The Bears Are Crying

By Dr. Lorin Swinehart

sad bear


It was Armistice Day weekend, 1966, and I was a first-year teacher on the Navaho Indian Reservation in New Mexico. A fellow teacher and I decided to go walkabout during the three day weekend. Our travels took us one freezing night to the slope of a mountain named El Capitan, near the Lincoln National Forest.

We were later told the story of a tiny bear cub rescued from a fire in 1950 by soldiers from Fort Bliss. The little bear’s paws had been badly burned while seeking refuge in a tree. The press grabbed hold of the story, and Smoky the Bear stepped forth into the public imagination, urging from billboards and TV screens, “Only you can prevent forest fires.”

Transported to a life of leisure in the National Zoo in Washington, DC, this story would seem to have a happy ending. Smoky was to live for 26 years at the zoo. A few dissident voices have arisen, however, arguing that Smoky lived a near catatonic existence in a cage, unable to roam the wilds as a bear should, perhaps dreaming of happier days of freedom in his mountain home. No bear belongs in a cage.

I had my first bear encounter that same autumn while backpacking in New Mexico’s Chuska Mountains. Winding along an old trail at sunset, I came upon two yearling black bears gorging themselves on pinion nuts. When they caught my scent, they arose on hind legs, stared in my direction in deep concentration until convinced that, yes, I was indeed a member of that dread species known as humans, and lumbered off, crashing through the underbrush. I remained standing, awestricken.

Over the years since, I have met other bears while backpacking in the wilds of Montana, West Virginia, Colorado, New Mexico and Florida. None posed a threat except for an angry female grizzly on a mountain trail in northwestern Montana who objected to my snapping a picture of her cub as he scaled a tree. That encounter could have ended badly, given that Mrs. Bear let out a thundering roar and charged directly at me, coming to a halt perhaps twenty feet from my position.

I calmly turned and began to walk slowly down the trail, following the wise counsel of park rangers, uncertain as to whether or not the great bear was dogging my footsteps. I harbor no resentment toward the bear. It was the bear’s home, and I was the interloper.

My seasons spent as a National Park Service ranger far more often involved protecting bears from people, rather than people from bears. Bears subsist on low calorie diets in their natural habitat. Whenever they consume human food, it affects them much like cocaine would a person. Generally, these so-called garbage bears have to be euthanized after repeated incidents. No day went by when we did not confiscate picnic lunches left unattended by heedless campers. Frequently, such carelessness earned the offenders hefty fines.

Bears are as ingenious as the cartoon character Yogi when it comes to stealing human food.  One sunny Colorado morning, a mother bear ushered her twin cubs up a tree and proceeded to tear the screen door off the office of a horse stable and treat herself to hot chocolate.  One of our park volunteers found the same two cubs ransacking his van on another occasion, gobbling up whatever they could find. Thankfully, our season ended with the bear family safe and sound in their wilderness home.

I want all of the comical, lumbering creatures to live out their lives in peace, doing what bears are supposed to do, lazing in the sun, munching on roots and berries, and, like Winnie-the-Pooh, raiding honey trees.

While I am heartened by the news that British Columbia has outlawed the hunting of grizzly bears, the intense lobbying efforts of Defenders of Wildlife and The Animal Welfare Institute to strictly limit bear hunting in the state of Maine ended in defeat a few years ago. Already, the California and Mexican grizzlies are extinct, as are the Bergman’s bear of Siberia and the Atlas bear of Morocco. The polar bear of the far north faces unprecedented challenges as global warming causes sea ice to melt. North American poachers kill bears for their body parts, which are sold on the black market in Asia and among Asian communities in the United States and Canada.

President Barak Obama established policies protecting cubs and hibernating bears in Alaskan wildlife refuges from being baited or shot, but now the vandals are in charge in Washington, DC.  Mr. Trump has abolished those protections. Perhaps one can expect nothing better from an artificial man who continues to live an artificial life inside an artificial bubble, sequestered behind his stubbornly preserved delusions.

Too many of our ursine friends suffer far worse fates than that posed by hunters or even poachers. There are an estimated 12,000 bears enduring endless agony in the bear bile farms of Asia, despite the governments of Vietnam, South Korea and other nations having declared such practices illegal. Bears are captured, locked into tiny metal cages, often a mere two by four feet, and restrained while crude catheters are rammed into their abdomens in order to draw bile twice daily.

Witnesses report that bears sob like wounded human infants, writhe and bang their heads against their cages during this procedure. They are “tapped” in this way, much like maple trees, until they can no longer produce, then slaughtered, their organs marketed as imaginary treatments for imaginary conditions.

Bear parts are prized for use in traditional Chinese medical practices. Vietnamese moon bears are particularly prized for their unique coloration. Bear gall shows up increasingly in eye drops, ointments and top of the line shampoos marketed to gullible consumers. As always, cruelty pays high dividends.

The use of bear gall to treat a host of ailments, including erectile dysfunction, is a product of superstition, not good science. In China, where the human population is burgeoning, erectile dysfunction must be epidemic, with so many males so insecure about their manhood and sexual prowess that they find it necessary to seek such quack remedies as bear gall and rhino horn.

There are, it seems, three categories of humans: First, those who actively pursue evil by acts of cruelty and greed; second, a great mass who display their indifference through an obsession with trifles and trivia, games and distractions; finally, those who simply give a damn and struggle endlessly to confront and ameliorate the actions of those in the first category. 

St. Paul tells us that all creation groans as it awaits the return of the Redeemer. As these lines are being penned, the frivolous and indifferent continue to fritter their lives away. All the while, the bears continue crying.


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