Black Bears on the Move: Suburban Shock and Awww

On November 14, 1902 US president, outdoor enthusiast, and big game hunter Theodore Roosevelt experienced a profound moment of awww when he refused to shoot a young black bear. The president was the only member of a hunting party near Onward, Mississippi who had yet to bag a bear when one of his assistants decided, appropriately enough, to assist. The man cornered a young bear and somehow managed to tie it to a tree with a length of rope.

TheodoreRooseveltTeddyBear
I mean, who could shoot that? [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
But the president refused to shoot the animal, claiming that to do so just wouldn’t be sporting. Awww. I find that a fairly endearing story, but Roosevelt had to endure a little bit of ribbing from the company of, evidently, less sporting men who asked him to hand over his man card.

Of course, the press also got hold of the story. Then it wasn’t long until political cartoonist Clifford Berryman chronicled President Roosevelt’s mushy side for the Washington Post. And that was fun. Everyone had a nice chuckle at the soft-hearted leader of the free world.

It also gave one man a great idea. Morris Michtom, candy seller and maker of stuffed animals for children, decided it would be a good idea to make a sweet stuffed bear dedicated to the president. People loved the bears, and when Michtom asked President Roosevelt for permission to name the toy in his honor, as he no longer possessed a man card anyway, he agreed. Teddy’s bear was born, and in the years since has become the prolific teddy bear, beloved by children throughout the world, teaching all of them that bears are soft and squishy and should be given lots of hugs.

 

bears
Super huggable.

 

But it turns out that might not be entirely accurate, because as cute as they are, and they are CUTE, hugging black bears isn’t a great idea. At all.

Fortunately, in my corner of the world, we don’t have to think about it too much. Or at least that’s what I thought before a recent story broke in which a representative from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources calmly discussed the wild black bears now rambling their ways through the suburbs of St. Louis.

Much like Mississippi, the great state of Missouri was once home to a large population of black bears, and in the last few years, the dwindled population has been making a comeback. They’re out there. On one hand that’s great. Predators are an important part of ecosystems and their presence or absence is a good gauge of ecological health. But Missouri bears rarely take up residence in the suburbs.

black bear in the suburbs
Look at that cutie being all cute. But from a distance, okay? photo credit: RickyNJ Black Bear via photopin (license)

These haven’t. Allegedly they are just passing through and the experts have asked everyone to please keep calm. They’ve also asked us all not to feed or shoot the bears. And though to the best of my knowledge no one has said this specifically, I don’t think we’re supposed to try to give them squishy hugs, either.

I have seen a few videos of the critters as they make their way west, through suburban yards, and toward bear-appropriate wilderness. As far as I know, no people, pets, or bears have been hurt along the way, but there’ve been plenty of people surprised to see them, and once the shock has passed, a fair bit of awww.

Absolute Leisure and Peace

In May of 1906 the Atlantic Monthly published a piece by American nature essayist John Burroughs who wrote of his experience camping in Yellowstone National Park with President Theodore Roosevelt. The trip itself occurred three years earlier in the spring of 1903, but Burroughs begins his essay by explaining that in the time since, he’s not had a moment to sit down and write about it what with all the “stress and strain of [his] life at [home]—administering to the affairs of so many of the wild creatures about [him].”

I can relate to that. I try to post to this blog every Thursday with some new snippet of history and nonsense, but sometimes I don’t make it. And now it has been three weeks since my last post. Summer is especially tough because my sons (7 and 9) are out of school and, well, what with the stress and strain of administering to the affairs of the wild creatures about me, I just hadn’t gotten around to it until now.

But my family just recently returned from a trip through the Western United States, including Yellowstone and since school started this week, I thought I’d finally take a moment to write about it.

We entered the Yellowstone through the North Gate, called the Roosevelt Arch and dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt on his 1903 visit. By Acroterion (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
We entered the Yellowstone through the North Gate, called the Roosevelt Arch and dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt on his 1903 visit. By Acroterion (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
First of all, though my husband has been to the oldest national park in the world several times, the boys and I had never been. Just judging by the variety of license plates we saw and the number of languages we heard, I’m guessing most of you have been. If you haven’t, and you ever have the opportunity, you should go.

Because it’s weird.

Even our travel companion Steve was a little apprehensive.
Even our travel companion Steve was a little apprehensive.

At least that’s all most people told me about it before I went. And they weren’t wrong. It is weird. It bubbles and boils beneath you and vents its acrid steam and then belches great plumes of water before a crowd that can’t help but gasp and cheer even while realizing that the earth here could actually explode and kill us all.

And then there’s the wildlife. Our first night in the park we camped because we wanted our boys to have that experience. We got our tent all set up and attended an evening ranger program where we proceeded to learn all the ways bears, elk, and bison can and will kill you. Then we slept in our tent pitched alongside trees that had been marked by bears, elk, and bison. We spent our remaining nights in a lodge.

We didn't point out the bear markings to the boys until we were packing up the tent the next morning.
We didn’t point out the bear markings to the boys until we were packing up the tent the next morning.

But Roosevelt and his companions largely didn’t. On a brief respite from a westward speaking tour, the president mostly camped in the backcountry. Of course there were no terribly endangered bison to speak of in the park at that time, and as this was early spring, most of the bears were still hibernating, but there were lots of elk and still a fair number of mountain lions and other predators.

It was the animal life that chiefly interested Roosevelt. According to Burroughs, the president, much to the chagrin of those companions charged with his safety, set off by himself as often as he could to enjoy a quiet picnic lunch alongside a wandering herd. Once while coatless and half lathered in the middle of a shave, Roosevelt rushed to the canyon’s edge to watch the treacherous descent of a group of goats headed for a drink from the river below.

Despite the grueling travel over still deep snow in many parts of the park, the sixteen day detour through Yellowstone apparently left Roosevelt refreshed and more determined than ever to advocate for the nation’s natural spaces.

When we were about to leave the park, I admitted to my husband, who had largely planned this trip on his own, that I’d had my doubts about this vacation. It’s not that I don’t like to animal watch and hike. I do, but I wondered if it would hold the attention of our boys or if we would all be tired and cranky and wishing we’d spent a week at the beach instead.

I was pleasantly surprised. They loved it, almost every minute of it. They delighted in the walking past the smelly, gurgling acid pools of a giant super volcano and they loved craning their necks to spot distant elk herds and bird species they’d never seen or bothered to identify.

At times the wildlife was a little closer than we would have liked.
At times the wildlife was a little closer than we would have liked.

We came home refreshed. And I’m delighted to finally take a moment to reflect on the journey. I’m also glad that it didn’t take me the three years it took Burroughs, who defended his slow pace by reminding his readers that he didn’t have the “absolute leisure and peace of the white house” that allowed Roosevelt to write his own reflections shortly after the trip.

Yep. I bet that’s it. If only I were president, I’d have all the time in the world to post. And maybe even to improve my golf swing.

By White House (Pete Souza) / Maison Blanche (Pete Souza) (The Official White House Photostream [1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By White House (Pete Souza) / Maison Blanche (Pete Souza) (The Official White House Photostream [1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Please don’t look at me like that.

On Christmas morning 1902, young brothers Quentin and Archie Roosevelt revealed a holiday surprise to their parents. As the first family entered the White House room where they were to open their gifts, the boys threw open a set of closet doors to reveal a small decorated Christmas tree.

English: A Christmas Tree at Home
Surprise! There were too many trees in the yard anyway. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The tree had been cut from the White House grounds and with a little assistance from staff had been wired for electric lights. The trouble was that President Theodore Roosevelt had specifically banned White House Christmas trees the previous year.

A dedicated outdoorsman and environmentalist, Roosevelt had listened to the increasing public concern over unnecessary forest destruction and come to the decision that his family would not participate in the holiday tradition.

Now, please believe me when I say that I am not a Christmas tree hater. I recognize that for many of the folks out there who celebrate Christmas, the season just simply would not be the same without a freshly cut tree. But I don’t have a real tree in my home.

Primarily this is because I have a family member who is terribly allergic to evergreen, but I also appreciate that artificial trees don’t need to be watered, rarely burst into flame, and possess bendy branches that are quite convenient for whimsical ornament placement. Best of all, when Christmas is over, I don’t have to worry about how to dispose of my tree.

christmas tree recycling dropoff 4
Oh. Right there? OK. (Photo credit: sdminor81)

At least I thought that was an advantage, until I moved to Oregon, which produces more live Christmas trees than any other state in the United States. Sometime during the week following our first Oregonian Christmas, a young lady knocked on our door and explained that her glee club, chess team, cheerleading squad, or something was raising funds by recycling Christmas trees for people. When I told her that we had an artificial tree, the perky smile slid from her face.

She recovered quickly, the ends of her mouth turning up, a look of disbelief in her shining eyes as she shifted to try to see around me into my home. The “tree” was easy to spot in the front room.

“Oh, okay. Thanks anyway.” She turned to walk back down the driveway, her shoulders sagging, as if I had just explained how I’d accidentally run over her puppy.

Puppy-sam
Let me be perfectly clear about this. I did NOT run over anyone’s puppy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But now we’re back in the Midwest where real trees cost nearly as much as the artificial ones and no one seems to take it as a personal affront that we prefer unpacking our tree from a box in the basement to strapping it to the roof of our car.

Still, my time in the Pacific Northwest has given me a new perspective on the advantages of real Christmas trees:

1.      Real evergreen trees make your house smell lovely and if anyone is allergic to them, his or her airway will soon clog enough to not smell them anyway so everyone wins.

2.      Real trees introduce a new crop of spiders into your home that soon take up residence and can become beloved pets for your children.

3.      Real trees spread their needles over the floor to be tracked all over the place, giving your entire home a fresh green Christmas-y feel.

4.      Real trees produce plenty of sap to coat your family’s treasured ornaments and protect them from potential breakage.

5.  When a young lady shows up on your doorstep offering to recycle your Christmas tree as a fundraiser for the annual honors orchestra trip to Boise, you don’t have to inform her that you have just run over her puppy.

And it turns out the Roosevelt family discovered a new perspective on their live Christmas tree, too. According to the story, the president was not particularly angry with his young sons, but decided that this was a teachable moment. He invited his friend and adviser Gifford Pinchot who would later serve as Chief of the United States Forest Service to explain to the boys the problems of deforestation and the use of trees for decorative purposes. Instead, Pinchot told them that sometimes the selective harvesting of older trees could be beneficial to a forest.

Christmas Tree Lot (#2548)
I’d like the one with the fewest bald spots and the most spiders, please.(Photo credit: regan76)

There’s no record of trees being reincorporated into the Roosevelt Christmas celebrations in the White House, but many reforestation laws and environmental acts came out of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency. Today, most of the Christmas trees in the United States are farm raised with highly sustainable farming practices.

So go ahead all you holiday traditionalists out there. Gather with your family around your real Christmas tree and sing Dr. Seuss’s “Welcome Christmas” or whatever it is you do to celebrate. I will be with my family, passing out the gifts left under our perfectly shaped, green plastic Christmas “tree” complete with occasional clusters of small fake pine cones. In a few days, I will pull off the branches and stuff them back into the box in the basement. And I promise I will try not to run over your puppy.

Merry Christmas!