Stories of the frontier have always captured the American imagination. Man versus beast. Taming the wild.
Daniel Boone probably shot more bear with rifles than he wrestled to the ground and Davy Crockett, despite the lyrics I learned via Disney when I was a child, was not “born on a mountaintop in Tennessee,” nor did he “Kilt him a b’ar when he was only three.”
Folklore and exaggeration create powerful and memorable images that fit well with the American story of domination–people, land, habitat– as Americans recount the story of westward expansion.
Bears and Wilderness fuel story and imagination.
Native Americans respected the grizzly bears’ power and strength, many tribes giving honor to the great beast as a god.
The documentary “Grizzly Man” chronicles the story of self-proclaimed eco-warrior Tim Treadwell and his friend Amie Huguenard, killed by the grizzlies they loved and studied in Alaska’s Katmai National Park in 2003.
For some, the life and habitat of bears become an obsession.
I had my own reason to think about bears this week.
My attention was closely focused on the Monrovia Brushfire burning in the local San Gabriel Mountain foothills. I could see the smoke from my house, and knowing my dear friend Esther and her family live in that specific area I was quite concerned.
But once I knew my friends were safe, I thought about their bears.
Yes. Their bears.
Esther has opened her front door on more than one occasion to find a curiosity-seeking bear peering at her closely, standing almost nose to nose.
I recall another story about her granddaughter getting out of the car with a pizza, putting it down for a moment to gather her personal items, only to have dinner snatched right from under her.
This past holiday season Esther’s young great-grandson, looking forward to a meal of Thanksgiving leftovers, was badly disappointed when a bear beat him to it! There he was, Mr. Brown Bear cleaning out the contents of the spare refrigerator in the garage, helping himself to his very own Thanksgiving dinner.
That’s waaaay too close for me!
Some persistent bears have even become local celebrities, like Meatball, the bear, who for a time roamed the foothill neighborhoods of Glendale, La Crescenta and Montrose.
Homeowners in the semi-tamed wilderness interface areas are instructed on responsible residential behaviors. It is against the law to harm one of the bears.
Of course, this hasn’t always been the California story.
We liked the Grizzly Bear enough to make the California Bear Flag the state flag when California joined the Union in 1850.
Looking back to that time, it’s a bit ironic today.
Despite the grizzly’s prominence on the state flag, designation as the state animal, association with big money sports (think UCLA Bruins), the sad reality is that the last of these big fellows in California was shot dead on January 5, 1908.
Hunting enthusiasts are the easiest to blame, but the truth is that with the state’s rapid increase in population growth and settlement the bear lost habitat at alarming rates.
One of the saddest tales is the story of Monarch Bear.
Newspaper publisher and mogul William Randolph Hearst reportedly gave a blank check to newspaper reporter Allen Kelley to accomplish the task of capturing “the last wild grizzly bear” of California.
After a six month search, Monarch Bear was captured in the Ojai Valley and brought to San Francisco. The Zoo at Golden Gate Park refused to take the bear, and Hearst then put Monarch on exhibit at Woodwards Gardens, drawing enormous crowds.
From 1889 to sometime around 1909 Monarch was a star.
He became the model for the current state flag of California and for a time following the 1906 earthquake he stood as the poster bear for the rebuilding of San Francisco. He went on to sire cubs and according to the publicity of the day, “lived an easy life.”
Not sure I feel that way. Twenty-two years in a cage? Maybe not his idea of easy.
For photos and excellent back story on Monarch, click HERE.
Monarch was euthanized in 1911, and “he” remains behind glass at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.
I can’t help but feel a little sad when I think about Monarch.
And I thought of our local bears this week. Current drought conditions have threatened our own local wilderness. Garden equipment sparked this week’s brushfire.
Human carelessness threatens the safety of humans and threatens extinction of animals.
American naturalist Earl Fleming said, “It would be fitting, I think, if among the last manmade tracks on earth would be found the huge footprints of the great brown bear.
Certainly makes me think. It’s too late for the California Grizzly, though, isn’t it!