The Bear

When my English wife first came to this country, she was eager see North American wildlife. “I want to see a raccoon,” she said. Soon after, we found ourselves in Yosemite, watching a family of raccoons collecting and munching stray Cheetos, orange paws aglow in the moonlight. “I want to see a sea otter.” At the Monterrey Bay Aquarium, we watched sea otters float on their backs like canoes and smash open abalone on the rocks. “I want to see a bear!” she grinned.

I paused, remembering my father’s story of having been nose-to-nose with a grizzly bear, separated only by mosquito netting–the story he told on Boy Scout camp outs that kept us awake in our tents all night. “No,” I replied, “No, honey, you don’t. You want to see a bear in a photograph. You want to see a bear on a nature documentary. You don’t ever want to see a real, live bear up close.”

The Bear
Photo by Erin Ellwood

When I heard our neighbor exclaim, “Call animal control!” late Friday night, I assumed raccoons had found their trash. I rolled over and went back to sleep. In the morning, we discovered several police vehicles parked on our street, and a crowd gathering on our front lawn. In the night, a several-hundred-pound Black Bear had scaled our neighbor’s back fence, bounded down the gravel footpath between our houses and, confused by the people and lights, followed his instincts up a large pine tree across the street.

People came to take pictures. People brought their small children, and hoisted them up on their shoulders to get a better view. Eventually, the police cordoned off the street, and still people gathered along the line of yellow police tape to catch a glimpse of the bear. From our living room couch, the cat and I sat and watched him–napping on a branch, shifting his considerable weight, hugging the trunk of the tree. At one point, he seemed to be waving, fanning the air with paws the size of my head. I got to watch the bear, closely and safely, for a long time. And I fell in love.

Meanwhile, the authorities below patrolled the street, glancing up only long enough to make sure that the bear was not coming down. Their primary concern was public safety–and for this, I am grateful. They responded bravely in the middle of the night to an emergency call describing hundreds of pounds of muscle, claw, and teeth ambling through the middle of town. And they stayed on, keeping watch over us, and him, all day.

I spoke to one of the Sheriffs about their plan. He explained that they would wait until dusk, in hopes that the bear would come down and wander back into the woods, escorted by the authorities. If the bear went the right way, peacefully, he would be fine. If he charged someone, they would have to kill it. “He knows where he needs to go,” the Sheriff smiled, and I detected a note of respect in his words, which comforted me. Perhaps he too had met the great creature’s gaze, and understood what was at stake.

I heard other explanations, from various people, about why the authorities could not simply tranquilize and relocate the bear right away. The problems were threefold: first, that the fall could hurt him, second, that they could not hold him somewhere safely while the tranquilizer wore off, and finally that a hunter could get sick if he later shot the bear and ate the meat before the drugs had all left the bear’s system. But putting a net under the tree, finding a secure place for the bear to recover, tagging him to prevent a hunter from getting sick, or releasing him in to a protected area sufficiently large to ensure that he wouldn’t get hunted and killed before the drugs wore off–all seemed to be out of the question. Everything rested on the bear coming down from the tree, and walking peacefully back home.

I returned from dinner later that evening to find another officer tearing down the blockade. The man wrapping up the tape and removing the traffic cones told me that the bear became agitated, that they shot him out of the tree with tranquilizers, and that now they were going to put him down.

Photo by Valerie Kampmeier
Photo by Valerie Kampmeier

I woke this morning with a strange thought: our town protects oak trees from being destroyed unless they are diseased beyond salvation–but not Black Bears? It makes no sense.

Our neighbor on the other side of our house is a sculptor. He got up early this morning and welded together rusted iron sheeting into the shape of a bear. He hoisted it into the tree where the bear used to be. People laid flowers beneath the tree, on the spot where the creature fell. Now, when I look out my window, across the street, I see an uncanny silhouette–the same huge outline I saw yesterday. But gone are the slow and graceful movements, the by turns confused and curiously searching eyes.

Photo by Valerie Kampmeier
Photo by Valerie Kampmeier

The bear didn’t want to see me up close any more than I wanted to see him. But ultimately, I was the liability, and therefore the danger. By my association with civic officials determined to protect me, and a system of thinking whose conclusion was the animal’s death, a creature so much larger than me physically has opened up questions much bigger than any of us–about how we can live in harmony with the staggering, sometimes terrifying power of nature, without doing harm.

Now I am the one who is confused, and curious–full of questions I think are worth asking, questions that ultimately all lead to this: how can we make sure that something like this doesn’t have to happen again? It is a question I intend to ask our community–surprised by this sudden arrival, and now heartbroken by his death–searching for the highest branch we can find, to make sense of what this visitor brought to us, and laid before us to consider, in his death.

To learn more about how to promote the peaceful coexistence of humans and animals in the Ojai Valley, please visit the Ojai Wildlife League website.