An incident that captured the attention of conservation-minded residents and the media has come to a refreshingly different conclusion: an acknowledgement of error. The Fur-Bearers, however, still see a need for dialogue about communication and oversight as a result of this situation and welcome a dialogue on these issues.
Timeline of Events
On Wednesday, January 8, 2020, an Anmore, B.C.-area family (Michael and Corinne) learned of an extremely thin bear cub hiding out on a neighbours deck. Overnight temperatures would be below freezing. The bear smart family kept an eye on the cub safely and contacted wildlife rehabilitators at Critter Care Wildlife Society. The rehabilitators informed the family that the BC Conservation Officer Service would need to be contacted.
Michael and Corinne were told by the officer with whom they spoke first that the bear cub would not receive any intervention and the COS would not attend; then they were told by the same officer that if any action would be taken it would be to deliver the cub to a nearby forest to leave them; and, finally, they were told that if they attempted to intervene – by transporting the cub to the licensed and qualified rehabilitation facility that had space for the cub – they would face legal consequence, including possible arrest.
Faced with a situation that felt lose-lose, Michael and Corinne contacted the media and sought assistance. Through this process, The Fur-Bearers became involved. On Thursday morning approximately 16-19 hours after Michael and Corinne first saw the cub, a staff member from The Fur-Bearers with past training and experience as a wildlife rehabilitator volunteered to transport the cub in good faith to Critter Care. This was accomplished without incident. The cub was weighed in at 20 pounds – significantly below the 70 to 90 pounds expected for this time of year – confirmed they were emaciated and likely would not have survived more time outdoors.
Upon his arrival home, Michael was met by a Conservation Officer who read him his rights and informed him an investigation into his conduct was underway. To the media the officer stated, “This is now an active investigation with offences that occurred under the Wildlife Act, so we'll be pursuing a full investigation into everything … The best course of action is to leave the bear and if it's still there in 24 hours then the COs would attend and decide the correct course of action to take, which could include relocating it a short distance away if we believe it's with a family unit or moving it to Critter Care or if it's in any distress letting it go on its way.”
This is a statement that Michael and Corinne had committed an offence (they had not and at the beginning of an investigation it is irresponsible and potentially libelous to state they had to the media). It is also a direct contradiction to what the family was told the night prior by an officer on the phone and gives the impression to the public that they simply acted without consideration.
On Thursday, The Fur-Bearers began receiving calls from media outlets. A statement was formed and posted online and individual calls were returned. No media release or proactive media action was considered.
For the following days Michael and Corinne were under the impression that Michael, a retiree, may be facing jail time for his actions. Social media comments indicated a mistrust of the Conservation Officer Service and confusion caused by the mixed messages of what the Anmore family was told and what the officer told the media.
The Fur-Bearers staff, including the individual who drove the bear cub, were never contacted by the conservation officer investigating. It is also important to note The Fur-Bearers do not advocate interfering with wildlife; this decision was made after careful deliberation and in the context of being told the COS would not intervene despite evidence of the cub being significantly underweight as well as Critter Care Wildlife Society being ready to accept the cub. If wildlife in distress is seen by the public they should contact a local wildlife rehabilitator for advice.
On Sunday, January 12, 2020 – four days after initially calling the Conservation Officer Service – Michael and Corinne received a call from Conservation Officer Service Deputy Chief Chris Doyle. In their words, “Mr. Doyle stated that this incident with the bear cub had ‘taken on a life of its own’ and he seemed shocked at how much anger was being directed at the B.C. Conservation Officer Service by the general public. Mr. Doyle admitted that the incident was not handled properly by the BCCOS and will be discussed internally with staff in an effort to recognize the mistakes that were made and what changes and recommendations can be made going forward.”
The Fur-Bearers are applauding this move: acknowledging errors and mistakes is a vital step in improving public trust from an agency that is vital to the environmental health of British Columbia when properly funded and overseen.
Poor communication was the crux of this incident: without assessing the cub in person, a decision was made by an officer as to how their situation would be treated (not the first time an officer has done this); misinformation was inappropriately communicated to the public by officers both individually and through the media; and distrust was not sewn, but confirmed by the actions of officers over the course of two days.
While there are multiple instances of communication problems plaguing the Conservation Officer Service in this incident there are three items that must be called out:
- The officer who spoke with Michael and Corinne on the phone making statements that were inappropriate and created the conflict;
- An officer publicly accusing residents of violating the Wildlife Act before an investigation was fully underway and providing completely different information to the media than was provided to the family; and,
- Making claims about officers’ expertise that are questionable.
The officer speaking to the media stated, “Our response will vary based on the call and the specific circumstances and that's why we encourage the public to call us, because we are wildlife professionals – we've gone to school for this, we've trained extensively for this both on the job and at our academy, so we do know what we're doing in these situations … We're not just going to show up and destroy an animal that has done nothing wrong."
This is in contradiction to what training officers receive at 16-week program at the Western Conservation Law Enforcement Academy according to the BC government website, which does not list assessing the health of wildlife or other medical training as part of the curriculum. It is also in contradiction to what another officer said in an interview with an investigating officer during a complaint process:
“[The officer] has had no formal training of the assessment of bears…” (FOI document MOE-2017-710; investigation report, point hh (page 10)).
The Fur-Bearers have repeatedly stated that a well-funded Conservation Officer Service with independent oversight is not only important but vital to British Columbia’s long-term health, environmentally and socially. Like other armed law enforcement agencies, external oversight is a must. This kind of incident – which has underscored the growing distrust and disconnection between the service and the public – could serve as a pivotal moment in the history the Conservation Officer Service and those who serve. It could be the moment that they begin accepting the public (and non-government organizations who challenge and hold them to account) want to see them succeed. But that all rests with accepting that British Columbia is changing and the way this service conducts its business must also change or be left behind.
The Fur-Bearers remain hopeful that such goals – creating independent oversight, generating public trust through action and policy, and accepting their role of law enforcement and not one of wildlife managers or wildlife medical experts – are achievable. And we’d be proud to help attain them.