Despite a court appeal, dozens of demonstrations, and forty thousand letters of protest; despite impassioned editorials in every major newspaper, and without regard for the opposition of three-quarters of the state’s human population, nearly three hundred wild bears (including three dozen lactating mothers) were gunned down in a “recreational” hunt in Florida, from the northern panhandle to the Ocala National Forest, in late October. The event was strong-armed by Florida’s governor and his appointed wildlife commissioners—a state-sanctioned slaughter of Florida black bears.
We hoped the bears would be wily, and escape the bullets of the hunters. But baited and tempted with corn, birdseed and glazed doughnuts, they didn’t stand a chance.
How could we respond to the brutal slaying of animals only just recovering from threatened status? What gesture could we devise to transform our grief and our outrage, knowing that sixty traumatized and orphaned cubs still wandered the woods? How would we reset a moral compass in a state that presently appears to have none?
In Tallahassee, on November 21, a group of musicians, artists and spiritual leaders—mostly women—created a memorial service not much different than we might have had the mass murder targeted human victims.
On the morning of the Requiem, I dreamed of eight bears, with all manner of coats, some spotted, some gold, some brown. The animals pressed against the glass windows and doors of a church, apparently gathering for our service.
Our ritual began with procession of artists wearing handmade masks—deer, bear, wolf, bird—creeping and stalking down a central aisle to the beat of a single somber drum. The artists carried a larger-than-life bear with a bejeweled head, and a body sewn of tawny fabric. The bear was laid on a woodsy altar overarched with tall bamboo and grapevine, and strewn with baskets of flowers, acorns, shells and blueberries.
Rev. Candace McKibben spoke of the many forms senseless human violence takes, and the numbness it can create in our hearts. Many audience members openly wept. Buddhist practitioner Crystal Wakoa urged the audience to consider a perspective that seeks an opening of hearts, even those of hunters and politicians, so they might see themselves anew and change. The Ursine Chorale, a small a capella group of women, sang a promise to never forget or forsake the earth’s creatures, reworking a Becky Reardon song for the bears: “The bear cubs remember/ A dream in September, alone with Mom/ At one with all of the woods/ We honor your spirit./ Forgive us, forgive us.”
We designed the Requiem to help our community move through grief to a stand of advocacy and recommitment. Near the close of the ritual, we invited the audience to take part in a special communion. From baskets, we chose flowers to adorn the symbolic bear. We ate blueberries, sharing the sweet taste of a favorite bear food. And each of us present selected a bear paw shell, collected from a local beach, a reminder of our pledge to stand with the bears.
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About the Author
Susan Cerulean – Susan Cerulean’s most recent book, Coming to Pass: Florida’s Coastal Islands in a Gulf of Change, was published by University of Georgia Press in April 2015. You can subscribe to her blog at: www.susancerulean.com