Judging by the amount of road kill I swerve to avoid or silently and complicitly roll over on the way to work in the morning, I’ve got to believe that May is just about the cruelest month for the animal kingdom. Ever since the invention of the internal combustion engine the collision of our world and theirs has been a pretty messy affair. It’s no joke to ask how the possum crossed the road; lots of times he just plain doesn’t make it. Moment of silence, please.
This May has been especially tough for animals. It started with the Kentucky Derby, May 3. The beautiful filly named Eight Belles lost the race and was immediately euthanized. People like me who only pay attention to the noble sport of thoroughbred racing once a year were horrified at the sight of the big horse being covered by a blanket and then killed right there on the track—until it was explained that this sudden death was not punishment for coming in second, but instead the result of a pair of broken ankles, whereupon we were horrified that people could put a sentient being to sleep for having useless limbs.
Now comes the saga of Siri, the Rosamond Gifford Zoo elephant who is going through some of what the divorce lawyers like to call “alienation of affection.” The state Department of Environmental Conservation decreed in April that children shall no longer be allowed to engage in petting the pachyderm. Everyone who goes to the zoo seems to like petting the elephants and the elephants seem to like the loving attention, but the DEC insists that the public maintain a greater-than-arms length distance from the imprisoned beasts.
Then there was the black bear, which, you will notice, is the only one of these animals without a name. He is also the only creature in this sordid triptych who is noticeably black. Coincidence? Read on.
The story opened innocently enough as residents of greater Syracuse stirred from sleep on Thursday, May 8, to learn from Joe Galuski, Chris Bolt and the rest of our early morning media celebrities that a bear had been roaming the streets not far from Camillus. Parents were advised not to let their kids wander alone; pet owners were counseled to keep their kitties inside and pooches on a leash. A reverse 911 series of calls began waking up people who would have been grateful to have slept through the whole event.
It seemed a lot of fuss over a possible bear. The bear, if indeed there was one, was expected to wander off somewhere on his own without causing harm to the public.
By evening the story had gone tragically awry. First the frightened community breathed a sigh of relief when authorities announced that they had found the bear and dropped him from a tree with a tranquilizer dart. Then authorities announced that he was not waking up according to schedule, and would have to be put to sleep. In fact, he had already been euthanized.
The authorities then added to the tale, saying that this bear had a long history of offenses, mostly breaking and entering garages and turning over trash pails in search of food. This was apparently the reason Yogi was dispatched to bear heaven.
OK, so let’s recap. A young black male gets pegged by the law as a repeat offender, he’s taken down by law enforcement, then dies in custody under suspicious circumstances. The official versions of the story shift from hour to hour. The officers who killed the suspect defend their actions by citing his past rap sheet, saying they were acting on behalf of public safety, and had no other option. If the Rev. Al Sharpton were working for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, this would be a case made to order.
“We’ve been trying to catch this one for a month and a half,” said the DEC representative, referring to the deceased bear. “It was living on borrowed time.” On another occasion we were told that the bear had to be destroyed once it “showed a lack of fear of people.”
Community reaction to the loss of this bear, named Ulysses by one distraught letter writer, bordered on outrage. People wondered if it really had to end this way. Some suggested rehabilitation might have worked, or perhaps relocation. Officials dismissed those options as impractical or too costly.
I have a suggestion. Perhaps the next time an errant bear shows up in town, we should immediately enroll it at Fayetteville-Manlius High School. There its transgressions could be seen as a normal part of growing up. The public could be encouraged to view its actions not as criminal, but as an attempt to get a bit ahead of the game. Things got a little out of hand, that’s all, we would be told. No expense would be spared. The finest lawyers and animal psychologists could shepherd Ulysses through his passage from tender cub to adulthood without all that nasty stigma. We’d wipe his record clean, and he would soon be on his way to the next town.
And we could call ourselves a humane society.