I live in Cold Spring, New York, where the Hudson River winds through steep, densely wooded hills. Last Friday I went jogging early, to beat the expected 100-degree heat. I ran down a village road and onto a path zigzagging up the side of Mount Taurus, a rock hump north of town. Normally on a sunny summer morning I'd see some hikers, but the heat was apparently deterring them. I was huffing along in my usual daze when I spotted a large black object heading toward me. I stopped, and it stopped, about 20 feet away. Fur black and shiny as asphalt. Maybe 200 pounds. We locked eyes, each waiting for the other to make a move.
This wasn't my first encounter with a black bear. One morning eight years ago I was letting my dog Merlin, who was then barely a year old, out the back door for his morning constitutional when he froze, peed all over the deck and scrambled back inside the house. I was chiding him for his bad behavior when I noticed that a couple of pole-mounted birdfeeders in the backyard had been torn down and smashed into pieces. I was pondering that mystery when a huge black bear—easily 400 pounds—lumbered out from behind a boulder at the edge of our yard, looked me over coolly and waddled back into the woods.
I'd heard about this fellow. He had been knocking over garbage cans and birdfeeders for the previous week or so, scaring people and their dogs. I was nonetheless dismayed when, a week later, a farmer in my town shot and killed the bear after he busted into the farmer's chicken coop. (Merlin's reaction to the bear, which he never actually saw, still fascinates me: How could a one-year-old dog who had never encountered a bear know from merely its smell that it was something to be feared? Are dogs born with that genetic capacity?)
The bear I encountered last Friday was much smaller and cuter than the brute that terrified Merlin, so much so that I assume it was a she. Vaguely remembering that a display of aggression can make bears back off, I yelled, "Hey!" and thrust my arms up. She instantly wheeled away from me and ran back up the path. When I strolled after her, she plunged off the path, crashing through the underbrush and uttering a mournful moan that reminded me of Chewbacca, the hirsute Star Wars character. I felt guilty for scaring her—and glad when she bounded up the mountain and away from a nearby highway.
Humans have long felt this ambivalence—half fear, half affection—toward black bears. Ursus americanus is the most common species of bear in the world. As this well-sourced Wikipedia entry notes, there are as many as a half million in North America, ranging from Canada as far south as Mexico. Black bears are ordinarily shy, but some have become habituated to humans in heavily populated areas, such as New York and New Jersey, and have boldly foraged for garbage and other food. Over the objections of animal-rights groups, New Jersey recently legalized hunting bears, which is also permitted in 27 other states.
I own a book, Man the Hunted (Westview Press 2009), by the anthropologists Donna Hart and Robert Sussman, which says that our ancestors, far from being fearsome predators, were fearful prey; our big brains and sociality may have evolved in part as adaptations that helped us avoid being eaten. Hart and Sussman focus for the most parts on lions, tigers and other big cats, but they note that bears can kill humans too. Although not nearly as dangerous (or large) as polar bears or grizzlies, black bears killed 34 people in North America in the 20th century, according to Hart and Sussman, and left other victims alive but grievously wounded.
Of course, humans have slaughtered countless black bears for their meat or skin or just for fun. Wade Hampton, a Confederate General and politician, personally shot or stabbed to death more than 300 black bears. Nowadays, almost 500,000 bear-hunting licenses are issued every year in the U.S. Between 1988 and 1992, Americans "harvested" almost more than 18,000 black bears a year, according to Wikipedia. We also imperil bears in less direct ways. Global warming, caused by our profligate consumption of fossil fuels, is reportedly disrupting the food sources and hibernation patterns of black bears.
Meanwhile, we feel a mawkish, sentimental affection for black bears, or at least for their fictional representations. Winnie the Pooh, the beloved storybook character, who is starring in a new film, was based on a female black bear named Winnipeg, who lived in a London zoo in the early 20th century. Smokey Bear, the popular mascot of the U.S. Forest Service, was named after a bear cub who survived a forest fire in New Mexico in 1950. Our schizoid attitude toward bears is embodied in the teddy bear, which is named after Teddy Roosevelt, an avid hunter of bears.
In his 1968 sci-fi novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (made into the awesome 1982 film Blade Runner), Philip K. Dick imagines a dystopia in which nuclear radiation has destroyed virtually all creatures other than humans. The protagonist is overcome with joy when he finds a spider. A spider! I'm confident that humanity can avoid turning the planet into a barren wasteland, devoid of wildlife. But I'm glad I live in a world where you can still run into a bear in the woods.
Photo by Chuck Tague courtesy Wikimedia Commons.