Oh, Ranger!
NPS Arrowhead logo

Why Bears Behave Like Human Beings

"OH, Ranger! Where can I see a bear?"

The bears are, without doubt, the greatest single attraction in the parks, at least from the visitor's point of view. Geysers, waterfalls, mountains, canyons, great trees centuries old, all fade into secondary importance in the Dude's interest when a bear ambles into sight. The rangers say that in Yosemite National Park a visitor will look at Yosemite Falls, half a mile high, one minute and then turn around and watch a bear at his antics for an hour or more.

This amazing interest of the public in bears goes back to childhood days. Americans have been brought up from childhood on Little Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and when they meet a bear in real life, later on, they simply revert to childhood. Bears are no longer wild animals. They have become personified. They are like people, and the visitors to the park want to treat them as such. That probably explains some of the foolish things people try to do with the national park bears.

"Fooling a bear" is something that just shouldn't be done. To illustrate, there was a bear in Yellowstone known as Mrs. Murphy. There had been several complaints about Mrs. Murphy, who was accused of nipping visitors' hands and feet, so a ranger was assigned to shadow her for a day and see what was happening. He reported as follows:

One Sagebrusher, for the sake of a picture, held some bacon in his mouth and coaxed the bear to remove said bacon from his mouth. He got his picture and also escaped without injury. That Sagebrusher was lucky.


Another tried to make Mrs. Murphy jump for candy, like a dog. Now a full grown bear weighs about as much as a kitchen stove and is not built for jumping. So—Mrs. Murphy reached up, knocked the man's hand down so that she could reach the candy. That frightened the tourist considerably, but he escaped without injury. He, too, was lucky.

A Dude, with no candy or food, held out his hand as though there were candy in it. Mrs. Murphy became annoyed at being spoofed and she nipped the man on the toe. He retaliated by kicking Mrs. Murphy on the nose, which is a bear's most sensitive spot. She responded by whacking the Dude with her paw. He was bruised but not badly hurt. He was lucky.

Fully two score people fed Mrs. Murphy and her cub that day in the proper way, by throwing candy to her, and were entertained for hours by the bruins with no incidents nor accidents.

The only innocent visitor to suffer injury was a Dude who, disregarding a ranger's warning, insisted upon walking between Mrs. Murphy and her cub, to take a snap shot of the cub. Apparently believing her cub in danger, Mrs. Murphy rushed the Dude, tore out the seat of his pants, and, as she thought, saved her cub. The Dude rode the rest of the day in a blanket to hide a certain blushing and over-exposed portion of his anatomy.

The photographs in this section depict ranger life in the early days of the national parks. In those sections following you will find the rangers of the 70's, who carry on the old traditions with many added duties.

After receiving this report, the superintendent decided that Mrs. Murphy was no more guilty than the Dudes and Sagebrushers who attempted to fool her with food that did not exist.

There are two kinds of bears in the national parks, grizzlies and black bears. The grizzlies can be seen only in Yellowstone National Park and occasionally in Glacier, Grand Teton and Mount McKinley National Parks, being recognized by the big broad head and by the hump over its shoulders, as well as by the silver tips of the fur. They are quite scarce, being much prized by successful hunters and trappers who shoot them outside park boundaries. The grizzly is a wonderful animal, perhaps the strongest and most ferocious beast of the American forest.

Indirectly Yosemite National Park was named after the grizzly. "Yo-semite" was the Indian word for "the Grizzly." It was chosen as the tribe name following a valiant fight by a brave, who, single-handed and unarmed, so the legend goes, slew a ferocious grizzly on a trail near Yosemite Valley. The Yosemites themselves were a warlike tribe, and they were well named after the grizzly. It is greatly to be regretted that the grizzly bear has entirely disappeared from Yosemite National Park, having been hunted down and exterminated before the territory be came a protected area.

Grizzlies avoid human habitations, roads, camps, and are seldom seen in the daytime by the average visitor to the national parks. Before the war, at the canyon in Yellowstone, as many as from twenty-five to forty or fifty of them could be glimpsed at dusk, feeding at the so-called "bear pit." They were shy and usually took to the forest upon sight of humans, except at certain feeding places where they had become accustomed to admiring visitors. This seems strange in view of the fact that the grizzly is master of the forest. The other bears fear him, and usually flee to tree tops when a grizzly approaches. A grizzly can't climb trees because after he is a year old his claws become blunted.

At the Canyon, two grizzlies, while but cubs, became separated from their mothers and fell in with the black bears. From the black bears they learned strange ways, including familiarity with humans. They frequented the camps of the Sagebrushers and learned to beg, something that a self-respecting grizzly will never do. These two grizzlies, as they matured, have given the rangers some worry because a grizzly when fooled or provoked is a dangerous animal. Fortunately, this pair heard the call of the wild and returned to their native haunts before anything happened.

The black bears are the bears that most people know. In spite of the popular belief to the contrary, there is no species known as the brown bear. Black bears may be either blonds or brunettes, just as are humans. The blonds of the bear family are brown, or cinnamon. There are various color phases ranging from light brown or tan to the deep black.

The black bears are the clowns of the forest. They are full of tricks and their antics never fail to give the Dudes and Sagebrushers a thrill. After all, a bear does seem terribly human, and when he sits on his haunches, his fore paws spread out before him, his head up like that of a human, he practically invites you to talk things over with him. As a matter of fact, most people do talk to the bears, just as though the animals could understand, and the things that are said by the Dudes and Sagebrushers are as funny to us as the bears must be to them.

"Come on, Mr. Bear, get some candy. That's right. Come on, right over here, so we can take your picture. There it is. Here's another piece! Attaboy, bear! No, don't come so close. Stay over there, in the sun, where we can take your picture. No, go on away, that's all the candy I have. G'wan away. That's all."

The bears have heard that particular line of thought so frequently that they must know it by heart. The funny part of it is that no matter how much the Dude denies he has more candy, the bear knows for sure whether or not Mr. Dude is telling the truth. A bear has a marvelous nose. His nose knows, and no fooling. If the Dudes only realized this, they wouldn't try to lie to the bears about having no more candy.


It is this nose for candy, or nose for bacon—almost equally tempting to a bear—or the nose for ham, another great weakness with bruin, that leads the bears of the national parks to break into motor cars searching for food. They know when food is left in a car. The rangers warn all motorists to remove all food from their cars at night, but occasionally the warning is forgotten or ignored. Then the ranger hears that a fine car has been scratched up or the window smashed by a hungry bear.

Of course, Mr. Bear is likely to visit your camp if his nose knows there is bacon about. The best way to be sure of your bacon, when on a camping trip, is to hang it in a tree so small that the bear cannot climb it. Large bears cannot climb small trees. They must choose large ones, so that they can hug the trunk while they fasten their claws into the bark.

Even this scheme is not always a sure way of protecting your meat from the bears. One Yosemite ranger tells of seeing a mother bear trying to get a ham from a small tree which she could not climb. After trying vainly to shake it down, she went into a huddle with her cubs. In a short time one of the cubs climbed the tree, chewed the ham loose and knocked it to the ground. The old bear seized it, and, with the cubs scampering after her, raced off through the woods. About the only sure way the rangers have found to keep a ham out of reach of bears is to suspend the meat on a rope halfway between two trees and high enough so that all a bear can do is sit on his haunches and survey the prospective meal wistfully. After a while he will amble off, growling to himself, "Sour ham!"


The easiest way to scare a bear is with noise. Beat a tin pan or rattle some pans in a pail and the bear will lose no time in his retreat. But his get-away may be more disastrous than the robbery. One of the rangers, stationed at a lonely cabin, was pestered so much at night by bears whose noses knew of his bacon that he had a hard time getting his beauty sleep. Every night the bears awakened him with their clawing and scratching. Tiptoeing to the door, he would heave a chunk of wood at them. Off they would scamper, apparently frightened for good. But in an hour, lured by the scent of bacon, their noses would lead them back. Finally, the ranger hung up a pail, filled with tin cans, pans, and other treasures, ad justing the pail with a trigger which the bears themselves would set off with their clawing. The device worked so well that when the pail, pans, and cans came clattering to the ground the bears took away the whole railing of the cabin porch. But they never came back.


It is never a good plan to go out and give the bother some bear a kick on the tail. In the first place, a bear has no tail to speak of and in the second place he may resent the attention. A ranger in Rainier Park tells the story of a little bear that had been pestering him about the cabin, knocking over the garbage pail every night. Finally the ranger lost patience and planned to punish the little bruin. The next night, hearing the customary crash outside, he went out with vengeance in his eye. All he could see was the tail end of a bear protruding from a huge garbage can. Apparently, bruin was stuck in the can. The ranger was about to take advantage of the exposed bear tail when the animal got loose from the garbage can and stood up. Instead of the little bear he had expected it was a big bruin six feet tall in his stocking feet. The ranger immediately abandoned the idea of spanking the bear!

Another ranger tells of tracking a mother bear and three cute cubs through the woods for miles, trying to take a picture of them. They refused to leave the dark woods in which picture taking was an impossibility. The mother bear preceded her cubs, tearing bark from trees and over turning rotten logs, while the cubs hungrily hunted in the bark and decayed wood for grubs, ants, and other choice morsels of food. Finally, she tore the bark off a dead hemlock near the edge of the woods, then hustled her family out into the long grass of the meadow where she and the cubs rolled over and over in the grass. This was just the opportunity the ranger wanted for his picture. Hurrying to the edge of the woods, he took position and focused his camera. He didn't focus long. Out of the hemlock tree trunk, abandoned by the bears, there buzzed a swarm of angry hornets. The bears were rolling in the grass to shake off the attacks of the vindictive insects whose home they had wrecked.

As a rule, bears do not visit camps or cabins when the occupants are about. They have learned that Sagebrushers and racket are closely akin. The establishment of the bear pits in all of the national parks where bears are common helped to keep them away from the camps and cabins. A bear's apparent object in life during the summer is to eat enough to make up for the six months of winter when he is fasting, and Mr. Bear knows he can eat a lot more in an eight-hour day if he eats "combination salad" at the bear pits than he can if he nibbles at tidbits stolen from campers.

"Combination salad" à la bruin is the edible food from the kitchens of the hotels and camps, which was dumped in enormous piles at the pavilions of the bear pits. Around these pits were built fences to keep the visitors at a safe distance, not so much to protect the people from the bears as to protect the bears from the people. That recalls the story of a ranger at Old Faithful, in response to the question asked by a Dude as to why the ranger carried a high-powered rifle.

"Is that to shoot the bears if they bother the people?" he asked.

"Naw, it's to shoot the people if they bother the bears," drawled the ranger. "Every now an' then I have to use the gun!"

But the rifle was there as a safety-first proposition. Sometimes as many as two dozen bears would gather at the "combination salad" plate at one time. The rule in Beardom is that the biggest bears can eat all they want first, then the next sized bears come along, and so on, until if there is anything left the little fellows can have some. Sometimes there is a difference of opinion among the big fellows as to who is biggest. If the bears get to fighting it may be dangerous to visitors to the park, particularly when several hundred of them are crowded around the inclosure. When a bear decides to make a get-away, he doesn't look to see if people are in the way. He goes on all four.

Ranger Arthur Chapman, Jr., son of the author of "Out Where the West Begins," tells an amusing adventure at the Old Faithful "salad bowl" one time when one of these little bears grew tired of waiting for the old ones to finish eating. He was hungry and the salad was disappearing at an alarming rate into the mouths of three huge bears wallowing improvidently in the middle of the bowl. The little bear, contrary to his usual policy of waiting patiently on the woods side of the pit, came over to a pile of cans and pans. He fanned his anger into a frenzy, slammed cans noisily in every direction, growled loud enough to be mistaken for half a dozen bears, and charged across more cans at the "salad bowl."


The suddenness and the noise of his attack frightened the big bears who ran off to the woods, perhaps fearing the arrival of a grizzly. For a time they left the "salad" to the victorious little bear, who ate greedily while the eating was good.

On the following evening, he attempted to duplicate his bluff. This time the big bears were wise. Instead of running, they charged at the little bear. It was his turn to beat a fast retreat. He ran straight for the crowd of people watching the bears from the railing around the pit. It looked as if the time had come for the ranger to use the rifle, with those angry big bears tearing after the little fellow and all of them headed for a crowd of visitors. Fortunately, the big bears stopped their pursuit suddenly and returned to their feast. Only the little bear ran into the crowd, which, in less time than it takes to tell it, faded away leaving a lane for his escape.

In Yosemite National Park the bear pits were located some distance from the camps and lodges and the feeding of the bears is made a great event. In the evening just after dark, Dudes, Sagebrushers gather on the slopes, across the river from the pits. All is quiet and dark. Suddenly the lights are flashed on, revealing the "salad bowl," with any where from half a dozen to a score of bears growling and feeding as the bear man dumps numerous garbage cans of supper for them. A tree stump in the middle of the platform is painted with syrup each evening and there is great rivalry among the bears to get at this. Bears are like little boys—they always want to eat the dessert first!

An odd impasse between the Yosemite bears and the Yosemite authorities came about some years ago when a new garbage incinerator was installed in the park. It was decided that henceforth the garbage would go to the incinerator, instead of the "salad bowl," and the bears became real cantankerous as a result. They raided camps, stole from the store and the market, and banged garbage cans around ferociously each night, raising havoc in general. The newspapers on the Pacific Coast took up the issue for the bears in their news and editorial columns, insisting that the Yosemite bears were on strike and that they were resorting to sabotage as a protest against the new incinerator. The papers published daily reports from headquarters of "The Amalgamated Brotherhood of Black, Brown, and Cinnamon Bears." Public interest in the matter was great, and the rangers received dozens of letters from newspaper readers protesting against the outrageous treatment of the bears. The Superintendent at Yellowstone finally wrote to the Superintendent of Yosemite, offering to give the Yosemite bears plenty of garbage and an eight-hour day if he would send them up to Yellowstone. After that, the Yosemite authorities relented and restored the "salad bowl," and the end of the strike was hailed generally as a great victory for the Bear Brotherhood.

(From the Stanford University Press edition)

Public interest in the matter was great, and the rangers received dozens of letters from newspaper readers protesting against the outrageous treatment of the bears. We finally wrote to Superintendent Lewis of Yosemite, offering to give the Yosemite bears plenty of garbage and an eight-hour day if he would send them up to Yellowstone. After that, the Yosemite authorities relented and restored the "salad bowl," and the end of the strike was hailed generally as a great victory for the Amalgamated Brotherhood of Black, Brown, and Cinnamon Bears.


Oh, Ranger!
©1928, 1929, 1934, 1972, Horace M. Albright and Frank J. Taylor
albright-taylor/chap3.htm — 06-Sep-2004