When Celebearties Die
What famous animals give us and at what cost
His name was Juan Carrito. He was a three-year-old Apennine bear. And when he died, he got a write-up in the New York Times. But how does a bear become a celebrity? A celebearty? And what does it say about us, and how we feel about animals around us?
First, yes, the Italian Alps has bears (side note, Australia also has Alps. I know! "Alp" technically just means "rugged high mountain" so you could call the Rockies of the Andes alps if you wanted, I guess). In fact, most mountain ranges in the northern hemisphere do! They usually have some subspecies of brown bear (Ursus arctos). In this case, Juan Carrito was Ursus arctos arctos. The, er, arcto-ist of arctos, and a critically endangered subspecies in the Italian Alps (is it a population? Is it a subspecies? What makes it a subspecies? Ask the taxonomists). There are only 60 of them left.
Bears generally avoid people, as many large and small animals do. We are loud, unpredictable, and we often have things like guns and cars. But we also have food, and this is where bears give in to temptation.
Because there is nothing quite as food motivated in his world as a bear. Many bears don't go deep into hibernation, but in the fall, brown and black bears certainly believe in a good winter bulking period. They'll take in tens of thousands of calories per day, packing on layers to see themselves through lean times.
This is how Juan Carrito got famous. "Carrito" is the first town where he began appearing, rummaging through people's trash, possibly through their gardens. He was only two years old, but he had learned a lot from his mother, who also had frequented human inhabited areas in search of snacks.
This is not Juan Carrito, it's a bear named Sandrino. By Marco Tersigni - Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42091915
When Carrito started getting in to the trash, what did people do? Well...they put him on Tiktok. As he ambled through ski resorts and vacation towns, people took photos and video. This particular bear population isn't aggressive, so he became a mascot, a teddy bear. A chance for people to have their moment with nature close enough to touch (or at least make content out of).
In 2021, Carrito broke into a bakery and stuffed his face (adorably! Probably!). This was a last straw, and wildlife managers moved him away. He came back. The happens extremely often when you try to move animals like bears. They moved him again. He came back, again.
And then he was hit by a car. There's video of his last moments (I'm not going to show you). The car didn't kill him quickly. His life, and his death, are both on TikTok.
Now, people are posting videos mourning their favorite bear. He got a writeup in the NYT! Maybe you're sad at this point. I am. But the thing is, the reason for his fame and the reason for his death are one and the same. People. People who want to view and feed and coo. People who don't mind the bear, it's not doing anything, not really. It's just the trash. Just the birdseed. Just some pastries. Just.
It's never just, in both sense of the word, when a bear ends up around people. In places like Colorado, or Tennessee, Massachusetts, the bear gets photographed and videoed. Some people set out food every day. Until it gets too close, until someone is home when it raids a kitchen. Someone is injured, and bear biologists have to kill the bear (something no bear biologist goes into their job wanting to do). Or someone is driving, and the bear is dead.
I am not blaming people in Italian mountain towns specifically. People all over the world living with bears do exactly the same thing. We want cute videos, the joy of living near animals, the surprise of an animal where we don't expect it. When we don't scare off those bears and keep them away, we get those videos. But we get them at the cost of the bear's life.
There's ways to keep the bears away! Bear resistant trash cans, hazing. Getting rid of fruit trees, and teaching people to report, and not to feed. But it's so hard to remember, in the surprise and joy of seeing that fuzzy muzzle. It's so easy to leap for a phone and make content. Content that has a price, and not one that humans will pay.
Sorry for the downer. Don't feed the wildlife.
Where have you been?
And how do you feel about celebrity animals?
And is it checking out Annalee Newitz's new novel The Terraformers?! Because I heard there's a sentient moose and I am here for this. Comes out Tuesday! Also check out their newsletter, because it's always worth reading.
I said it in my book, and Wapo is saying it again, the deadliest wild animal in the US? It's a white-tailed deer.
Where have I been
I had a lovely time chatting with CBC's The Sunday Magazine about Pests. Piya Chattopadhyay was such a knowledgable, warm interviewer.
Also fun to recommend some books related to my book. I couldn't possibly pick my favorite, but obviously Emma Marris, Mary Roach, and Robert Sullivan get shoutouts!