What does John McPhee tell his readers about being human in "Under The Snow?"

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teachsuccess eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In "Under The Snow," John McPhee illustrates how his sensitivity to his own humanity is amplified through his experiences in ursine (relating to bears) management.

In the story, he administers warmth, security, and affection to the cubs in his interim care. John becomes involved in Pennsylvania's wildlife management program when he signs up to help Gary Alt, a wildlife biologist, find and tag bears. While Alt and his team of wildlife biologists drug and subsequently tag the mother bears, John plays babysitter to the baby bears. He admits that the baby bears all demonstrate their own unique personalities and describes cuddling the baby cubs the same way he cuddled his own daughters years ago. To his great delight, the cubs thrive in the security of his embrace in the same way his own baby daughters did.

When my third daughter was an infant, I could place her against my shoulder and she would stick there like velvet.

These memories became very much alive some months ago when--one after another--I had bear cubs under my vest.

The first cub I placed on my shoulder stayed there like a piece of velvet. The shivering stopped. Her bright-blue eyes looked about, not seeing much of anything. My hand, cupped against her back, all but encompassed her rib cage, which was warm and calm. I covered her to the shoulders with a flap of down vest and zipped up my parka to hold her in place.

In working with Gary Alt's team, John is accorded an incredible opportunity to witness the effectiveness of the ursine foster-mother program in Pennsylvania. Through this program, wildlife biologists tag as many mother bears as they can find, attaching radios around their necks. The radios allow the biologists to track down potential foster mothers for displaced or orphaned cubs. John reports that the foster program is a resounding success: of the forty-seven placements, only one cub has died.

However enriching this experience has been, John includes a warning for everyone who supports this conservation program. After a certain stage, bear cubs may become ferociously independent and unpredictable. He cautions against taking bear cubs for granted.

They would become pugnacious and scratchy, not to say vicious, and would chew up the hand that caressed them. He said, "If you have an enemy, give him a bear cub."

However, this state of affairs also illustrates parallels between the management and care of bear cubs and human children: keeping young ones of any species safe requires a considerable amount of love, wisdom, motivation, and compassion. As scientists study these magnificent creatures, the benefits to humans far outweigh the risks:

The water and protein metabolism of hibernating black bears has been explored by the Mayo Clinic as a research model for, among other things, human endurance on long flights through space and medical situations closer to home, such as the maintenance of anephric (without functioning kidneys) human beings who are awaiting kidney transplants.

In this story, John McPhee clearly demonstrates how our humanity is deeply intertwined with the fate of the animals under our management; to care wisely for the wildlife entrusted to our care is to own and recognize our humanity.


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