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North Van bear advocate awarded for decades of work

Don't fear bears, North Van advocate says
Ellie Lamb web
Ellie Lamb poses with two of her favourite bears in the Bella Coola Valley, Ms. E and her cub Bandita.

It started with a letter to the editor. Seven-year-old Ellie Lamb was shocked to see on the front page of the Calgary Herald a picture of a hunter posing with his rifle and the pelt of wolf he’d just shot.

Lamb’s mother helped her get her feelings down on paper. Two days later the Herald ran two full pages of letters from folks outraged over the killing of the wolf.

Now, after five decades of advocacy on behalf of animals, Lamb is being honoured with the Outstanding Advocacy Clements Award from the Association for the Protection of Fur-Bearing Animals, or Fur-Bearers.

“Animals all need a human voice to really make a difference, I think, and that seemed to be the direction that I was called in,” Lamb said.

Lamb, who is a professional wildlife artist and bear guide, has put in years of dedication with the Bear Working Group in the Bella Coola Valley, North Shore Black Bear Society, the Get Bear Smart Society, the North Shore Municipal Black Bear Working Group, Whistler Bear Advisory Committee, and the Grizzly Bear Foundation. She’s also a North Shore Rescue volunteer who introduced the first-ever search dog to the team.

Now one of the West Coast’s experts on bear behaviour, Lamb has been sought to help educate others on some badly misunderstood creatures.

Years of being up close and personal with ursines has taught her they are social, curious, naturally trusting of people and certainly not to be feared. In all her years with them, Lamb said she’s never had a conflict with one that went beyond a stern conversation.

“They would prefer to have a positive outcome because it suits them,” she said.

That understanding should inform the way we interact with them when they wander into residential neighbourhoods, Lamb said.

Often, the ones that show up are vulnerable members of the bear population - because they are caring for cubs, or because they’re old or sick, Lamb said, and it’s part of their survival strategy to stay out of the territory of aggressive males.

“They're actually trusting our community and our humans for safety,” she said. “They're only here for a short time, and then they leave.”

Lamb has personally had the honour of mother grizzlies leaving their cubs in her care while they go to forage.

But that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be boundaries, Lamb said, for the bears’ good and ours. Keeping properties free of attractants like garbage and fruit is a must, Lamb said, but in her lengthy experience, all you need to make a bear move on is tell it so in a firm voice from a safe distance.

If that doesn’t work, showing human dominance in the form of throwing rocks or sticks or even using bear spray, if you’re properly trained how to do it, would also work.

“These are soft skills that are used on a soft animal because bears are soft, whereas the hard skills like rubber bullets or dogs or even killing bears, as we see happen on our North Shore, it's overdoing a situation,” she said. “It's helpful to understand the animal, then we can apply tools and communication to manage them ourselves, without going to places that we've been going on the North Shore. These bears don’t have to die. They just need to be taught.”

That perspective has made Lamb nationally recognized by animal lovers, and it’s why she was a “slam dunk” to be selected for the award, said Lesley Fox, executive director of the Fur-Bearers.

 “She has really elevated the conversation, certainly in the public, but also in the media of how animals are portrayed, particularly predators, and particularly bears,” she said. “She is blending science and the heart, I think. She really puts those two things together.”

Receiving the award was a special moment, Lamb said. It’s named for George and Bunty Clements, the past president and director of the Fur-Bearers, who became mentors to her around the time she wrote her letter to the Herald.

“It's kind of phenomenal to me. I'm so excited to receive that award, because it came full circle,” she said, adding the advocacy world is full of people who have worked just as hard. “I'm honoured.”