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