A Wild Bear That's Almost Too Human

There's an injured bear in the apple orchard. This should not be huge news. Despite the rash of bear-proofing measures from electric fences to removing all the apples to hazing with firecrackers, bears frequent the historic orchard that my partner maintains in north-central Washington. So bears aren't a surprise, and they don't usually stop locals in their tracks. But this one does.

He's a big black bear, or at least he was big before he got hurt. Now he hop-walks with his right rear paw held high against his belly, and he's getting skinnier by the day, which makes him look lanky and disconcertingly human. The urge to weep or to toss him a dozen apples or—the most realistic option—to shoot him and get it over with is almost unbearable.

But why? What is it with us and animals?

My mother taught me, in no uncertain terms, that animals aren't people. She could not abide anthropomorphizing, and she wouldn't have abided house pets either except for my infernal pestering. The dog I got for my 10th birthday answered to two names: Junior, which I called her with typical little-kid gender confusion, and Damned Dog, as my mother called her. Junior was poorly treated, never allowed indoors, rarely walked. Or maybe she was just treated like an animal. I have friends who pamper their pets immoderately and others who admonish those friends behind their backs. Dogs are dogs, they say. Sheesh. Don't let them sleep on pillows! Don't feed them skinless boneless breast meat! Come on!

Then there are wild animals. We fetishize and idolize them, with sea turtle trinkets and howling wolf T-shirts, and sometimes we seek to commune with them. Though in my experience, wild animals, like housecats and celebrities, usually avoid those most eager for communion. Visitors who want to see bears up here sometimes see none, while locals who would rather not often see a half-dozen a day.

For no reason I can figure, I've had a year of animal encounters. A rattlesnake struck my bike tire. A mountain goat charged my car. I saw a gray whale breach and an elephant seal scratch its whiskery chin, both up close. And one day when nothing was going right, nothing at all, a red fox curled up in a lawn chair and looked me in the eye, and everything changed. I have no explanation. None. But I'm grateful.

Now there's this bear. Gimpy, we call him, to try to make the situation sound casual. But it isn't. I stopped to watch him this morning while I was out running. I couldn't help myself. He'd hop a few steps, lie in the tall grass, and then he'd hop some more. Most of the apples are gone. All the other bears are. The salmon have arrived, and they are busy gorging on spawning kokanee. Gimpy can't even make the quarter-mile trek to the river, and he surely couldn't catch a wriggling fish.

A visitor went to the ranger station to report that the bear had approached him, that it seemed to be beseeching him, asking for help. Everyone was skeptical; the injured bear would not approach a human; he's been firecracker-hazed too often. If he did approach a human, it would probably be because bears' eyesight is famously poor. The beseeching is unlikely. But the feeling of being beseeched, well, we've all felt it. We feel it still.

Years ago, when the damned dog was dying, my mother finally let her inside. The dog went straight to my bed and curled up, though she'd never been in the house and shouldn't have known which room had been mine. Anyway, I'd left home months before. Truth is, we were connected somehow, Junior and I. My mother felt it, too, and she felt that she owed this fellow creature something, her sympathy at least, maybe her mercy.

There are people standing in the orchard right now watching the bear. They can't help themselves. We've heard the Fish and Wildlife guys are on their way, that they fear Gimpy might pose a danger if he were to feel threatened. That, too, seems unlikely, but if it gives the guys an excuse to do what must be done, then so be it.

Gimpy will die soon enough, by fate or mercy, and in the grand scheme of things, I don't know which way is right. But I do know there is no one watching that bear today whose heart does not lurch with every pained step and who does not know this: We're all connected somehow, and we owe our fellow creatures something.

Ana Maria Spagna is the author most recently of Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness.

Note: A hunter later put the bear out of its misery. He reported that the animal's injury was apparently caused by a bullet that had entered at the hip and exited through the belly.

This story first appeared in High Country News.