Being the first person eaten by a bear in the (modern) history of New Jersey is not exactly what you want to become known for, but that’s how Rutgers senior Darsh Patel will be immortalized. An encounter gone horribly awry in September led to his death at the paws of a black bear, but what seems to be fascinating the media is that he took pictures. A chilling final image likely taken in the minutes before his death shows the animal bearing down on him, a grim collision waiting to happen. Rather than being evidence of sheer human stupidity, though, it may be a testimony to the millennial culture of valuing cameras over human lives.
The takeaway from Patel’s death hasn’t been that sometimes people go into the woods and are eaten by bears (an admittedly extremely rare event)—it’s been that sometimes stupid people go into the woods and get eaten by bears. Media reports on the story repeatedly emphasize that Patel and his friends ignored advisories from other hikers and chose to stop and take pictures of the bear before they realized the danger, and this is what led to his death. Such stories serve as a silent indictment of one of the most-hated parts of millennial culture: The fact that everywhere they go, young adults are taking pictures.
This is the consequence of living in a society where “pics or it didn’t happen” may as well be a mantra, it seems. Surviving to leave the woods and tell a story about how you saw a bear and it stalked you just doesn’t have the same ring as actually stopping to take a few snaps. What’s the harm, right?
There’s a certain amount of distance and lack of understanding about danger, when it comes to interacting with wildlife for people who have spent much of their lives in urban environments, but it’s accompanied by the millennial drive to photograph moments rather than simply being present in them. Moreover, thousands of photographers a year document bears without any problem: Was it the men, or the bear? In this case, it may have actually been the bear—wildlife officials say it was behaving aggressively and abnormally, which Patel and his friends may not have realized until it was too late.
Patel and his friends certainly aren’t the first people to get up close and personal with bears, and specifically to have chosen to photodocument their encounters. Aside from the scores of wildlife photographers who do just that every year (including bear photographers), the most famous case of human-on-bear relationships is probably that of Timothy Treadwell, who died along with his girlfriend in Alaska in 2003. They were later the subject of a Werner Herzog documentary, Grizzly Man, that explored the specifics of the case. Something interesting comes out in Grizzly Man that’s often ignored in public narratives about the case, which, like Patel’s, stress the idea that Treadwell must have been crazy to interact so closely with grizzlies (in Patel’s case, it was a black bear).
At Science Blogs, Greg Laden notes that evidence supplied in the film and in documentation of the case suggests that the bear who killed Treadwell and his partner, Annie Huguenard, wasn’t one of the group Treadwell knew. Instead, the bears he was familiar with had gone into hibernation, and this one was a stranger. “What I find interesting is that this detail is unacceptable to most who hear about it,” says Laden. “It is simply not possible for many to give up on the idea that Treadwell did something stupid and inappropriate and got his comeuppance for it.”
Patel and his friends hit the Apshawa Preserve on September 21, and during their hike, two other hikers warned them that they were being followed by a bear, strongly urging them to consider suspending their hike. The men decided to push on, encountered the bear, and snapped a few photos before realizing that the bear was approaching them. They ran, ultimately splitting up, and when they realized Patel was missing, they called for help. Two hours later, his remains were discovered, with a bear standing watch over him; when the bear was shot and necropsied, its stomach revealed that it eaten part of Patel’s body. The examination also showed that the bear wasn’t malnourished, which becomes an important part of the story, as it illustrates that the bear was behaving abnormally.
Killings by black bears are extremely unusual, although the National Parks Service freely admits that they are unpredictable and can be dangerous. In its guidelines for dealing with bear encounters, the agency’s steps are almost the opposite of those followed by Patel and his friends. Bears shouldn’t be disturbed, and the agency recommends backing away slowly when they’re encountered, with groups massing together to make themselves as large as possible. The NPS specifically recommends against running or splitting up. Such information is certainly readily available, including at ranger stations, but Patel and his friends may not have thought to look it up, or they could have been panicked in the moment.
The case report strongly suggests that Patel and his friends may have made a poor choice when they decided to continue along the trail, and police are suggesting that the men attracted the attention of the bear when they started snapping photos. While law enforcement officials don’t go so far as to say that Patel brought his death upon himself, it’s implied. It’s tempting to apply blame, because otherwise, this seems like a random, senseless accident. By declaring it “avoidable,” people can escape the thought that it might happen to them; we observers are too smart to keep cluelessly snapping away in the face of danger.
Their actions certainly pale in comparison with the utterly bizarre #BearSelfie trend, which is definitely, categorically, obviously unwise. The forest service at South Lake Tahoe has been forced to specifically advise visitors that taking selfies with bears is not a good idea, and they should probably stop doing it. Taking a selfie with a bear requires not just getting much closer than Patel and his fellow hikers did, but also turning your back to the animal, making it difficult to determine if the bear is angry or distressed. If that sounds like a recipe for disaster, it is; luckily, no one has been hurt so far.
These three narratives feed into each other. Treadwell said that he felt more comfortable with bears and preferred their company to that of humans, while Patel was ill-equipped for a hike. Neither man deserved to die, and while both may have made some bad choices along the way, the Internet has created more of a mythology around them, suggesting that the blame for their deaths lies solely on them; Internet forums and comments furnish plenty of examples of people who thought they deserved what happened to them.
The forest service, and the rest of us, fervently hope that the #BearSelfie trend will die out before someone’s killed, but if someone is, it will be held up as yet another example of bizarre millennial self-absorption. Yet, isn’t that the hallmark of nearly every generation? We all believe we’re immortal, although it’s manifested in different ways between generations; for millennials, apparently, that manifests in obsessively taking pictures of everything, even when what they see through the lens is death.