• Annmarie Throckmorton, M.A.

a conversation with a bea

When I emailed this life story of mine to Rick McMullen, who is a retired editor, this was his reply:

“It was AMAZING! I have read a great deal throughout my life, much of it trash and not worth the ink, but this, THIS was different. This has real merit, emotion, feeling, smells, sights and sounds. It has immediacy, which is something ALL writers, amateur and professional, struggle to achieve. “I read it without stopping, and I felt uplifted and saddened by it. If you can stir emotions in anyone, especially me, your writing is MORE than worthwhile.”

In the late 20th century, there was a vast privately-owned wild animal display located near Peoria, Illinois, USA, called Wildlife Prairie Park. I used to walk there several times a week, sometimes ambling along the ridge above the tall grass prairie which was stocked with American bison, elk, antelope, deer, and other open grassland animals. A few times I had the good fortune to sit and watch the bison herd take their time, savoring the excitement of fording the river that ran through that section of the prairie.

Usually though, I took the winding, weaving trails into the woods where natural habitat cages held Midwestern American animals in what must have been zoo mesh but which looked like home-made cages of doubled-up chicken-wire. Each habitat was very large and set into the woods with natural nooks and crannies. Often the animals were out of sight behind hillocks, resting in their caves, or burrowed under woodpiles; coming into view only when they were in the mood to view and be viewed. The animals contained within these wire habitats seemed comfortable and thoughtful. Escape seemed possible.

It took me a while to learn where the trails went and what animals might be sited around which bend in the trail. It was a nice wood chip trail, just wide enough to walk two-abreast (which made me a little lonesome), fragrant with earth and forest moisture, and clipped clear of the branches that latticed overhead. I enjoyed exploring it.

I learned that the bobcat will sleep through the day on a tree branch several stories up like a fur rug draped over a fence, but the narrow, deep path worn around the inside perimeter of its cage revealed its habit of nighttime perambulations, probably searching for that elusive way out. If I sat long enough on one of the rustic benches along the trail, I might catch sight of some sleeping mammal’s fuzzy foot stretched out of a comfortable woodpile.

I never failed to gasp at the intensity of the cougars who deserve their nickname of mountain lions. There were several in their cage, slinking in and out of view, cat eyes gazing into my eyes longingly as I walked past. Once a cougar held my gaze while it stretched magnificently twelve feet up along a tree trunk to methodically claw off long strips of bark. I never lingered near their cage again. There were very few people hiking around these trails during weekdays I was there. Not even the cold-eyed wolf pack gave me the same intimate chill as those cougars. I felt that a wolf pack would enjoy taking you down, a cougar would enjoy it even more.

The American Black Bear is actually a small brown bear but up close it is almost black with forest moisture, animal smelly, and even when sitting down on its haunches it hulks darkly large enough to stop one in one’s tracks. It outweighs and is stronger than any man, with two or three bear attacks on humans reported each year. On the day of my own bear encounter, I had just rounded a bend somewhere in the middle of that woodsy labyrinth, when I was stopped in my tracks, paralyzed with fear. I saw a black bear loose, sitting beside the trail I had just turned onto. It was sitting an arm’s length away from my left hand. I froze in place, with absolutely no idea of what to do, no thought of whether I should roll over and play dead, stand tall with my arms in the air like tree branches, climb a tree, or run gibbering down the trail as fast as possible. I just stood there, my nose filling with its scent which was strong but not unpleasant. Gradually, I realized that while the bear was looking at me, it did not seem aroused. It was sitting on its haunches quietly grumbling to itself. It was preoccupied and not particularly interested in me. This was an realization that made me flush with relief. I looked more closely at the situation and realized that the bear was actually still inside its cage, it had squeezed itself up to the fencing as close as it could get. It was sitting wedged between a tree and the wire mesh. I could see that it had tried, and maybe tried and tried again, then realized that it simply could not get out. The other animals seemed to have accepted their fates of captivity, so I wondered why this bear, at this time, was so discouraged about being confined? So I did what I do when confronted with an interesting puzzle, I sat down close to it for a clearer picture of the problem. I eased onto the grasses next to the bear’s cage, but the bear did not get up when I sat down next to it. Perhaps the double mesh of wire between us was as reassuring to it as the fencing was to me. The bear had glanced at me when I sat down but did not hold my gaze. I could smell the steady scent of the beast as it continued to quietly grumble to itself. It smelled of male bear and damp fur. I spoke to it, saying the kinds of things one says to calm an animal, hello bear, how are you, good bear, pretty bear, gentle bear, what are you saying, tell me more . . . that sort of thing. The bear ignored me. So, I was silent and listened to the tone of its bear voice, the emotion in it. I sat silently with it for maybe twenty or thirty minutes while it continued its inward dialog of little moans, breathy huffs, grunts, woeful woofs and distress whimpers. I was surprised it did not move away, and I was puzzled by its preoccupation. It did not seem to be hurt in any way except emotionally. This is what I came to understand of its circumstance. This bear was deeply worried about something, deeply concerned about something over which he had no control, something he cared about deeply. He was made desperate by his circumstance. I would like to say that I talked to the creature, that I calmed him down, even that I solved his problem, but no. Eventually, I stood and walked away from the bear in his cage. I walked all the way around the enclosure, which I had never done before. I saw that it was actually a deep pit with the fencing built onto the cliff that encircled it. There was a muddy pond in the middle, and a metal shelter at one end. I saw no cause for alarm, but then I am not a bear.

Oddly, late that winter I learned that there was another bear in this enclosure, a female, a pregnant female, and she had given birth to a cub. Now, they say that male bears do not help with cubs, in fact they may harm them, but what I know is that the male bear with whom I conversed that summer day long ago was anguishing over something. Is there a difference between birthing bear cubs, typically two or three in a litter, in a metal container in a publicly viewed enclosure and birthing them in a den of mud or stone deep in the woods where there may or may not be human hunters? I do not know, only a bear knows this.

There was another odd thing about this experience. I was younger then and foolishly thought that I did not like bears. I have a lot invested in my life and I do not want to lose it before my time. So, I distrusted those brutes called bears, I feared even the thought of bears’ strength. I wished they were gone, no matter where, just gone. I resented the bear bells I wore clanking around my neck when hiking in the wilderness, especially as I did not think that my bear bells would do me one scrape of good if I encountered an angry bear. Nevertheless, after my conversation with this bear, I discovered that I have a deep and abiding caring for bears tolling deep in my heart. I believe bears’ emotions are not different from ours, and bears’ value is equal to any other life. Our greater intellect obligates us to provision space for bears in this world.

Caption: Conversation With A Bear Who Wants Out

by Annmarie Throckmorton 2015.

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