Ursus Horribilis In Extremis


There were pit fights as well. Bears were roped, chained by the leg to a heavy post, and obliged to defend themselves against longhorn bulls. Quoting one account by an American journalist of the early 1800’s, Horace Bell reported that bears and bulls were pitted against each other frequently at PaIa, the outpost of Mission San Lui’s Rey near San Diego. In one bloody episode, the tethered bear rose on its hind legs to meet the assault of the first bull. When the horns were within a yard of the grizzly’s breast, the bear seized the bull’s head with both paws and “in a twinkling … the bull lay limp as a rag, his neck broken.” Three more bulls were sent against the bear. Two met the same fate as the first. The third gored the grizzly fatally. Bell also told of a grizzly sent in chains from Los Angeles to Monterrey, Mexico, where it was matched against “Parnell,” a “man-killing African lion.” According to Bell, the “great Californian handled the African king as a cat would a rat.”

The California grizzly fared better with lions and bulls than with people; and with the discovery of gold in 1848 (and the introduction of the Sharps rifle), the grizzly’s fate was sealed. In that signal year alone, five hunters delivered seven hundred grizzly pelts to Sutter’s Fort at Sacramento. The pelts were stacked near the flagpole, at the top of which fluttered California’s newly adopted flag—the flag of the golden bear.

The war between people and grizzly bears in North America has been largely a struggle for protein. People eat meat. Bears eat meat. Some people eat bear meat. The human appetite for bear flesh is probably as old as the flint-tipped spear. In more historic times, on the plains and in Old California, grizzlies were not simply dispatched for sport; more often than not their choice parts wound up in the assassin’s stewpot. Osborne Russell, a member of Jim Bridger’s Rocky Mountain Fur Company brigade, wrote of one such repast. “Our camp keeper,” Russell noted, “had prepared an elegant supper of grizzly bear meat and mutton nicely stewed and seasoned with pepper and salt, which as the mountain phrase goes ‘is not bad to take’!” In gold-rush California, grizzly meat was apparently considered a great delicacy. At the mining camp of El Dorado, hunters were paid $1.25 for a pound of it. Moreover, a slain bear yielded ancillary benefits. Wilderness prophet John Muir, who wandered the length and breadth of the High Sierra in the late 1800’s, mentioned a few of them in his book Our National Parks :

“ ‘B’ar meat,’ said a hunter from whom I was seeking information, ‘b’ar meat is the best meat in the mountains; their skins make the best beds, and their grease the best butter. Biscuits shortened with b’ar grease goes as far as beans; a man will walk all day on a couple of them biscuit.’ ”

To what extent people have compensated the bear in kind is beyond statistical recall. Reports of bears devouring their human victims are extremely rare, even in the turgid buckskin fictions of the nineteenth century. People who have occasionally been close to the bear’s jaws in adversary situations swear that the human odor seems to offend the animal—a condition that, if correct, might explain why few people attacked by grizzlies are killed on the spot, much less eaten.

Some old-timers insist that grizzlies once fed ravenously on sick and dying Indians in smallpox-ridden Western camps, thereby acquiring not only a taste for people meat but a tendency to stalk and devour healthy specimens as well. Possibly—yet to me it sounds as likely as Uncle Malcolm Clarke’s scalp restorative in the huckleberry thicket. In recent years, nonetheless, there have been several instances in which grizzlies partly devoured their human prey. Such was the fate of Michèle Koons, one of the two young women attacked and killed by separate grizzlies, in separate campsites only miles apart, at Glacier National Park in 1967. And in 1976, at Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska, searchers following grizzly tracks found the regurgitated remains of a missing backpacker. Incidents such as these awaken lingering human suspicions about the habits of grizzlies. In Montana, one wildlife official quoted a resident rancher as having proclaimed with conviction that the grizzly is “good for nuthin’ [because it] sleeps all winter and eats people all summer.”