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Lions, Gorillas and Bears ...

Bill Meredith

One morning early in July, I found myself riding down a country road just north of Emmitsburg with two other duffers, on the way to pick up the fourth member of our golf group. Daydreaming in the back seat, I was jolted back to the present by a shout of "There ‘s a bear!" and a screech of brakes. Sure enough, a half-grown black bear was standing on its hind legs in a meadow, staring at us from a distance of 100 yards or so. Bears are said to be nearsighted, and it would be hard to say what he thought we were, but after a moment ‘s contemplation he decided not to be a hero. He lumbered off through the grass, stopping and standing up for one more look before he disappeared into a woodlot. In over 50 years as a field biologist, he was the only bear I have seen in the wild.

I knew about bears from my earliest childhood; they appeared in many of my storybooks, either as bumbling oafs or ill-tempered villains. We had a copy of Frank Baum ‘s book, The Wizard of Oz, and I knew the story long before it appeared as a movie in 1939. I don ‘t remember if the line about "Lions and Tigers and Bears "was in the original text, but because of that book and others like Grimm‘s Fairy Tales, I knew the woods were full of scary creatures. So from the time I was big enough to walk, going with my father to bring in the cows at milking time became a hunting expedition.

The woodlot where the cows grazed was probably not more than ten acres, but to a three-year-old it seemed like an endless wilderness, and my father was still young enough to get into the spirit of adventure. There was a hollow log by the path, and often, if he wasn‘t in a hurry, Dad would say, "A bear just ran in there. Did you see it?" I always answered "No; "my imagination was slow on the uptake even then. He would position me at one end of the log and poke a stick into the other end, saying, "Get him when he comes out; "and, never quite sure where pretense stopped and reality began, I would aim my toy popgun, both barrels loaded with corks, and wait for the bear to emerge. It never did. The ensuing dialog never varied: "Did you get him?" "No." "Quick, there he goes, down over the hill ..." well, we‘ll get him next time."

I assumed the bear lived in the log and I was always disappointed that Dad saw him every time and I never did; it was a long time before I understood why. There were still a few bears in the woods when he was a child, and his grandfather had told him stories of hunting them, so they were natural prey for us. But his imagination only went so far. He knew tigers had never existed in West Virginia, so we never hunted them. There had been mountain lions once, but the last one known to be in the state was killed in 1887, so they were out of the question too. Sometime in the early years of the Coolidge Administration, a gorilla escaped from a circus in the southern end of the state, and all of the newspapers carried lurid stories about it. It was recaptured within an hour, but the papers didn‘t cover that part of the story as thoroughly, and 10 years later sightings of it were still being reported all over the state. We hunted it a few times, but Dad was a realist at heart and never quite managed to project the same enthusiasm for it that he had for bears.

Bears were not just the product of storybooks to me, because I had actually seen one. The State Game Farm near Phillipi, had a small zoo stocked with native animals, and we went to visit it one Sunday. It was the original "Are we there yet" excursion; the distance was only 40 miles, but on West Virginia roads in the 1930s there were few places that a car could reach a speed of 40 mph, and the trip seemed endless. When we finally got there, it was a letdown. There was a deer with antlers in the velvet stage in a field, and you could reach through the fence and pet it; but that was discouraged because a child had suffered a broken arm there the week before. The rest of the animals were in small cages, usually 10 feet square or less. A raccoon paced endlessly back and forth, and reached an arm through the wire to beg for handouts, but it was ready to scratch or bite if you got too close. A possum was asleep in a box; a fox and bobcat both cowered in the darkest corners of their cages, barely visible. There was a very old, moth-eaten eagle sitting on a pole, glaring at us with a baleful, yellow eye and not looking noble in the least. The bear was old and dirty; it had mange, with patches of hair scraped off its back, and it smelled far worse than the manure pile by our barn. For years afterward, that was my image of a bear, something more to be pitied than hunted. But my bear-hunting days were soon over; by the time I was 6, I was big enough to bring in the cows by myself, and it quickly became a chore instead of a sporting event.

The general rule in ecology is that the food chain takes the form of a pyramid of numbers. In a balanced ecosystem, plant-eating animals at the bottom of the chain tend to be smaller and more numerous (while deer and buffalo are large, they are greatly outnumbered by insects and rodents). Meat-eaters at the top of the chain tend to be larger and less abundant; if their populations get too big, they destroy their prey and then starve.

Bears don‘t fit this general rule very well because they are omnivores, eating everything from fruit and roots to insects, mice, deer and carrion; hence their numbers are less limited by their food supply. Originally, there were bears in every county of Maryland, but by the 1950s they had become so rare that hunting them was banned. Following the biological laws of exponential growth, their population increased very slowly over the next few decades, and then began to shoot upward in the ‘90s. It is estimated that there are now between 300 and 400 of them in the western counties, and with each female producing an average of 3 cubs each year, things are starting to get crowded. Their food supply is bounteous; they rarely catch healthy adult deer, but roadkills are there to be taken, and garbage is gourmet fare to them. Each year, adult bears chase the young males out of their home ranges, and the yearlings wander off to less crowded places, like Emmitsburg. So it is ironic that while many wild animals have declined in recent years, bear populations are now increasing. I have been mildly envious of my grandchildren, who live on a mountain near Frostburg and occasionally see bears near their yard. Predictably, this envy is not shared by my wife, who sides with the opinion of many rural residents that we were better off 50 years ago when bears were nearly extinct in the state. The argument will intensify as the next hunting season approaches.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith