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General · 27th November 2013
Ray Grigg
Cheeky is dead. The five-year-old grizzly that Robert Johnson knew from his many visits to the Kwatna River estuary near Bella Bella is no longer a living part of the Great Bear Rainforest. The magnificent animal did not die because some biological imperative in the great design of wilderness placed a claim on this particular bear. It died because a hockey player wanted a trophy. So he shot it, removed it from existence in a gesture that seemed as meaningful as a goal, a penalty or an on-ice fight.

Clayton Stoner, the 28-year-old hockey defenseman for the Minnesota Wild who killed the bear, had the legal right to do so. “I applied for and received a grizzly bear hunting license through a British Columbia limited entry lottery last winter,” he explained, “and shot a grizzly bear with my license while hunting with my father, uncle and a friend in May. I love to hunt and fish and will continue to do so with my family and friends in British Columbia.”

Robert Johnson, a field technician with the Coastal Guardian Watchmen Network, experienced the bear differently. As his research group collected grizzly DNA for study and identification, the bear would walk through the high estuary grasses, often within 50 metres of them, “pop his head up, look at us, and stick his tongue out at us,” Johnson said. This playful curiosity and friendliness explains why they nicknamed him “Cheeky”. “We started talking to him, telling him what we were doing there. We got to know him quite well, to the point we could go in on our boat ... and get off and walk around in the area without having to worry about him.” (Larry Pynn, The Vancouver Sun, Sept. 4/13).

This “worry”, however, had another dimension. It was not what Cheeky might do to people — the researchers seemed to have reached an accord that the estuary could be peacefully shared — but what people might do to Cheeky. Johnson had advised Stoner and his group of hunters that the Coastal First Nations had declared a ban on the trophy hunting of bears at Kwatna, and asked that he respect this prohibition. Stoner apparently replied that he had a legal right to hunt and would do so.

The next day Johnson heard three sharp shots slice across the silence of the estuary. He wasn't witness to the actual shooting. Neither did he see the head, paws and skin being cut from the dead bear. But he did find the remainder of the corpse left to rot in the open field where Cheeky had been browsing. And, when he saw the brown hide being unloaded from the hunters' Zodiac, he immediately recognized “the colour, the size of him,” said Johnson. (A photograph and DNA samples later confirmed the identity of the dead bear.)
A bear, of course, cannot describe the experience of dying. As with all deaths, this is a private affair that happens to the exclusion of everyone else. The darkness and silence that follows ensures that the process remains a secret, a bond of inviolable mystery that never escapes from the inexplicable.

We all know, of course, that Cheeky died. And now we know how Cheeky died. But no one can really know the details, the precise process that a bear's consciousness might have experienced on that quiet May afternoon on a peaceful estuary of the Great Bear Rainforest. Clayton Stoner, the man who pulled the trigger of the rifle, wouldn't know — perhaps he wouldn't want to know because it might complicate his “love” of hunting. Robert Johnson wouldn't know either — perhaps we would prefer not to know because his familiarity with Cheeky would make the reality more painful. But imagination and compassion, the guiding voices of conscience and ethics, can risk a guess.
Cheeky's first sensation of being shot was probably an instant and searing pain followed by a sudden numbness as its body went into shock from the impact of the bullet. Maybe then a reflex of vague fear and a rush of protective struggle as the deep mechanisms of its brain attempted to right itself from the encroaching dizziness, to reconcile these alien sensations with the explosive crack heard and felt almost simultaneously. Then, perhaps, a brief rush of confusion, a bewildering sense of being lost, a pointless urge to run, an overwhelming and futile impulse to reclaim the order and tranquility of the moments before.
The second and third shots may not have been heard or felt. The dull shock of the bullets would have merely hastened the blurring of surroundings, the dimming of awareness, the twisting tumble into darkness, the final falling that would end without a landing. Perhaps Cheeky's last moments as a bear were a consuming blackness that disappeared into itself until not even the blackness remained.
Clayton Stoner returned to his charter boat with his trophy, lounged on the deck, balanced the severed head of the grizzly on his knee, and posed for a photograph. Robert Johnson returned to his research camp near the Kwatna estuary and wept.