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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Vollaro

Bear Loose in the Suburbs

Of all the tried-and-true media stories about nature, my favorite is bear loose in the suburbs. It goes something like this: a bear (usually a black bear) is sighted in a suburban neighborhood. People snap photos and videos---often from inside their houses, but not always---and then post them on social media. The photos are almost always cute: bear cooling off in a kiddie pool. Bear lounging under a tree near a trampoline. Bear on the back patio staring at the bird feeder it has just knocked to the ground. Often the bear is given an adorable name like Bruno or Lucky, but not always. Sometimes the bear is just "bear" or "black bear," and therefore more threatening somehow, less cuddly and huggable.

The bear that showed up in the park behind my house last week was given the name Yogi, by the police I think, but maybe by reporters; I don't know for sure. Not very original, but almost everything else about bear loose in the suburbs is hackneyed and middling, so why not Yogi.

Bear loose in the suburbs is a frivolous story, a humorous distraction. The individual accounts are usually brief, and often they read more like extended captions for the picture or video to which they are attached. The bear is usually the star, but sometimes he or she must share the limelight with the police officer, park ranger, or animal control specialist who fired the tranquilizer gun.

The bear is often spotted and photographed in an incongruous location---standing under a pear tree in someone's backyard, walking across the road on a college campus, strolling on the property of a nursing home, or hanging halfway up a tree near a church. Bear loose in the suburbs will not be very entertaining if he is photographed in his natural habitat, peeking out of the underbrush or walking along the side of a country road. He must be presented inside human habitation, hilariously out of context. Otherwise, the story won't work.

Sometimes the bear is spotted in a tree and described as "confused," stuck, helpless, or disoriented---much in the same way cats are described when humans arrive in a fire truck to "rescue" them.

The bear is anthropomorphized in other ways, described as "lovelorn," "window shopping," "strolling," or "roaming." Bruno the Bear---who became a spectacle on the Internet recently for traveling 400 miles, traversing Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Iowa, crossing major highways and swimming across the Mississippi River, supposedly in search of a mate---was described by USA Today as being on a "walkabout." He has a Facebook page dedicated to him with 46,000 members.

Bear loose in the suburbs is an outsider, an interloper, but sadly, not a very interesting one. The fact that he is out of place makes him a curiosity, but he is not a very well-developed character. Reporters and newscasters try their best to primp him up with the funny names and snappy punchlines, but at best, bear loose in the suburbs is only as lively as the average American's cultural memory of the natural world, and that is truly an endangered species these days.

In Native American culture, myths, and folklore, Bear is a well-rounded, three-dimensional character. In the Tewa story "How to Scare a Bear," he is a big amiable fellow, Brother Bear, who is outwitted by Little Rabbit in a contest to see who is the bravest. In the Miwok tale "The Coming of Thunder," she is a "horrible, wicked woman" who tricks and then devours her own sister-in-law Deer in order to possess her two daughters, both beautiful fawns. Pursued by Bear across a river, the fawns are aided by their grandfather Lizard, who kills Bear and then skins her. The Slavey flood story features bear as a mother bear who is hoarding all of the warmth of the world in a bag. Freezing and hungry, the other animals send a search party comprised of wolf, fox, woverine, bobcat, mouse, pike, and dogfish to bring back the warmth, but first they must steal it back from Bear. In "Old Man Coyote Makes the World," a Crow story, Bear is a surly complainer who is never satisfied with anything Coyote makes and is eventually banished to "stay in a den by yourself and eat decayed, rotten things" (Bear stories paraphrased and quoted from American Indian Myths and Legends, selected and edited by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz).

These are excellent bear stories, every one of them. And there are many, many more like it.

I am not surprised by the paucity and two-dimensionality of Bear loose in the suburbs. In the hyper-sanitized, overly-digitized, and over-suburbanized American civilization, he is given only the briefest walk-on role. He ambles across the stage to announce meekly that nature is still out there somewhere, and then he strolls out of view just as quickly as he arrived. He is little more than a prop or a signpost. He is there for a bit of comic relief and to spark a twinge of nostalgia for a time when Bear played a bigger role in the human story. Everyone is happy to see him and equally pleased when he exits quickly so that the self-aggrandizing plotline of our lives can resume, almost always set indoors. I can't help thinking that bear loose in the suburbs would have a bigger role in our story if it was possible to take selfies with him, but that is not advisable.

Yogi, the bear who passed through the park behind my house, weighs 300 pounds. He was spotted in the park around 9 a.m. last Wednesday. I was sitting on my patio reading when I heard an unusual commotion coming from behind the wooden fence. People were shouting, sounding simultaneously distressed and enthralled. I couldn't imagine what it might be. Then my neighbor walked through the gate from the park to announce that there was a bear in the park, a big one.

I never saw the bear. Apparently, it was gone by the time the police arrived. Throughout the day, the bear sightings dribbled in on my phone. He was spotted in a few backyards west of the neighborhood park where he was initially sighted. The border of 2,888-acre Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park is about a mile away. Was he headed there? Is that his home, or is he on a walkabout like Bruno?

Where does bear loose in the suburbs go when he exits stage left? Most often he fades back into the state park, nature preserve, or wilderness area from which he came. Occasionally, he is struck by a car and killed. If he shows the slightest aggression towards a human, he is usually shot dead or otherwise "euthanized." Sometimes an aggressive bear is spared this fate, tagged or chipped in order to keep track of its location. In some instances, the bear is relocated. This is what happened recently in Littleton, Colorado, to the bear up a tree near the church. "Colorado Parks and Wildlife had already worked with Littleton police to tranquilize the bear," reported the local Patch, and "firefighters used an aerial ladder to help her out of the tree."

Do bears need humans to help them to climb down from a tree? According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, they do.

What happens next to bear loose in the suburbs is always a bit fuzzy. In Littleton, the bear was "placed in a locked trailer and transported to a safe location." Another bear loose in the suburbs suffered a similarly murky fate in St. Louis, Missouri. "Conservation officers tranquilized the bear Sunday and moved it to an undisclosed area outside of St. Louis."

Yogi disappeared under similar circumstances. When he lingered for too long in a neighborhood near the local high school, The Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) was called in to tranquilize him. They waited until nightfall because they were concerned that the chemical they use would kill the bear if it was administered during the heat of the day. At 10:15 p.m., they tranquilized the bear. The Marietta Police initially reported that Yogi was moved “back to its natural habitat"---which we all assumed was the nearby National Park---but later we learned that the DNR moved him to “an undisclosed location in North Georgia.” Because the bear was nonaggressive, he was not tagged or chipped.

And so Yogi exits the scene, renditioned to a black site somewhere in North Georgia, far from his home. Good luck Brother Bear. I wish we had better roles for you.


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