Bears and Their Ways

Bear Trees

There is a curious habit of bears that is well known but not well understood. When walking along one of his trails, a bear will stop at a certain tree, tear it with his teeth and claws, rub his back and head against it as high as he can reach, even with the tip of the nose, and standing on tiptoe. There is no doubt that a bear coming to such a tree can tell by the scent whether another bear was there, and whether that bear was a male or a female, a friend, an enemy or a stranger. Thus the tree is a kind of news agency, where the bears get all the news. One can see very many such bear-trees in a part of the country where there are many bears.

The Family Life of a Bear

However, when I spent a whole season in Yellowstone Park, studying wild animal life there, I did not see such trees. I had many meetings with other animals, but did not meet any bears. One day I spoke about this to General Young, who was in charge of the Park. His reply was, "You are not in the right place. Go to the Fountain Hotel and there you will see as many bears as you like." That was impossible, I thought, but I went at once to the Fountain Hotel.

About fifty feet from the hotel I met a big, black bear with her two black cubs. The little bears were having a boxing match, while the mother sat near them and watched them. As soon as they saw me, they stopped the boxing, and as soon as I saw them I stopped walking. The old bear gave a peculiar koff — koff to warn her cubs, I suppose. At once the cubs ran up a tree with a speed that amazed me. When they were in the tree, they sat like small boys, holding on with their hands and swinging their little black legs in the air.

The mother bear, on her hind legs, came slowly toward me. And, indeed, I did not feel very comfortable, for she was about six feet high, and I had not even a stick to defend myself with. I began to walk backwards toward the hotel. The bear came nearer to me, and gave a low "woof". I was about to turn and run for the hotel. But at that moment the old bear stopped and looked at me calmly. Then she turned round and went back to the tree where her cubs were. She stood under the tree, looking first at me and_ then at her family. I realized that she did not intend to attack me, so I took out my camera. But it was near sunset in the woods, and the camera was of no use to me. Now I took my sketchbook instead, and made a sketch of the bears.

Meanwhile, the old bear, still looking at me, evidently decided that I was not dangerous. She looked up at her young cubs in the tree, and made a peculiar sound, "er-r-r er-r" at which the cubs, like obedient children, at once sat up straight as at the word of command. Then they swung from bough to bough till they dropped to the ground, and all went off together to the woods.

It amused me to see how quickly these little bears obeyed their mother. As soon as their mother told them to do something, they did it. I learned later that there was a good reason for that. When they did not obey at once, they got a very good spanking. Yes, they told me a black bear spanks her little cubs quite often. And she does it well, for she has a good strong paw, and does not stop even if they squeal hard. And each spanking lasts a long time.

At the Garbage-heap

At the hotel they told me that the best place for bears was the garbage-heap, in the forest, about a quarter of a mile from the hotel. So, early next morning, I went there with a camera, pencils and paper. At first I watched from the bushes, about seventy-five yards away. Later I came nearer to the heap and stayed there all day, sketching and photographing the bears that came and went there. Very many bears came and went.

A great grizzly was the first, and at forty yards I snapped him, and again at fifteen. Like the others, he looked for something to eat in the garbage-heap. Then suddenly he turned his head, saw me and walked toward me. When he was about fifteen feet away from me, I snapped the camera again. The snap of the camera made him angry, and he ran toward me with a growl. I felt that it was my last moment. But I remembered the old saying: — "When you don't know what to do, don't do anything." For a minute or two the grizzly stared at me, and I stood still. Then he calmly went back to the garbage-heap and began to eat there.

Some days later, I saw thirteen bears at one time near the garbage-heap, and that was after sunset. But they told me that one could see twenty or twenty-five bears at once in June and July, when there is little food in the forest. Most of them are black bears, but there are always a few grizzlies. They are not afraid of men. Yet I thought: Weren't these creatures dangerous to the people who lived in the Park? Nothing ever happened, they said, which shows how peaceful animals are when they are not hungry.

However, it is always the exception that proves the rule. An artist at the hotel, hearing of my experiences at the garbage-heap, went there also with his camera some time after that. A she-bear with her two cubs appeared and did not give the artist a chance to photograph her. He waited a long time and then decided to go to them, since they did not come to him. Holding the camera ready, he approached the family group. The cubs got frightened when they saw this strange animal on two legs, with a box and only one eye. They ran, whining, to their mother. All her maternal anger was aroused. She struck the artist only once, but that was enough. His camera was smashed and for two weeks after that he was in the hospital with three broken ribs.

Hunting for Food

An old grizzly became a nuisance at the hotel. Since no one touched him, he walked into the kitchen and helped himself to food. The campers in the tents were especially afraid of him, because the old bear soon realized that these people had food, and it was very easy to break through white canvas walls in the woods. He did not hurt any one, but he frightened the horses, broke the camp equipments and stole much food. Once he stole a ham, and even when one of the men ran after him with a burning stick, the grizzly did hot drop the ham.

At last the chief of the Park decided to punish the thief. When the grizzly came, the chief was on his horse and at once rode after him. The grizzly ran among the pine trees for a while, but the horse had excellent training in such work, and when the grizzly ran out of the woods into the prairie, the lasso of the chief caught his hind paw. It was hard work, but at last they pulled the bear up to a high branch of a tree. Then they gave him a beating that he did not forget, for he did not come again.

A Humorous Incident

A humorous story was told me about a black she-bear that was more tame than other bears. This bear went straight into the bar-room of one of the hotels. All the people ran out except the bar-keeper, who was behind the counter. When the bear put both front paws on the bar, the cunning barkeeper pushed a glass of beer across the counter to the bear, saying nervously, "Is that what you want?"

The bear liked the smell of the beer and, bending down, lapped up the whole glassful. She spilt some of the beer, but carefully lapped it up afterwards. The crowd who looked in through the door and windows laughed at the bar-keeper and his new customer.

"Say, bar-keeper, who's going to pay for that beer?" "If I come in a fur coat, will you treat me?" These are examples of some of the remarks they made.

The bear was satisfied with what she got, because she went away peacefully to the woods and fell asleep under a tree. Next day, however, she came again. The scene in the bar-room was repeated. On the third and fourth days she came as before and got a glass of beer, but on the fifth day she seemed to want something else. One of the men said, "She wants two glasses of beer now." The bear got two glasses, and then that old hear — dead drunk — began to reel about the room. At last she lay down under a table and fell asleep, snoring loudly.

After that she came to the bar every day. The bar-keeper gave her more each time she appeared. At first one glass of beer made that bear happy, but now she got three or four, and sometimes even a little drop of something stronger. Each time she reeled about the room and then fell asleep under a table, snoring, and demonstrating to all the world that "A bear is only a kind of man in a fur coat."