Monday, June 20, 2005

Bear meat

So last year, I was coming back from a medical informatics conference with a group of my fellow graduate students. We were a large enough group that we couldn't all get a table together in the bar while we waited for our flight, so I was sitting with Donna, Aaron, and Andrea, sipping beer and laughing, when this guy comes over and starts chatting to me. He greets me, and asks me where I'm from.

I thought it was a little odd, to approach a stranger engaged with a group of friends and just interrupt like that. Having been raised in the South, though, I'm terminally polite, so I answered "Seattle", and then, not knowing what to do, asked him where he was from. He answered that he was from Manitoba.

Now it was starting to get kind of awkward, with him just standing there having brought our previous conversation to a halt, and since I couldn't think of anything to say, I just added "Ah, you have lots of bears there.". His face lit up, and he started talking about how great the bear-hunting was, and how I really ought to come up to Manitoba for the hunting.

I heard Donna suck in her breath behind me. She and Andrea exchanged looks as the guy kept rambling on, as if they weren't sure what was going to happen next, but it was certainly going to be bad. Fortunately for the guy, though, I never start anything in airports anyway, and he certainly wasn't worth getting on a blacklist over. I put on the Southern icy-polite face--let him run out of steam, and then figure out that this conversation wasn't going anywhere and excuse himself.

On the flight back to Seattle, I was teased about could this guy have picked a worse way to try to impress me than with bear hunting, and how he doesn't even suspect what a narrow escape he had.

So that's how I feel about hunting bears.

Given that, I was a little taken aback to read this story: Juneau homeless shelter stops serving bear meat, The Associated Press

JUNEAU, Alaska — A Juneau homeless shelter has stopped serving donated bear meat after learning the state prohibits nonprofit groups from accepting wild game meats such as bear, fox and walrus. "We didn't know that it is illegal," said Jetta Whittaker, executive director of the Glory Hole. For years, the Glory Hole accepted bear meat to supplement its meals for the homeless. The meat went into many recipes, including burgers, casseroles and spaghetti. But last year, Whittaker learned that serving it was contrary to rules set by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. This year, it has meant turning down five offers of bear meat. "That was 250 pounds of ground meat I could use for spaghetti sauce," said Bob Thompson, operations manager of the shelter. "We are protein-poor."

So the state of Alaska has chronically-nutritionally-compromised people on the one hand, 250 pounds of ground meat on the other, and a rule forbidding the obvious next step.

Part of the concern is that the bear meat could transmit trichinellosis (a PubMed search on "bear AND (trichinella OR trichinellosis)" yields 106 articles). I thought that, as with pork, proper cooking kills the trichinella larvae, but the state claims that the difference between how pork and bear meat are raised and processed makes it too unsafe. I am not sure that that is a convincing argument--either cooking kills the larvae or it doesn't, and if it doesn't, then our pork industry has major problems. If it does, then why not strictly regulate how bear meat can be prepared and served?

A nonprofit with a yearly budget of $193,000, the Glory Hole has only $4,500 to churn out 54,000 meals a year for the homeless.

That comes to a grand total of $0.08 per meal in Juneau, where everything is more expensive, because it is brought in by air or ship. Given that constraint the shelter has, it is a shame to have to turn down free meat, even if it is bear meat.

The bears are dead already, after they are hunted. Not permitting the shelter to use the meat means that it is just wasted. If, as a society, we are going to decide that bear hunting is acceptable, we should at least mitigate it by allowing the meat to go to people who depend on shelters for their food. I hope that Alaska is able to resolve this soon in a way that makes the bears' sacrifices mean something more than pure waste.


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