Jim, I, our daughter, Kaitlyn, and her fiancé, Matt went on an incredible one-day adventure yesterday. We flew from Calgary to Churchill, Manitoba for a one-day, once in a lifetime, Polar Bear Safari! Ok, maybe twice for me as I’d love to go again!
There is wisdom in everything. Here is a tidbit from what I learned yesterday.
As we made the short bus ride from the charter plane to the place where we boarded the tundra buggy along the beautiful coast of Hudson Bay, the bus driver, Paul, told us a bit about living in Churchill and about the bears. He pointed out a building that he called Bear Jail.
He explained that in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, if a bear wondered into town, it was shot. Everyone had a gun. Bears were seen as a nuisance, and they absolutely were a threat. At that time, people simply didn’t understand very much about the bears, and they certainly did not consider the implications of shooting them. Many were killed each year.
Flash forward almost 40 years. Now, bears are almost never killed in Churchill if there is any feasible alternative. One such alternative is Bear Jail. When a bear presents itself as a problem now, the bear is captured and placed in Bear Jail until it can be sedated and then airlifted away from town. Sometimes the bear has to be in jail for many days until resources are available for air lift. While we were there, there were 18 bears in the jail. They would soon be relocated as the ice was ready to come in, thus allowing the bears a way to get out to their winter home.
Paul told us when they first started Bear Jail, they fed all the bears sentenced to jail. This seemed humane and appropriate. They later noticed however, these well-fed bears, realizing the jail was a good and easy place to get food, returned to town year after year. They would get into trouble in town and be put into Bear Jail, where they would be fed, and then released when resources became available. And so, the cycle was created. The same bears kept showing up in Bear Jail year after year. Keep in mind at this time of year, the bears are waiting to go out on the ice to hunt seals. They have not eaten since springtime, and they are hungry; Bear Jail was quite appealing. In the wild, they would have very, very little food to eat.
With this as their insight, Paul told us they changed their practice. Currently, the bears in Bear Jail are given ice and water, but no food. Paul reminded us that even though this might seem cruel, a hungry bear is much better than a dead bear. He reminded us that bears in the wild go months without food at this time of the year. He knows people might criticize this practice, but it is definitely best for the bears.
There are times in all our lives when we have to deal with a person with a bad behaviour. Often our reaction is to do something that makes us feel better. We justify this by telling ourselves we are being kind. For instance, if we deal with a person who gets upset when things don’t go their way, we tend to avoid having that happen. We adjust our behaviour, so we don’t have to watch them, or deal with them, being upset. We give them what they want even when we know it is not the best solution, and we disguise it as being kind, or avoiding conflict, or de-escalating a situation. We might even begin to foresee what could upset them and start planning to avoid having it happen at all. They never have to change their behavior because in the end they get what they want by doing it. When we do these things, we are simply reinforcing the very behaviour that we do not want or like. We stop their bad behaviour for the moment, but soon they are back, doing the exact same thing, knowing how we will respond. And we ‘feed’ them again.
In the dark, on the way back to the airport, our bus had a flat tire. Paul had to radio for a new bus. We were transferred onto it very carefully, as Paul’s wife had radioed the bus and warned him there was a huge polar bear at Paul’s house, which was near to where we were. Paul removed the rather large gun he carries on his bus and brought it with us onto the rescue bus. When we got to Paul’s house, the new bus driver dropped Paul off at the end of his driveway and we watched him trudge up the driveway with his gun, in the dark, making plenty of noise to warn the bear. He said he wasn’t afraid, that this was just life and he was very glad that he and the rest of the resident’s of Churchill, were learning to live in relationship with the bears. The bears did not have to be shot, nor did they always have to get what they wanted. They have learned to co-exist.
I’m going to offer that we stop feeding the bears in our lives. If you notice yourself responding to a colleague or friend in a way that does not stop an unwanted behaviour, but simply reinforces it, try responding in a new way; take away their proverbial food. It will be uncomfortable at first. In fact, their behaviour might escalate for a bit as they test you to make sure that you are really serious about not ‘feeding’ them anymore. But, gradually, they’ll figure out that they need to change their behaviour, or go find someone else who is willing to feed them.
Thanks Churchill, Manitoba. I had the most amazing day in your backyard yesterday. I’ll treasure it for a long time to come.
Elizabeth is a certified professional Leadership Coach, and the owner of Critchley Coaching. She is the founder and president of the Canadian charity, RDL Building Hope Society. She works with individuals, corporations, non-profits and the public sector, providing leadership coaching. She creates and facilitates custom workshops for all sizes of groups. She has expertise in facilitating Strategic Plans for organizations and in conducting Leadership Reviews. Contact Elizabeth to learn how to stop feeding the bears in your life.