Monarch Bear–California’s last great Grizzly!

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 bearwho 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.

California Flag

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.

A Grizzly exhibit at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
A Grizzly exhibit at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

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!

41 thoughts on “Monarch Bear–California’s last great Grizzly!

    1. I’d like to take my granddaughters to see Monarch, but only as an opportunity to teach them early how to respect the natural habitat of these and other creatures. I think in California it is going to be a continual challenge. That’s probably true for everywhere!

  1. Oh gosh Debra what a wonderful tribute to the bear. I saw the documentary “Grizzly Man” – such a sad ending!
    I’m glad to hear the Monrovia Brushfire is under control.
    I didn’t realize that bears would be so brazen (is that a word for a bear?) as to come and help themselves to leftovers in garage fridges. Bears+ Pizza = Heart burn big time!

    We killed off the bear and we put them on our State Flag. We killed off the buffalo and several of the official US State Quarters feature the Buffalo.

    1. Oh yes! The buffalo!! Now there’s another whole story, huh? It’s all quite upside down! I love to read John Muir and what he was observing in his day and how hard he worked to preserve the vanishing wilderness even back then! Wouldn’t he be sad today!

      The bears in the local mountains are very brazen, Rosie. I wouldn’t know it either except that Esther tells me stories that frighten me for her. Bears and rattlers! I think with the drought conditions the poor bears (and snakes) will be on the prowl! I’m glad to be a flat-lander! LOL!

  2. Catherine Wade

    As usual you have sparked my interest on something I wasn’t even aware I was curious about. Thanks for the push.

    1. Let me know and we’ll take a field trip sometime, Catherine. We could go so many places to fuel an interest–all the while avoiding other responsibilities…Sounds fun, doesn’t it? (We can take a day off work!) hahaha!

  3. Debra, I am deathly afraid of bears, but I still mourn the loss of an essential part of CA’s history. I was lucky enough to see a golden bear when I was at Yosemite several years ago. Lucky in that I saw it when I was in the car. 🙂 It ran across the road, and I was glad it was lucky enough to avoid being hit. I was really amazed at how fast it could run.

    I know seeing Monarch is fascinating on some level, but exhibits like that always make me sad. Same thing with mummies and whatnot.

    1. I think it’s an appropriate reaction to be so afraid of bears, Andra. I haven’t had any exposure personally, but when I hear Esther’s stories I am just chilled by how close they come to her living areas. With the early drought the animals are going to be coming down out of the hills to get food and water, and even as low in the valley as we live, there won’t be bears, but there will be coyotes and other much smaller animals. They may be “cute” but they are wild! I’m very respectful of that fact!

      I feel very much the same about the exhibits. I do think if I am ever able to show Monarch to Sophia and Karina I would, simply as another way to tell the story of why we need to respect the habitat of animals and the result of carelessness. As a teaching tool perhaps these natural history exhibits have their place, but I also feel tremendously sad when I consider what it means to see them behind glass. ox

    1. Thank you for your very nice comment, CM. I work in a university and have a job in academic research–I can easily lecture when I get enthusiastic about a topic. I do try very hard not to do that. LOL!

      1. You succeeded in not doing that! 🙂 I was sad about Monarch. I have to say, the first time I took my granddaughter to the zoo it had been many many years since I had been there. As soon as we got to the gorillas, I remembered why I didn’t like the zoo. Monarch’s story reminded me of that. I really enjoy your writing.

    1. Sometimes it’s hard to believe we, as people, can be so unconscious with our disregard for how we are all connected at some level to all other beings. At least we’ve made a few strides in our awareness since the day of the grizzly, but we have such a long way to go. I could write a short volume on Esther’s experiences with bears and rattlesnakes She has close calls all the time–she does have a wonderful property, but it’s too risky for me! 🙂

  4. such an interesting bear story for someone who lives in a bear-free country … thanks for all the information … so sad there are no more Californian Grizzlies : (

    1. I think most people would be surprised to see where I live, yet the proximity to the wild, including bear. It’s even a surprise to me from time to time. I’m really very concerned about our current drought conditions, Christine. The animals are going to be down out of the foothills looking for food and water. Should be interesting! I think the story of the Grizzly is just so wrong. But I’ll add it to the long list of things that aren’t right in my book–that list is getting longer by the day. LOL!

  5. Very good bear tribute … and I’m with you regarding your friend’s proximity to them – way too close for me! Meanwhile, I also think of the Cal Bears, but none of the universities I know in your state has Grizzlies as a nickname.

    1. I’m sure anyone with a modicum of common sense wouldn’t want to associate a California sporting event with Grizzlies–a doomed animal. I don’t associate sports with sentimentality. 🙂 My friend Esther has monthly encounter with bears and/or rattle snakes, and takes it all in stride. She does have a beautiful home with a view. But she also has yearly worries with fire. It’s not for me, either! 🙂

  6. Friends of ours have a second home in Steamboat Springs, CO, up in the mountains. Their neighbor, downwind but within sight on a road with switch backs, woke up in the middle of the night to find a bear sitting on his couch eating a bag of bread! Can you imagine that? The door wasn’t locked and the bear was hungry! The sad thing is that the road intersects a migratory elk path. The story of Monarch’s capture makes me sad for what may likely happen to the elk. As is always the result, dear Debra, this post provides much to ponder. Thank you for it.

    1. Oh my goodness, Penny! I can’t imagine having a bear inside the house. But now your friends have that story forever, and it’s a good one! 🙂 The concern about the migratory elk path is really a big one. I find myself so often wondering what possible answers there are about such things. We are still an expanding population and we take up space. And the infrastructure to support our population is going to take more and more animal habitat and disrupt migratory patterns of animals and birds. I am very good at identifying problems, but I don’t have answers! 🙂 The story of Monarch makes me sad, too, but I think he may be a good object lesson. The girls will have to be a little older before I share the story with them, though. Thank you for the story of the elk path, Penny. I am interested in the obstacles that other regions encounter. I don’t have any experience with elk! 🙂

  7. We have black bears here in the hills and I see that they have come close by every now and then, but I have never seen one. I guess the Monrovia bears are more socialized, I think our bears are still really wild. As it should be. Thank you for sharing the story of the Monarch Bear, I didn’t know his story. And I worked at UCLA for over 30 years!!

    1. I think you’re right about the bears in the San Gabriel foothills being socialized. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but they make themselves at home people’s pools and hot tubs, climb the neighborhood trees, and certainly get into the trash cans. I am not aware of any of them ever charging! Yes, poor Monarch. I hope he at least enjoyed being a celebrity! Poor guy!

  8. This is one of those things that makes you think Debra. It’s sad – especially the story about Monarch, but perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned here for all the younger generations.

    1. I agree with you, Kristy, that as sad as the story of Monarch Bear is, he can still teach us something about preserving natural habitats and caring for the environment overall. There are wonderful organizations like the World Wildlife Federation that are so good at teaching and working on behalf all living things. We’re very fortunate to be living in a time when there is at least a significant awareness. We don’t get everything right, but the effort is there. 🙂

  9. Dawnriser

    People arrive, animals vanish. That seems to be the way of it. Sad sad story, but great post. I too would be scared of bears but the last we had of brown bears vanished about a thousand years, maybe more. Monarch’s story reminded me of Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died in Brooklyn zoo in 1912, if memory serves me right. Strange how once the animal is gone it becomes an icon, ie, the flag. We still need them for our symbols, but we can’t let the actual creature survive ..

    1. Thank you for sharing about Martha the Passenger Pigeon, Dawnriser. I wouldn’t have known that story. It really is odd to me that less than 100 years ago there wasn’t more concern about preserving a species, or was it that people really didn’t understand what was happening? I wouldn’t even know how to research that, but I’m tremendously curious. We still make decisions to expand into deserts and forests and then suffer the unintended consequence of disrupting habitats, so we aren’t completely blameless. It’s a fascinating situation and unfortunately sometimes before we find the answers it’s too late. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I am going to try to find out a bit more about Martha.

  10. We don’t have any bears Down Under. I’m so sad for Monarch for having to spend so many years in a cage. That’s so cruel. I’m in no way against zoos but I do think any animal in a zoo deserves as natural a habitat as possible xx

    1. I think the story of Monarch Bear is a good object lesson to us for how unconscious we can sometimes be with the environment or protecting the habitat of other species. We are quick to blame actions from the past, but we need to pay attention, too. Monarch’s story is sad, but maybe it can be a good lesson! Thank you, Charlie.

  11. I’m always disturbed to read of a species’s last survivor dying in captivity. It’s never a good story, Debra, nor is it any easier to take when I read that this bird or that primate is losing ground in the battle to survive. I just wish they would stop this nonsense of trying to bring back ancient species, like the mammoth or sabertooth cat, and put that money into the conservation of the species we already have. What good is a mammoth in a cage if there are no elephants in the wild?
    I’m glad your friends are safe and hope they remain so.

    1. When I learned the story of Monarch Bear I thought it was just so sad, and also so telling about a time in our history when we really didn’t seem to understand a thing about what it would mean to lose species. I can be very critical of situations today that negatively impact the environment or create stress on animal habitats, of course, but I do think on whole we are at least trying to learn from past mistakes. I think sometimes we really just don’t think very strategically. Actions are taken without considering unintended consequences. Thank you for the very thoughtful comment, John, and the well-wishes for my friend Esther and her family. It’s going to be a long, hot summer…bears and rattlers! Ugh!

  12. Such an interesting and yet poignant post, Debra. I’m not sure I would want to share my neighbourhood with bears and yet I do respect the right of our fellow mammals to living-space and food and really hope the wildfire won’t harm them Surely it’s very early in the year for fires, isn’t it?

    Wild bears in Britain became extinct nearly 1000 years ago ago, but there is now serious discussion going on about the possibility of reintroducing them and other animals such as wolves and lynx in the wilderness areas of the Scottish Highlands. Beavers have already been successfully reintroduced. Watch this space….

    1. I sometimes accuse my friend of being completely crazy, Perpetua! She’s heard me tell her for years that I’m concerned for her safety. She’s never been charged by a bear, but she’s had many close encounters. The homes are getting higher and higher up into the foothills, encroaching on animal habitat. One reason I was eager to share the story was to surprise some with how close to civilization, and a very big city, the bears really do live. I would be so interested in hearing more about the reintroduction of such large wild animals in Britain. I hope you’ll share about that as it happens. What a fascinating idea. Thank you for telling me about that. I may need to do a little googling. 🙂

      1. It hasn’t happened yet, Debra, but is being discussed in some depth. Of course the farmers are concerned for the safety of their livestock, but it may happen. We”ll see…..

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