderance of science on animal cognition and emotions. It’s easy to kill those whom we fear, especially if we label them as dangerous, inferiour and mindless creatures, instinctively driven to cause us harm. The belief in our exceptionalism blinds us to an inconvenient truth. The idea that only humans possess cognitive abilities creates a strong barrier, “impenetrable even to neuroscience’s data-laden findings of profound psychological similarities among species.”

There is also trauma that casts a long shadow on animals that didn’t die. Like an invisible current, it courses through the veins of Bear societies, leaving an indelible mark on their collective psyche.

However, killing in the name of ensuring public safety is only one of the ways that show our indifference to animals. Further away, gunshots echo in the depths of the forest. The Black Bear hunting season commences in the spring, right after females emerge from hibernation and introduce their cubs to the world. The world that is lethal. Overall, 20,000 Black Bears are killed every year in Canada, based on “sustainable harvest” estimates. They die to become a tawdry trophy or to quest the thrill of killing that still hasn’t been eradicated from the human psyche by the “civilizing process”.

So much death, so much carnage. But this is not all. There is also trauma that casts a long shadow on animals that didn’t die. Like an invisible current, it courses through the veins of Bear societies, leaving an indelible mark on their collective psyche. Some Bears manage to escape to the forest, where they stagger aimlessly with multiple bullets in their flesh, sometimes even in their skulls. Those who survive with grievous wounds will suffer from the physical and emotional pain of human-inflicted trauma.

Not only they will suffer, though. When a female Bear perishes, orphaned cubs are left behind. They grapple with the trauma of witnessing her Mother’s tragic fate — whether it was the result of the blast of a gun or a collision with a vehicle. They are left alone, fearful, uncertain, and vulnerable in the hostile world. Each year, yet another score of Bears will traverse the world with a wounded psyche, the living legacy of human indifference and cruelty.

Bradshaw tells us how Russell always maintained that “dangerous Bears are created by people — in their minds and by their actions.”

Indeed, trauma scars the living. But how does it manifest itself? How does it shatter lives? Renowned Bear specialist Charlie Russell, who dedicated seven decades to working with Bears, saw them break down under the weight of traumatic experiences. Occasionally, rarely, this can make a Bear less predictable or even dangerous to people. Again, such an infrequent anomaly in the animal world is solely our creation. In Carnivore Minds: Who These Fearsome Animals Really Are, Bradshaw tells us how Russell always maintained that “dangerous Bears are created by people — in their minds and by their actions.”

Psychological scars also undermine Bears’ skills to survive. They make finding food harder and lead to altered habitat selection, hypervigilance, and diminished reproductive success. Human encroachment on Bears’ territories and their “chronic punishment” forces animals to migrate to less desirable areas. Such an unwanted move cannot remain inconsequential. Their health declines and the reproductive processes suffer as females give birth to weaker and fewer cubs. Barrie Gilbert, in his book One of Us: A Biologist’s Walk Among Bears, cites a study conducted by biologist Hank McCutchen, who observed a sub-group of Bears he termed “cryptic” due to their diminutive size. These Bears experienced multiple stressors — habitat loss, frequent encounters with people on trails, and relentless hunting — leading to the elimination of larger males. Consequences of human-induced stress contribute thus not only to immediate behavioural changes but ripples through nature’s delicate balance. Fear begets fight-or-flight responses and has a cascading effect on reproduction, survival rates, and the overall health of the Bear population.

Moreover, delving into the intricacies of Bear psychology and culture reveals a sobering truth — as trauma goes far beyond the immediate individual. Nowhere is this more evident than in the pivotal Mother-cub relationship, where the scars of trauma persist across generations, shaping the collective well-being of Bear society.

When a female is repeatedly harassed, subjected to research which includes mind-altering drugs, or chased by hunters, traumatic consequences extend to her cubs. Firstly, as in humans, during the critical phase of embryonic development, trauma experienced by a Mother can adversely alter the neurobiology of the developing embryo. Stress hormones released in response to environmental stimuli leave a lasting chemical mark on the Animal’s genes, creating a genetic legacy beyond the individual’s lifetime. Up to five subsequent generations can inherit impaired associations with specific smells or noises, even in the absence of direct exposure to the original stressor.

Mama Bear and her Cub. Photo by Gosia Bryja

Furthermore, in the intricate world of Bears, cubs are profoundly shaped by their Mother’s experiences. Here, again, the premises of trans-species psychology provide a critical understanding. Within the sheltered space of the maternal hibernation den, “the glow of a tender, nursing Mother and siblings” initiates the foundational processes for optimal emotional growth and bonding. The importance of maternal care is further explored by Narvaez and Bradshaw in their book The Evolved Nest: Nature’s Way of Raising Children and Creating Connected Communities where they draw parallels to an “evolved nest” in human parenting.

The affection and love a baby Bear receives from her Mother are later given back in caring for others.

In the human world, Mother-baby exchanges in a loving environment become ingrained in the infant’s cognitive and emotional systems, fostering the growth of a healthy and caring adult who will contribute to whole communities. Similarly, within Bear society, close interactions between a Mother Bear and her cubs cultivate a compassionate and empathic foundation in the bear’s evolving psyche. The affection and love a baby Bear receives from her Mother are later given back in caring for others.

Trauma disrupts this essential developmental process. In humans, the ripple effect of a psychologically stressed mother extends to her child who mirrors maladaptive behaviors through the process of social learning. This transmission of fear occurs through various modes of communication — behavioural, verbal, or nonverbal. Again, there is no reason to believe that similar processes do not occur among Bears, whose brains “run on a common neurobiological engine” similar to human brains. When Bear cubs experience stress and adversity, they, too, may enter a defensive mode, potentially leading to the development of anxiety, anger, negative attitudes, and even Bears’ equivalents of PTSD.

Without the presence of an evolved nest, Narvaez and Bradshaw point out, Bears are likely to experience a reduced ability to exhibit empathy or engage in positive social interactions with their fellow Bears and other species, including humans. These responses are no different than those found in people with PTSD. What is remarkable is the lack of violence among Bears despite being subjected to centuries of genocide.

This is where we are. This chain reaction of trauma, initiated by human-induced disruptions, permeates the intricate fabric of Bear societies. The interplay between a Mother’s experiences and the developing embryo’s neurobiology, as well as the transmission of fear through social learning, can influence subsequent generations. A pathological, multi-generational pattern sets in.

We are all sentient beings. Acknowledging this reality must be central to any “management” discussions. As Bradshaw beautifully writes, “if conservation only preserves wildlife numbers and bodies without tending to wildlife minds and societies, then it will fail. If they survive,…grizzly Bears…will exist as mere shells unless their souls are nurtured.”

Indeed, the mental suffering can be as real and acute as a physical one. Conservation efforts that narrow their goals to population sustainability fail to realize that a traumatized population is not thriving.

It can’t go on. Achieving a peaceful coexistence with creatures with whom we share the world demands reflecting on what we have done. We can’t condone the immorality of hunting, the rapaciousness of the unceasing urban development, and the prevalence of unscientific dogma in wildlife conservation while, at the same time, claiming that Bear populations are sustainable and thriving. The former contradicts the latter.

We have a choice to make. If we carry on in the same way as we have so far, we’ll populate the landscape with the ever-increasing number of emotionally wounded wild animals, traumatized versions of their magnificent ancestors. They will suffer, but so will we by being destined to live in the world impoverished by the loss of the natural wonder.

A moment of tranquility. Photo by Gosia Bryja

This is why we must do better, especially since doing better is not that difficult. Bears make it easy for us. It’s truly remarkable, Charlie Russell states, that most Bears are willing to be friendly, loving, and curious towards humans despite the traumas they have experienced. They are forgiving and want to get along. Through it all, they remain open-hearted and peaceful creatures. Ellie Lamb often points out in her talks that “Bears want to get along and cohabitate with others. They have to because they wouldn’t be here today if they were troublemakers and looked for fights. Bears learn to build relationships with other animals or people, knowing that somehow, in the future, they will benefit from the relationship.”

A reciprocal relationship needs to take place. By respecting animals’ needs and challenging the culture of killing that leaves only death and trauma in its trail, we can ensure that coexistence becomes a reality. A genuine coexistence that fully unfolds the mystery of life and allows for a kinder relationship with our carnivore kin. It can happen, it should happen. Indeed, it must happen for the true potential of who they are and who we are to flourish.


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Gosia Bryja, PhD

Environmental & wildlife conservation scientist; compassionate conservationist