Advice From A Friendly Bear

Advice From A Friendly Bear

By Dr. Lorin Swinehart

Winnie The Pooh


“Some people talk to animals. Not many listen, though. That is the problem.” —Winnie-the-Pooh

It was nearly dark the other night as I enjoyed my evening walk in the complex where our daughter lives in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. As I approached the end of the sidewalk, I encountered a huge, lumbering creature who seemed as interested in his evening prowl as I was in my own. A large black bear was snuffling about in the grass only a few feet from me. I greeted him with, “Good evening, Mr. Bear,” and advised him that it was safe for him to linger a bit and talk with me but to avoid others of my kind, because they cannot be trusted and too often do terrible things.

He seemed unimpressed with my words and continued on his way, despite my urging him to come back and stay awhile. I believe that we could have had a mutually rewarding conversation. There was no fear on my part. I love bears. I have been preoccupied with bears much of my life.

I looked behind me to find a young woman, perhaps in her twenties, leading two small dogs. “I just saw a bear,” she said, “How wild is that!”

I responded that my wife and I were former National Park Service rangers and that I love bears.

“Well, he came to the right person then, didn’t he.”

“Yes, I guess he did.”

It was refreshing to find a young person who expressed wonder on such an occasion instead of the usual stock response I receive whenever I mention my wilderness encounters with wolves or bears, “Oh, I would be scared to death.”

Such persons live their lives in accordance with a script composed by others.

Many years ago, when I was very young, I taught in a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school on the Navaho Reservation in a place called Tohatchi, New Mexico. That autumn, I met my first wild bears, a pair of big, comical yearlings who were so intent upon gobbling pinion nuts that they were oblivious to my presence. Of course, once they spotted me, they went bouncing off into their forested home with nary a look back.

One night in late winter,  I sat around a campfire sharing stories with Indian friends—two Pawnee, one Navaho, one Comanche. The stories they shared ranged from Navaho witches and skin changers to the dread “chi’indi,” that is said to consist of all that is negative about an individual spirit and to forever haunt his place of death, striking terror into the hearts of all who encounter it.

My Navaho friend explained to me that the old, traditional people would never harm or kill a bear under any circumstances, not even if he was tearing down the hogan late on a freezing winter night. The bear, he explained, is man’s brother because he sometimes stands erect on two legs.

Recently, a bear was discovered feeding upon a human carcass in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It was reported that the bear was euthanized by rangers, a euphemism for being shot. There was no explanation offered as to what tragedy caused the unfortunate person to be lying dead along the trail. Still, perhaps killing the bear was a wise decision, given that bears become habituated to certain kinds of food and that perhaps this specimen would have developed a taste for human cadavers.

A neighbor once returned from a hunting trip in the West boasting that he had killed a bear.  I never viewed him the same afterward. If my long-ago Navaho friend was correct about the just and proper relationship between humans and bears, perhaps humans who feed upon bear carcasses should be euthanized as well as bears who feed upon human carcasses. One should not with impunity feed upon one’s brother, especially given that on the average there are only two confirmed bear attacks on people each year, mostly a result of human stupidity, while human hunters kill an estimated 33,000 bears annually. 

Over the years, I have been blessed again and again by the appearance of one of the Creator’s bears; once in the Everglades, on another occasion in the hills of West Virginia, and years later while serving as a National Park Service ranger in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. My only perilous encounter took place along a remote mountain trail in Montana where I incurred the wrath of a mother grizzly with a small cub. 

While I gave my ursine friend sound advice the other night, I wonder what counsel he might have shared with me. Some gift shops offer greeting cards and wall hangings with the title “Advice from a Bear.” Such sage advice includes: Live large; climb beyond your limitations; when life gets you down, grin and bear it; eat well, live with the seasons; take time to hibernate; give bear hugs; stay wild; protect your cubs; don’t let anything stand in your way. I wish he had tarried longer so as to share his wisdom with me.

Late at night, I awaken concerned about the friendly bear I met here on the edge of town. My advice to him was correct, to avoid humans, but he seemed unworried about the prospects of meeting others of my kind. There is no food or garbage that might attract bears left out in this particular neighborhood. However, poachers have set cruel leg-hold traps up in the Blue Ridge and elsewhere. Perhaps my ursine friend will confine his browsing to the nearby forests where he will be safe. Perhaps no place is safe. And yet, I take comfort in the knowledge that there will always be wild bears. My hope is that every bear will live a long and carefree life, and that every tree will be a honey tree.


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