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Why Bears Behave Like Human Beings

Bears are always doing unexpected and perverse things. That is one of the reasons why they seem so human. There is always a surprise in a bear. He loves to fool somebody else, but he doesn't like to be fooled himself. He wants his own way. He has his moods when he is sulky, when he is friendly, or when he is just plain ornery. The way to a bear's heart is through his stomach, the female of the species being just as susceptible in this as the male. Another human attribute, poets to the contrary! When a bear is hungry he is cross. When he is full of "salad" he is sleepy; when he is eating he doesn't want to be bothered. So there you are!


One of the funniest things in the world is a bear with a bottle of syrup. He will act for all the world like a drunken sailor in full sail, as he wobbles about trying to get the syrup out of the bottle and into his mouth. The rangers at Sequoia Park tell of a bear that stole a bottle of vanilla from a camp and actually found the flavoring so potent that it interfered with his faculties. Trying to find his way home, this bear walked head on into a two-thousand-year-old sequoia tree. Unabashed, he tried to push the tree out of the way. The sequoia stood pat, and it required some assistance from the rangers to get the tight bruin back on the trail again.

Sagebrushers at Mammoth Auto Camp in Yellowstone awoke one morning to find a bear sitting on the limb of a tree with his head caught fast in a hole in the tree. He had attempted to steal the squirrels' winter supply of nuts and bread crumbs, and in working his head around in the hole probably caused his head to swell a little. Anyway he could not get it out, and there he was on the limb of the tree with no chance of extrication except with human help. A ranger climbed the tree and got above the bear's head, and carefully chopped the hole larger, until bruin toppled from the limb with a resounding bump. With a "woof, woof," he was off through the timber.

Occasionally tame bears are given to the rangers by people who have tried to raise them from tiny cubs. They either grow too big for family pets or the people owning them wish to move and cannot take their bears with them. Some time ago a woman brought two bears over to Yellowstone. They were four years old and big fellows, one black, the other brown. She wanted them liberated in the park to live happily. We found, however, that she had been too successful in taming them. They had no urge to be wild bears again. They were just like dogs. We had to build a pen for them to keep them out of the lobby of the hotel, or from eating off the dining-room tables. When winter came, the chief ranger built a little log cabin in the pen for them to use for hibernation. It had one small door in the end. One day while he was inside the cabin, chinking it to keep out wind and snow, one of the bears walked in, thus blocking the door. It took the chief about half an hour to coax the bear to go out, so that he himself could turn around and escape. After that the chief closed the door when he entered the bear's house.

The life of a bear in his natural state is full of paradoxes. He is born while the mother is in hibernation, in a close, evil-smelling, almost air-tight cave. She is asleep, not as sleep is ordinarily known, but in a state of coma, almost lifeless, barely breathing. She has been asleep for three or four months, with all normal functions of her body suspended. New-born bears are tiny, hairless little things, no larger than squirrels. They snuggle up in the warm hair of the sleeping mother bear's breast, and there they suckle and slumber, growing a little, acquiring a coat of fur. When she awakes in the spring, they are perhaps a month old. She is weak and mangy as she leaves the cave in search of food. She leaves the little ones in hiding in the cave for two weeks or a month longer.

All bears hibernate, of course, males as well as females. The latter seem to suffer no more from their long fast than do the males, in spite of the strain of bearing the young and feeding them a month on reserve strength from the last summer's food. One would think that the ravenous bear, fresh from hibernation, would eat everything in sight. But that is not the case. The bears spurn the food proffered by human friends for a month or more, rooting in the forest for certain herbs, roots, and natural food which their appetites crave. Then they are ready for the long-distance championship salad-eating contest.


The little bears seem to grow before your eyes, once they are brought from the cave by the mother bear. They are soft, fluffy, lively and cute. No wonder they are so popular with the camera hunters. No wonder, now and then, a visiting Dude forgets the invariable rule of the mother bear that no one shall come between herself and her babes! No wonder the Dudes and Sagebrushers love to watch those little fellows going through that first year of schooling under the coaxing, the guiding, and the spanking of the mother bear.

About the first thing the little bears must learn to do is to climb trees and to climb them fast, for safety's sake. The black bear's main worry is the grizzly, and the only sure way to avoid a grizzly is to climb a tree. More than once the rangers have seen a grizzly approach a "salad bowl" and watched the black bears scamper to tree tops, where they patiently sit until the grizzly has eaten his fill. You would think to look at them that the black bears were up in the trees from choice, so utterly oblivious are they to the actions of the grizzly. However, as soon as Mr. Grizzly leaves the bowl the other bears come down from the tree tops in a hurry, to take his place at the feast.

A bear up a tree never fails to excite the curiosity of humans. The latter soon form a circle around the tree, with cameras pointed upward, and hundreds of films are exposed for a picture which, unfortunately, is seldom a success. The bear is generally too high for good pictures or he is shaded by the foliage of the tree, and the most the picture will show is a shapeless black spot which must be pointed out and explained.


"That's the bear I shot in Yellowstone," they'll tell you later, proudly displaying a picture. "See that black spot? Well, that's the bear."

The bear cubs are often elected to the task of climbing the trees to shake down nuts and fruit to the mother bear. After she has eaten all summer, the old bear begins to fatten and she is careful about climbing trees for fear the limbs will break. Then is when she makes the cubs do the work. In Yosemite especially have the mother bears worked this out to a fine science. Some of the early settlers in Yosemite planted apple trees about the valley, long before it became a national park. Every autumn the cubs are sent up these apple trees to knock fruit down to the mothers. Whenever a cub falls down on the job or returns to the ground to eat some apples himself, he is cuffed and sent crying back to the tree top. Not until the parent is fully satiated with apples can the cubs take their turn at eating.

Dudes are always asking about the private life of the father bears. Are they faithful husbands? Are they good providers? Do they do the spanking of the cubs, as in the case of humans? And so forth.

The rangers dislike to expose the weaknesses of the national park bears, but candor forces them to admit that as dutiful fathers, the male bears are a fine bunch of bums. As for bear family life, it just isn't. The males hibernate in separate apartments, or dens, all winter long. They are not present when the young are born. They don't even send good wishes. The little cubs probably never know who is their father, unless perchance the mother bear should meet him and introduce him to his offspring some time during that first summer. The mother bear takes the cubs to her den during their first winter in hibernation. But once the winter is over she is tired of them, and she chases them away to forage for themselves as soon as spring comes. After that the cubs are not on speaking terms with either parent.

It is strange indeed that the bears should prosper and increase in numbers under these harsh conditions of youth. But they do. They are increasing so rapidly in Yellowstone, Mt. Rainier, Sequoia, and Yosemite National Parks that it is a problem to know how to handle them all. Bears are sluggish, easy-going creatures, but they are quick to learn. The hold-up bears are an example. A few years ago a bear we called Jesse James learned that by stopping automobiles on the road he could be fairly sure of a hand-out, some candy or cookies, or food of some kind. Other bears were quick to learn the same trick, and now there are a score of hold-up bears in the park.


One of the hold-up bears gave birth not long ago to two cubs which were named Tom and Jerry, after due consideration by the rangers. These cubs had the making of two of the liveliest rascals in the park. They were full of fun, their antics always attracting the Dudes and the Sagebrushers. The cubs learned the hold-up business when quite young, and their business was so profitable that the mother bear stayed with them the second summer, contrary to the usual custom. Apparently she hesitated to part from her prosperous and successful offspring. We wondered how long she would stay with them and whether Tom and Jerry would stand by their mother, as all good young bears do in the story-books but don't in the national parks. We were not long waiting for an answer, for the next summer cub Jerry showed up with her own cubs, whereupon the rangers hastily changed the name to Geraldine.

In the spring, the park superintendents come in for considerable criticism because of the unkempt appearance of the bears. Early one season a woman visitor asked to be taken to see a bear. A ranger helped her find one. The bear they located was as thin as a rail. His skin seemed to hang like a big loose sack on him. One side was entirely without fur. One eye was closed. He was cross and mean. He certainly looked like the morning after a terrible night out. The visitor was quite disgusted.

"Well, when I want to see a bear next time, I shall go to the Bronx Zoo," she said. "We have bears that look like bears. This one looks like he had three feet in the grave!"

If she could have seen that same bear three months later, she would never have recognized him. His fur was thick and soft, he was sleek and fat, his disposition was grand. He was a changed animal. That literally is what happens to the bears of the mountains in the summer. They eat enough to replace the exhausted tissues, they grow new fur, they are almost new bears by the time summer ends.

The greatest collection of bears in any national park is in Yellowstone, where there are both grizzlies and the black bears. In Mt. McKinley Glacier and Grand Teton National Parks there are grizzlies and blacks, but the grizzlies are not so easily seen. Yosemite National Park has a great many black bears, and they are very tame and easily seen and photographed. Sequoia National Park has some fine black bears and until recently it was believed that a California Grizzly roamed its fastnesses. It is now agreed by all authorities on bears that the great California Grizzly is extinct. Mt. Rainier National Park has black bears, as have Crater Lake, Great Smoky Mountains, Lassen, Kings Canyon, Grand Teton and Rocky Mountain National Parks. There are no bears at Grand Canyon, Bryce, or Zion Parks.


One of the early bear yarns that always delights Dudes is the story of "Buffalo" Jones and the bad grizzly. Buffalo Jones was an early scout, a genuine man of the mountains, later appointed chief gamekeeper of Yellowstone. A certain big grizzly persisted in robbing camps and "Buffalo" Jones was authorized to discipline the grizzly, but was admonished not to injure the animal. It puzzled the old scout considerably. He scratched his head and tried to think how he could punish the bear and still not hurt him. Finally, he rigged up a noose, caught the grizzly on one of his prowling expeditions, drew the rope tight under the bear's fore paws and around his shoulders, and pulled the rope over the limb of a tree. With the grizzly suspended a few inches off the ground, in a helpless position, "Buffalo" Jones proceeded to spank the bear as one would spank a bad boy. The grizzly yelped and whined until he was let down to the ground. Then he made a bee-line for the woods and was never seen around camp again.

We have often thought of offering complaining Dudes the opportunity to spank the bears that they wanted shot, on condition that they capture the bears as did Buffalo Jones. Not long ago, when the man who dumped the "salad" at the Canyon complained that a bear had bitten him and insisted that the animal be punished, the rangers said, "Point out the guilty bear and we'll punish him."

Just then a bear came out of the woods.

"There he is," said the man. "That's the one that chewed me."

"No, it's this fellow over here," insisted his companion, as another bear approached on the opposite side.

They fell into a heated argument as to which was the bad bear.

"Well, we can't shoot all the bears," the rangers told them. "First you'll have to get the evidence to convict the bear."

A bear is presumed to be innocent until proved guilty. The rangers call the witnesses against the bear and question them about the alleged damage or injury, then seek to establish the identity of the bear. If the bear can positively be identified by the complaining witnesses, and there is general agreement on one bear, the bear is in a fair way to be convicted. But as almost always happens, if the witnesses cannot agree on the identity of the bear, the rangers refuse to do anything to the bear.

One time a big ranger of Scandinavian birth was sent to investigate a series of complaints against "a big brown bear" made by the boss of a road camp. It was alleged that the bear had stolen a ham; that he had torn open a case of maple syrup and had clawed holes in every can and drained them of their contents; that he had sneaked into the kitchen and eaten a large pan of applesauce which was to have been dessert at supper, and had also eaten up all the stewed dried peaches that had been cooked for breakfast; that he had taken one overshoe from each of three workmen while they were eating dinner, and had committed other felonies. There were ten other counts in the indictment.

The ranger called the crew together and told them that he had the instructions and power to run the bear out of the country if he could be identified. Just then a big brown bear ambled across the open in front of the assembled group. One man excitedly pointed him out, "there he is now," but several said that was not the bear. A few moments later, two other bears were seen walking around a nearby building. One of them was declared to be the bear. But this bear was eliminated from consideration right away by other men who claimed positively that he was a good bear who had never harmed anybody or anything. While the investigation went on a half-dozen bears came around, but each had as many defenders as he had accusers. No more than two men could agree on any one big brown bear. It was certainly a "hung jury." Finally the ranger, a veteran woodsman of Scandinavian extraction, became disgusted and declared, "Ya can all come to blazes, ya don't know which bear ya mean and none of 'em will be touched!"


Illustrating the intelligence of bears, Ranger Chapman tells the story of Betsy, the big black bear that used to come to the back door of the mess house when the cook called. The cook used to give Betsy a pail full of scraps with the admonition to "bring the pail back." Half an hour later, Betsy would come back out of the woods, the handle of the empty pail in her jaws. "I won't claim that she washed and dried the pail after each meal, but she never failed to bring it back," says Chapman.

Lest the impression be created by these remarks about our bears that they are the scavengers of the forests, let us consider the bear's diet. As a matter of fact, bears are omnivorous. They will eat almost anything. Garbage meets with their entire approval, once they have adjusted their stomachs to rough food by eating certain roots and herbs after coming from hibernation. But the bears lived in the national parks long before the advent of the hotels and camps and the "combination salad." They eat berries, green grass, bulbs, and certain wild flowers, such as dogtooth violets, snow lilies, and spring beauties. They are not too fastidious to eat wild onions. They like nuts. A mouse or a gopher or a trout is a relished tidbit, and ants and ant eggs make fine hors-d'oeuvre.


To see a bear amble along, one would think he is too slow to catch these little animals. Yet a bear can show the most amazing bursts of speed, when occasion demands. Some of the Old-Timers claim that in the early days, before the "salad bowl" at the bear pits made life so easy, the Park bears actually were able to catch fish. Old-Timers tell of seeing Mr. Bear lying on the bank of a trout stream, one paw idling in the water, to all intents and purposes sound asleep. Suddenly like lightning came a flash of his paw, and a trout was flopping on the grassy bank. This yarn may be a whopper, though the Old-Timers claim it is not. Anyway, a bear is capable of acting that fast, if he wants to do so.

People who visited the national parks in the early days do not recall seeing many bears. Even in Yellowstone they were not numerous along the roads nor at the feeding grounds where selected left-overs from the tables of hotels and lodges were thrown out to them.

In some parks, the presence of dogs frightened bears and other animals from the roadsides. In others patrolling soldiers fired guns and pistols at bears. When the National Park Service was founded, dogs were excluded from the parks, and rangers took the place of soldiers and never fired at bears unless to prevent apparently certain injury to visitors. Thus the era of friendship between mankind and the bears began.

The rangers were criticized then, and are still, for that matter, for permitting the bears to roam at large through the parks. On the other hand, there would be a tremendous protest from the public if anything should be done to interfere with the opportunity to see the bears. The Dudes and Sagebrushers demand their bear, often the big thrill of the vacation.

Of course, during the war travel to the parks was greatly curtailed. Hotels were not open. Food for the feeding grounds or "salad bowls" was not available. There may be an effort made to avoid revival of these facilities for observing both grizzlies and black bears which were so popular in by-gone days. This new policy if enforced will be based on the theory that bears should live in the wilds without any aid from mankind. An argument can be made for such policies, but the Dudes and Sagebrushers—and the bears, too—will be hard to convince.


Oh, Ranger!
©1928, 1929, 1934, 1972, Horace M. Albright and Frank J. Taylor
albright-taylor/chap3a.htm — 06-Sep-2004