A-Z Modern Bestiary: Bears in the Balance
May 1, 2015 | Posted in: Modern Bestiary
is for the Bears
“We’ve been meeting them in the wilderness, and in our dreams, since the dawn of human history… No beast casts a longer shadow over our collective subconscious. Perhaps more than any other animal, the bear remains at the very heart of our concept of wilderness.”
Brian Payton, Shadow of the Bear: Travels in Vanishing Wilderness
A beast with savagely clawed paws and a mighty jaw armed to the teeth, born of bad temper and glutenous appetite. A man-eater, one of the last great predators to roam the land. Or, on the other hand, the teddy you cuddled as a child, or the silly ol’ honey bear that filled your books and cartoons with wise foolishness. Or, the new born cub whose antics co-opted the news for days and brought crowds to the zoo in numbers never seen before. Or, the poor circus bear, costumed and balancing on boards and barrels to frightful applause. Balancing too in the human imagination: a brutal beast or cuddly companion? Public opinion tips one way and the other, back and forth, never knowing quite what to make of the bear…
To discuss the bear at all is to break a taboo held by many indigenous peoples that share their home with our ursine cousins, for amongst them it’s known to be unwise to speak of the bear. Bears can hear, you see, the words you say, and whether the sentiments are good or ill it’s a dangerous business to catch a bear’s attention. To merely utter a word about the bear could lead to madness, even worse to laugh at the bear. Be watchful not to cross bear tracks, or touch anything the bear touched, or worse yet jump over its scat. Many a young girl has been taken by Bear and made his wife when she strayed from following these rules. For the safety of all, euphemisms were used to refer to bears in place of their true names. They were called fur father, honey-eater, old claw man, beautiful animal, gold feet, twelve men’s strength. Eddie Benally, an officer in the Navajo Nation’s Fish and Wildlife Department, explains his tribe’s relationship to the bear this way:
“The Navajo name for the bear is shush, which in English means to be quiet. He is known as a protector. But you never talk about him. He hears you all the way up in the mountains.” Payton
While we might not be sure what to think of bears, we certainly have always thought of them. Early humans right up to modern have revered them as sacred, hunted to eat them, hunted to destroy them, raised them as their own (even breastfeeding them in some cases), used their fur, paws, teeth, bones, and organs for medicines, weapons, sacred totems, and clothing. The Inuit believed the bear to be a human, who only took on the animal’s form when donning their fur to leave their shelter. Many are the stories of bears being humans and humans being bears, and our bodies do look eerily similar when the fur and clothing are removed. Some cultures saw bears as a bridge between heaven and earth, messengers whose good opinion could be won through tributes and rituals. Hibernating bears were thought to have conquered death, reemerging with every spring despite fasting for months on end. Mother bears were revered for their devotional protection of their young. Bears featured in the myths of many cultures, and curiously the constellation Ursa Major was associated with a gigantic bear by early peoples in both Europe and North America.
“The relations between humans and bears throughout history are complex because they play out within the poles of attraction and repulsion, combining these seemingly irreconcilable opposites in almost every possible way… our interactions with bears are laden with mixed feelings: our forebears venerated, killed, caressed, tortured, nurtured, ate, respected, and despised them.” Bernd Brunner, Bears: A Brief History
All bears evolved from a common ancestor, Ursavus, or ‘dawn bear,’ a beatific name for what was really a scrappy terrier sized carnivore. But from such humble beginnings came powerful and adaptive progeny who went on to populate the majority of continents on earth, and today eight species of bears are still found (though in ever dwindling numbers) in the Americas, India, Southeast Asia, and Europe. From the polar regions to steamy jungle tree tops, bears have adapted for variety.
And variety is indeed the keyword when it comes to a bear’s food habits, as all bears are capable omnivores, welcoming into their gut a wide and unprejudiced assortment of fruits, nuts, animals, and insects. Gustav Jaeger, a german naturalist, was particularly bemused by the bear’s multifarious diet, writing that “the bear can bring down the largest of mammals, yet it poaches the fields ‘like any mere ruminating beast.’ It steals from orchards and vineyards ‘like a monkey,’ eats berries from the stem ‘like a blackbird,’ climbs after pinecones ‘like a squirrel,’ plunders beehives and anthills ‘like a woodpecker,’ digs for maggots and worms ‘like a pig,’ and, finally, fishes and crabs ‘like an otter'” (Brunner). So much of the conflict between humans and bears has arisen due to our similar diets, causing competition which has lead to much grief for both species (though much worse for the bear in the long run).
“[H]ungry bears will try to eat anything, including motor oil, frozen and canned food, leather boots, and even the people who packed those supplies in what they thought were bear-proof containers.” Richard Ellis, On Thin Ice: The Changing World of the Polar Bear
Of all living bear species the panda is the oldest, yet oddly its existence was hidden from most of the world all the way up to 1869 when french priest Armand David became the first westerner to have seen the bear. Stranger yet, it appears that even within China itself the panda was largely unknown. How such an arresting animal, all luminous white and black, could have remained hidden for so long is a mystery indeed, but Chinese texts, some as old as 3,000 years, have been scoured for evidence of the Panda, even a mere description or drawing, but nothing persuasive has been found. The panda appears to have only been known to those living in and around the Dengchi Valley, until Armand David stumbled upon the bear, killed it, and wrote up a formal scientific description. In less then 150 years the panda skyrocketed from obscurity to the worldwide notoriety of today. Indeed, no other bear has garnered the same level of public interest and funding.
“[F]or decades pandas defied classification; they outwitted hunters and escaped trappers; they have induced public elbowing and had zoo turnstiles spinning; they have been on diplomatic journeys; they have been branded on products and turned into logos for companies and charities; they have become the face of global conservation; and they have attracted great scientific minds and plenty of money to study them.” Henry Nicholis, The Way of the Panda
Also sharing a home in eastern Asia are two of the least studied bear species, smaller in size than their relatives and rarely cited in human attacks. The Asiatic black bear, also known as moon bear, sports a black bushy coat, large circular ears, and a creamy or rusty patch on the chest (often shaped like a crescent moon). Forest dwellers who avoid human contact, they are sadly captured for the collection of their bile, which is believed to be a folk remedy in China despite no scientific basis. Kept in small cages and drained of bile for years on end, the plight of the moon bears has been largely ignored by the scientific and world community. Similarly unnoticed is their nearby cousin the sun bear, the smallest of all bears with smooth black short fur, small ears, long tongue, and a crescent shaped chest patch that ranges from white to a deep orange.
“Remarkably little is known about sun bears, although they are believed to exist throughout Southeast Asia—from Myanmar and Vietnam to Borneo and Sumatra. Even basic questions about food preferences, range size, and reproduction remain unanswered. They are Southeast Asia’s least studied, most neglected species of large mammal, and this lack of knowledge poses a serious challenge to conservation efforts. No one knows how many are left in the wild, but when compared to anecdotal stories of past abundance, the prognosis is not good.” Payton
In India lives the bear with the most recorded attacks on humans, outstripping the polar and grizzly bears for ferocity. The sloth bear is a rather dopey looking ursine, with an extendable tongue, lengthy claws, and fur that ranges from shaggy to short (depending on the location) with a light brown chest patch. Active both night and day, and able to live in forest and grasslands, these bears prefer termites and ants but will of course partake in all manner of flora and fauna. They are particularly aggressive when humans are encountered, but in India a protective rather than destructive stance has been taken towards the bears and it’s illegal to hunt them. And this isn’t just some eco-militant law, it’s supported by the very locals most in danger of attack from the bears:
“There are many more villagers to meet; a seemingly inexhaustible supply of scars and stories. Many people are attacked by sloth bears in the early morning, either on the way to, during, or returning from relieving themselves. Others get into trouble while collecting flower or fruit, or tending livestock… Over and over again I hear that, despite the danger, villagers do not want any harm to come to the bears. They want them to stay because they believe bears guard the jungle. If the bears disappear, then so will the trees and rain.” Payton
The belief that the vitality of the forests is dependent on healthy bears led locals in Peru to create the Ecological Reserve of Chaparri, a dry forest still in largely pristine condition and home to the Andean spectacled bear, named for the cream-colored markings around their eyes. These bears are tree lovers, building nests in canopies by folding branches into sturdy structures where they rest and snack on their favorite food of all, bromeliads, rootless plants that grow on tree limbs and sip moisture from the air. Snacking on such delightful treats will often result in a deep sing-songy humming from the bear, a sound which has been called the sweetest humming known to animal kind. The Chaparri locals have a slogan, “el oso es agua” (the bear is water), which may sound odd until their explanation is given: protect the bear and you protect the forest, protect the forest and you protect the water cycle, protect water and you protect life.
A completely opposite approach to local bear populations was taken in North America beginning with the arrival of the Europeans and continuing with the western expansion of settlers. Grizzly bears once roamed over the majority of the continent, even as far south as Mexico. These mighty brown beasts, why their very size was cause enough to unsettle the pioneers, but their taste for cattle was the grizzlies downfall, and they were demonized and hunted with the ferocity that only humans are known for. Ursus horribilis these bears were called, with a reputation for brutality out of a nightmare, a welcome story to ease the conscience of our slaughter.
“One of the most amiable and well-behaved denizens of the forest, Bruin has ever been an outlaw and a fugitive with a price on his pelt and no rights which any man is bound to respect. Like most outlawed men, he has been supplied with a reputation much worse than he deserves as an excuse for his persecution and a justification to his murderers.” Allen Kelly, Bears I Have Met, 1903
The western United States quickly saw the decimation of its thriving bear populations. In Texas the last grizzly was killed in 1890, in California they were gone by 1922. Utah was grizzly free by 1923 and Oregon and Arizona followed suit by 1935. There were bears who held their own against the tide of humanity flowing in, such as Old Mose, nicknamed the “outlaw grizzly” and “king of the Colorado grizzly bears.” This behemoth male, with toes missing on his back leg causing a moseying gait, managed to feast on horses and cows (as many as 800 by some accounts) for thirty-five years in an area of Colorado only seventy-five miles across. Early in his career as local cattle thief, a bounty of a thousand dollars was placed on Mose’s head, but still he roamed on through his territory for many years till a famous bear hunter and his team of dogs brought Mose to his death. A local by the name of Jack Bell wrote a piece for “Outdoor Life” in 1904 regarding the last battle of the bear, and his admiration is clear:
“He died befitting his rank and lay down in his last sleep with imposing grandeur. Just think, after being shot through and through times without number, baited with every device and cunning known to trapper, chased by demon posses of cowboys and ranchers bent on his extermination, and in all this he has met them with superior generalship, cunning unexcelled, knowledge supreme.”
Today grizzlies can only be found in certain areas of Yellowstone National Park, Washington, Montana, Canada, and Alaska. One of the last strongholds of grizzly domains is the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary in Canada, and once again we discover that the health of the bear is of direct importance to the health of the forest there:
“More than nine feet of precipitation soaks this part of the coast each year and the resulting jungle is dark and primeval. Grizzly bears play an integral role in this environment, consuming huge quantities of salmon and conveying valuable nitrogen fertilizer deep into the forest. They are the unwitting gardeners of some of the world’s oldest, biggest trees.” Payton
In ancient forests and along coast lines the grizzlies lead out their natural life cycles: breeding, feeding, wandering the wide world in its human-free form. Of all the senses through which the bear translates the world around it, the most essential to a bear is its nose. An old indigenous proverb sums up the bear’s olfactory prowess: “A pine needle fell in the forest. The eagle saw it. The deer heard it. The bear smelled it.” Wind-borne information describes the surroundings for the bear, much the way vision does for us. “For a bear, smelling is believing, and he will confirm information gathered visually with a smell check” (Poulsen). Scent is also the most frequent social link between bears, who spend the majority of their time alone and most often communicate through the marking of trees and trails and leaving of scat.
“It is probably more accurate to say that bears are independent creatures, rather than solitary ones. ‘Solitary’ implies that bears have no social skills at all or have no need for social skill, which isn’t true… Female bears spend most of their time independent of other adult bears but in a small family group. They avoid males when they have young, negotiate with males during breeding season, and are known to recognize and greet adult family members in their travels. This all takes social skill. It also suggests that bears have a need to be social, to interact with other bears.” Poulsen
There is a phenomenon, documented in different bear habitats, where individual bears will walk the same trail. Alright, nothing too spectacular there, many animals follow the same trails as their peers. But these bears don’t just walk the same trail, they match their steps to the steps of the bears before, deliberately placing their paws in the precise tracks of the bears previous. One such trail was discovered in Russia in the 1800’s with thousands of paw prints spanning hundreds of miles, where each bear stepped precisely in the same spot (Brunner). Some believe that these trails have been used for generations, each bear carrying on the steps of its ancestors, creating primeval pathways. Perhaps social behavior doesn’t always necessitate close contact…
When we humans peer our gaze upon another species we often are seeking to answer “why?” Why do they do this or that? What motivates and moves them? But such questions seem to imply that our human understanding can be perfectly matched to the motives of the animal in question and that a behavior exhibited is always done for the same reason. Bears are individuals with great curiosity and keen faculties, and they act for all sorts of reasons that we can only guess at. Ultimately, in the words of notable bear behaviorist Else Poulsen, “bears do things for bear reasons.”
Here in North America it’s spring, and that means black and brown bears have been waking up, stretching taut muscles, yawning wide their cavernous jaws, ambling out of winter dens to piss and defecate for the first time in months. For these bears it was a long winter spent drifting between consciousness and unconsciousness, rolled tightly in a ball, head tucked between large forepaws, heavily furred backs taking the brunt of the cold. Reality and dreams must blur in this slumberous state, and who knows what creatures or memories morph out of cave walls before the soporific bear, tantalizing or troubling, during such a long slumber?
“I was roaming the big woods, one day in springtime, when I found my first bear’s den. It was between two rocks that leaned to each other, forming a low entrance, which the bear had filled with leaves and evergreen boughs that he had collected for the purpose of shutting out the snow… his doorway was still closed—with the litter that he had pulled in after him. I was moving cautiously, being unarmed, and was wondering how best to awaken the sleeper, when the thought came that every other bear in the country had been roving the woods for two or three weeks past. Then I opened his door, letting in the sunshine; and there lay Mooween, very still, very peaceful, but with no answering light in his open eyes. He had curled himself up, just as he had always done when winter threatened, to sleep and doze and dream through all the storms, until the chickadees sounded their sweet mating call through the woods…” William J. Long, Mother Nature
Bears can select their winter den not just from caves, but will burrow under the roots of a living tree, hollow out an anthill, make a nest under or between boulders, dig holes or pile up fallen branches. Whatever shelter they choose, once inside and deep in hibernation their heartbeat slows in tempo, dwindling during their deepest rest to beat only eight times in a full minute. A pregnant female during these months will begin her gestation, if her body deems itself sufficiently well-fed to carry the pregnancy through. Indeed, female bears have a unique ability: after mating her body goes through a process known as “delayed implantation,” where the fertilized egg will divide a few times and then float about in the uterus for around six months, awaiting a mysterious signal before development either begins or (if the female is not healthy enough) is aborted.
The black bear is the marvel of hibernators, able to go 100 days without eating, drinking, urinating, defecating, or exercising, before coming out of its den in the springtime with nothing but a slimmer waist to show for it. A part of the hibernating bear’s miraculous feat is its ability to break down its own stored fat to get both water and around 4000+ calories a day, while also breaking down muscle and organ tissue to obtain protein. A human body goes through a similar breakdown process when starving, but we’re unable to restore these tissues once used. The black bear however restores its fat supplies and other tissue using a component of its own urine, which would otherwise build in toxicity during the long rest period. Essentially, the bear’s own urine is the surprise ingredient in its elixir of life, restoring the body even as it’s devoured.
The hibernating bear also doesn’t suffer any damage from high cholesterol, muscle cramping, or bone loss, all of which another mammal would experience if attempting the same feat. How does the bear do this? We don’t know. The black bears marvel of inertia has caught even the interest of NASA, who hopes to uncover the secrets for use in space exploration: imagine our astronaut heroes mimicking the bears hibernation with stars and planets zipping past.
Polar bears spend the winter quite differently than their southern relatives. This’s their time of activity, of full bellies followed by long hunts. The ice upon which they depend for finding their prey forms with the return of winter, and so they wait all the long summer and fall for the ice. Pregnant females wait even longer as they must build a den to shelter their soon-to-be-born-cubs, and they fast through a heroic eight full months before returning to the hunt. Male polar bears never hibernate, but merely hang around riling one another up, scratching itchy fur, eating seaweed, napping extensively, poking their noses into human towns and trash bins, waiting until the winter, till the ice, returns.
Polar bears are the most recent of all bear species, having split off from the brown bears only an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. A unexploited niche was discovered by cold-bearing bears who traveled up in the icy north, for here seals were once able to give birth and nurse their young safely on the ice, far away from predators…until the brown bears moved north. Further and further into the arctic they went, and with this migration came adaptation.
“The polar bear’s changes, though recent, are profound. Not only has he gone from brown to white, from land to sea, and from omnivore to carnivore, but he has completely reversed the seasons of the bear year. Winter is a time of activity; summer is for fasting, resting, and conserving energy.” Charles Feazel, White Bear
A population of brown bears adapted to become Ursus maritimus, or “sea bear,” able to swim for miles in icy water, feet now larger and with hair on once naked footpads. Their body changed to store fat under skin for insulation, and their faces narrowed. Skin turned black under their new white coat, though to this day we’re not sure why. They learned to run faster, and catch slippery prey that spends most of its time under deep ice. Their diet altered from varied to focused almost entirely on ringed seals, supplemented with bearded seals, belugas, young walruses, and narwhales. In desperate times berries, kelp, grasses, and decaying fish and whales that wash up on shore will do. And they grew large, with males weighing in at between 800 to 1,700 pounds (females are two to three times smaller) and measuring between eight to ten feet from nose to tail.
The polar bears sense of smell is its greatest weapon, allowing it to locate a seal through two feet of solid ice and follow the scent of a rotting whale carcass twenty miles distant. The white bear’s strongest personality trait is curiosity. From the time of the bears arrival they were rulers of the arctic, fearing nothing for there was nothing to fear. Curiosity was a boon in a landscape of endless blinding white, helping the bear in its endless quest for the next meal. There was nothing to to prey upon the bear, just as the seal had once been safe, until a heavily-coated primate floating on a ship appeared and changed the game utterly. But how was the bear to know?
“The reputation of the polar bear as an unreconstructed man-eater colors every encounter, and even bears minding their own business on the ice or casually strolling into somebody’s camp are killed in what is perceived as an absolutely necessary demonstration of ‘self-defense.’ … the big he-bears, by virtue of this size and fearless nature, are usually oblivious to the puny threats offered by humans. The explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, writing of the Beaufort sea bears, wrote, ‘Knowing no fear, he comes straight into the camp, walking leisurely because he does not expect the dead seal that he smells to escape him; neither has he in mind any hostility or disposition to attacks, for, through long experience with foxes and gulls, he expects any living thing he meets to make way for him.’ All the waving, shouting, and flare shooting only serves to pique the bear’s interest.” Ellis
Bears can and do attack humans, there’s no question. But humans are not a common addition to a bears diet unless starvation is at hand. When encountering any bear there is no surety as to how the encounter will go. They might chase a person or run from them, avoid the camp or waltz right in. “Hungry bears behave very differently from well-fed bears; skinny bears do things that fat bears would never do… but because people are ready to interpret almost any behavior as aggressive, whatever the intentions of the bear, they have believed that ‘the only good bear is a dead bear'” (Ellis). Black bears have by far the largest remaining population in the wild, with an estimated 600,000 still roaming North America, and yet violence against humans is rare:
“Unprovoked, predatory attacks on humans by black bears are exceedingly rare but highly sensationalized in the media. During the entire twentieth century only 51 people were killed by black bears. For each person killed by a black bear, approximately 45 were killed by dogs, 120 died from bee stings, 249 were killed by lightning, and 60,000 were victims of homicide.” Payton
While bears have harmed humans, humans have been far more harmful to bears. We’ve hunted them mercilessly, imprisoned them in neglectful zoos, stuffed them for natural history museums, captured them as cubs and trained them to “dance” through brutality, kept them in cages and drained them of bile, forced them to perform in circuses and sideshows, and taken nearly all their habitat for ourselves. Six of the eight bear species are on the World Conservation Union’s Red List of Threatened Species: the panda, polar, sun, sloth, moon, and spectacled bears are all vulnerable to extinction. Pollution, habitat loss, food scarcity, hunting and captivity are the greatest threats facing the ursine. Our fear lead us to first spur and later ignore the disappearance of the ursine kind, much as we have with the passing of all great predators. But like most predators, bears are keystone species in their ecosystems, responsible for keeping their communities more diverse and healthy.
Sadly, we’re on track for a future without bears in the wilds of the world, and how empty a future that seems. How desolate a landscape where once bear after many bears, for year after many years, walked in the paw-prints of their ancestors before. How empty the forests, the tundras, the grasslands of the world without the ambling ursine, without their huffing and snuffling, humming and rumbling, grunts and roars, moans and sighs. No more bear tracks in the dirt to avoid, no claw marks on trees to stop us in our tracks, no need to avoid speaking of bear, for no bear would be left to hear. Only in zoos and dreams then could we meet, and what melancholy, ghostly visits those would be. And what incriminating eyes I imagine the bear would cast upon us, and rightly so, for if the bears disappear it will be because of us; no other to blame.
“No, don’t despise the bear, either in his life or his death. He is a kingly fellow, every inch a king; a curious, monkish, music-loving, roving Robin Hood of his somber woods… this storied and classic creature which, with noiseless and stately tread, has come down to us out of the past, and is as quietly passing away from the face of the earth…” Joaquin Miller, True Bear Stories, 1900
The following books informed this post:
Bears: A Brief History, Bernd Brunner
Smiling Bears, Else Poulsen
The Way of the Panda, Henry Nicholis
On Thin Ice: The Changing World of the Polar Bear, Richard Ellis
Shadow of the Bear: Travels in Vanishing Wilderness, Brian Payton
Never heard of a bestiary? Read my introductory post for the Modern Bestiary series.
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