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Excerpt from Thought To Exist In the Wild

Grizzly Orphans (p. 5)

Today the San Francisco Chronicle ran an article entitled, “Bad girls have a good day as they go outside at zoo: Montana grizzlies entertain public, astound keepers.” It’s a follow-up on a front page story a couple of days ago entitled, “Nice Grizzly Grotto Poses a Bear of a Problem.” That article was about the difficulties faced by the San Francisco Zoo as it designs a cage—oh, sorry, the accepted term these days, and I swear I’m not making this up, is a “habitat”—for a pair of orphaned sister grizzly bears from Montana.

These were the third and fourth articles written about the zoo’s acquisition of the bears. The first two articles had similarly sophomoric titles, far too disrespectful for the subject matter: the permanent incarceration of two animals. The first headline read, “Mischievous grizzly cubs to be adopted by S.F. Zoo,” and the second: “Rowdy gals face a tamer S.F. lifestyle.”

The articles are as disrespectful as their headlines. One article begins, “Downsized but not dead. Food and shelter but no more wild nights. Those will be the trade-offs for two girl grizzlies moving from the vastness of Montana to the San Francisco Zoo. It is, for sure, a radical change in lifestyle.” Today’s began, “Two grizzly bears from Montana came out of the ursine closet Wednesday at the San Francisco Zoo and immediately went back in.” Another not atypical line: “Now, like much of San Francisco, they’re facing housing issues.”

Have you ever noticed that corporate journalists seem incapable of writing about human-caused suffering or even extirpation of wild animals without derision? I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve seen (buried in the back of the paper) about the worldwide crisis of amphibian extinction with titles like “Frogs croaking: scientists stumped.”

All of the articles present the zoo in an altruistic light. The one article that did not begin flippantly ran, “The San Francisco Zoo is rescuing two grizzly bear orphans that [sic] the state of Montana had sentenced to death.” This naturally leads to the question of what the bears did that led the state to do this.

The reporter talked to Stella Capoccia, director of the state agency responsible for imposing and executing the death sentence. The bears evidently “got into a barn and foraged on grain a couple of times. Locking the barn didn’t work—they had received a food reward and figured it made sense to return. Then last week, Capoccia said, they damaged some property.”

When nonhumans damage human property, they are sentenced to death.

Another article gives more details on the property destruction, which the articles call “running amok” and “ransacking”: “For starters, the sisters opened the door to a calving shed and consumed 150 pounds of corn. A few weeks later, they broke into a barn.

“‘They just raised havoc,’ [Terri] Tew [who lives on the ranch] said. ‘They flung things around, chewed on a 4-H banner, flattened a plastic garbage can.’

“The next day, they stripped some boards from the barn’s exterior. Then they moved to the front yard, crunching bird feeders, digging up carrots, knocking a birdbath off its pedestal and tearing 50-pound feed blocks from a flatbed truck. They also wolfed down the Tews’ oat crop.”

And perhaps their worst sin of all: “‘They pooped all over the place,’ Tews said.”

The articles total more than five thousand words. In all of these five thousand words no mention was made of the fact that the ranch is in grizzly bear habitat (real habitat, not cage-style habitat™), nor that grizzly bears were once common and now are imperiled. One article did mention in passing that an unusually harsh spring had made food scarce for the bears. Even this statement, however, did not hint that the encroachment of civilization into the bears’ home had anything to do with the bears’ behavior or their need to find food.

The articles also mislead on two counts when they call the bears orphans to be “adopted” (read incarcerated) by the zoo. The first is that the word orphans conjures up images of helpless waifs who cannot survive without the assistance of some selfless benefactor. Enter the zoo. But the bears are eighteen months old, old enough to live on their own if only their home is not “ransacked” by industrial humans “running amok,” doing far more damage than a whole phalanx of bears could even dream of doing.

The second is that two of the four articles fail to mention the cause of their mother’s death. She was killed by the state of Montana for fundamentally the same reason her daughters were sentenced to death—later commuted to life without parole—which is that after houses were built in her home and after her native food sources had been degraded, she destroyed some property. The articles that do mention her death each devote to it precisely one sentence, and of course do not nakedly use any word so indelicate as “killed,” or “shot,” or even “executed.” Instead, according to one article, “The sisters lost their mother late last fall when she was humanely destroyed by Montana’s wildlife officials.”

In the wild, grizzlies generally range over about sixty square miles. For the past month these two bears have been confined to a 450-square-foot cell. “‘I was told it’s much bigger than what Martha Stewart has,’ said zoo spokeswoman Nancy Chan.” The zoo’s director of animal care [sic] and conservation [sic] noted that the bears had “kind of turned into couch potatoes.” He followed this with the remarkable observation, “In quarantine, they spent a lot of time sitting down. They have what you might call flat heinies.” Now that they have been found to be clean of parasites and diseases (“They must have been drinking bottled water,” Chan said) they have been released into their new cage—sorry, habitat™—which is approximately 10,000 square feet.

The small size is of no major concern, according to a keeper at another zoo that uses electrified fences to enclose grizzlies in a one-acre “forest” during the day and has them sleep on tires in concrete dens at night. “Keeper Wendi Mello said the natural [sic] setting is more tailored to human than ursine sensibilities. ‘As people, we think it’s got to be green and pretty,’ Mello said. ‘But concrete grottos are not a problem at all. And a lot of people think “the bigger the better”—but if a bear is being stimulated every day, that can make up for a lack of design. I’m a big believer in enrichment.”

Enrichment, in this case, consists of “anything new and different,” such as, Mello said, “paper bags and cardboard boxes.”

Imagine being so bored, living a life so impoverished that you would be eager for the distraction provided by a paper bag or a cardboard box. Anything to stave off the maddening tedium. An orangutan at another zoo spent years carefully placing a scrap of paper atop his head, then removing it to place on the concrete floor, then once again placing it atop his head.

The bears in San Francisco will be similarly blessed. According to today’s article, bearkeeper Deb Cano “plans to shower them with ‘enrichment’ toys eventually—cardboard boxes, spices, CDs with forest and ocean sounds.”


According to one article, “The people who run these habitats [sic] are trying to answer the same question. To rephrase Sigmund Freud: What do grizzlies want?”

Well, these zookeeper must not be trying very hard, because the answers they keep coming up with somehow always seem to include concrete cells, paper bags, cardboard boxes, and most important of all, confinement. Habitat™.

I am not a grizzly, but I can guarantee that this is not what grizzlies want. I don’t even have to try very hard to answer the question. You can answer it, too. We all can. They want habitat, not habitat™. They want freedom, not cages. They want to be left alone, and when they interact with humans (and others) they want to be respected. They want to be given the courtesy of being allowed to live in their own home, without that home being destroyed.

The same as all the rest of us.

I’m sure the sisters would agree.

And who could blame them?