Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Feed the Bears Anyway

Play the podcast (downloadable audio file).

It's summer again, and the tourist-maulings by bear have already commenced in Yellowstone National Park, as well as Montana, Alaska, etc. This is a perennial problem, and all the DON'T FEED THE BEARS signs in the world are ineffectual against human behavior and simple bear-human economics. Feed: Be Entertained. Don't Feed: Be Mauled. Why? Bears get hungry.

What does this have to do with love and life? you might ask.

As it turns out, bears aren't as cute and fuzzy-wuzzy as they seem to be when they appear in Teddy form. Bears, especially grizzlies, are actually nauseatingly indiscriminate omnivores. I'll never forget the sickening spectacle of a mother bear chomping down on the entrails of its adorable but drowned little cub. I saw this on the Discovery channel, and the image still haunts me. I am now a firm believer in keeping a lid on reality, at least while eating dinner.

Analogies from nature can be illuminating. Think of love as a hungry grizzly bear, begging oh so adorably as you tourist along in your car with the window rolled down, bags of marshmallows and candy corn, boxes of Cracker Jacks and graham crackers -- junk food to throw the bears so they'll jump and scrap for it.

You think you're in control, don't you?

Well, I say that anything that will eat its own offspring is not to be trusted. Nor is any living being that must eat enough food in the space of 4 months to last a full 8 months without food. Hibernation -- what a weird concept! Think about the absolute and complete lack of balance in the whole concept. I can't think of anything or anyone who could make even the slightest claim to normalcy who experiences such extremes. It makes bipolar, or manic-depressive behavior look absolutely catatonic.

The last nature show I saw featuring bears in the wild was downright alarming. There was a grizzly bear who had made a sport of stalking hunters. Sure, you say, there's poetic justice in that.

If the bear simply tracked the guy down, lunged at him, swiped at his neck, or mauled him, it would sort of look okay. But, no. This bear cat-and-moused the poor guy he was hunting -- who just happened to have a video camera with him. It was beyond weird. In the woods you could see a big, furry blob -- slowly tracking, following, waiting, feinting, faking, following.

The hunter survived because he decided to go into the lake and stand there until help could come. He was lucky it was summer. Personally, I thought the guy was suicidal when I saw him do that. I mean, we've all seen bears scooping up salmon in an icy stream.

After the guy was rescued, they went out and "tranqu'ed" the bear. I guess he's in a zoo somewhere, goofed up on bear dope, taunted by the presence of zoo-goers and gawkers who smirk at his impotence and confinement. I remember the story of Samson, and I'm thinking that the zoo-guys should expect trouble some day.

I've had my own experiences with bears, and they haven't been pretty. The first bear encounter I had was in Vermont. No, I wasn't stalked by a bear, nor was I forced to stand hip-deep in the frigid waters of Maidstone Lake, waiting for the crazy bear to give up his hunt. No - I had to deal with bear trauma vicariously. My mother - a true berry aficionado - was combating deer flies, mosquitoes and no-see-ums so that she could collect enough raspberries for a pie and a shortcake. It was a sticky mid-August afternoon, and the air was syrupy with pine resin and overripe fruit. She was patiently plucking the fruit when she heard the shaking of leaves and rustling bushes. Assuming (foolishly), that I was obeying orders and picking berries (rather than having sneaked back to camp where I was reading a murder mystery in the cool, insect-free environ of my loft bedroom), she made her way to the noise and greeted me. To her surprise, her 15-year-old daughter did not grumble out a greeting. The snuffling my mother had heard was not me and my chronic allergies. Instead, it was a very startled brown bear. The bear stood up on its hind legs and curled its lips back in a snarl. It was about to attack my mother. At least that's what my mom said.

"Scat, you bad bear! Don't you know how to share? There is enough to go around!" said my mother.

The bear, shamed into submission, turned tail and loped away into the forest. My mother returned to camp, flushed and hair amuss.

"If you had not sneaked off to read a book instead of picking raspberries, I would not have been almost mauled by a bear," announced my mother. It was a guilt trip, and it was such a dramatic one that it bore recounting over and over, to whatever audience would tolerate it. I was starting to disbelieve every word of it by the time I had heard it a few dozen times. Without fail, the audience would turn to me, the bookwormy daughter who was growing fatter by the day in the land of homemade breads, pastries, pies, and absolute isolation.

My next experience was with a bear in captivity. It was in the Rocky Mountains, at a stop along the way where travelers would stop, drink beer and order chicken and beef grilled over an outdoor fire. With a number of virtually indistinguishable restaurants along that stretch of road, I suppose the temptation to differentiate oneself became irresistible, despite the moral or ethical costs. On one trip through the mountains, the driver of the van I was in succumbed to the new "draw" - a caged baby bear. It was, in a word, pathetic. The bear was in a small cage, clearly in bad condition. It was not at all apparent why it was there, who had captured it, or what the fate of its mother was. All there was to see was a pathetic little bear, snuffling in its cage, looking out at visitors with bleary dark eyes.

In comparison to the captive bear, it is somehow more appealing to think of the bears in the wild, however reprehensible their actions toward the unfortunates among them. At least they were not condemned to a small cage in the midst of their beloved Rocky Mountains. At least they were not used as a blunt instrument to torment, shame, and show superiority over one's teenaged daughter. Love - in its free state - is dangerous and wild. Never forget it. Love will maul you if you feed it. Not only that, it will hunt you down and torment you, but ever so slowly.

But it's true -- the bears look so cute snarfing up marshmallows
and candy, bag and all. So eager, so enthusiastic... So, I say, Feed the Bears Anyway. No one lives forever.

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