My most intimate experience with a bear was not in Alaska, it was in Albania. A man in our neighborhood had a pet bear that was also his source of income. He and the bear walked around Tirana, he gathered a crowd, played his tambourine and the bear danced. It was a little bear and most people, except for dog owners and one beggar who we will meet later, seemed to enjoy it. In one neighborhood there was an always unholy racket when bear man and bear walked by the place where the “king of dogs” sat every day making change for people wanting to use the bus and who needed coins, which were rare, for the fare box.
One travel writer I knew was freaked out by the bear. Perhaps because he first ran across the bear tied to a bike rack outside the hospital while bear man was inside visiting his wife and newborn son. For Tirana regulars it was normal to see the bear tied up on a bike rack outside the hospital, bear man had lots of kids.
After a performance bear man stopped in a kiosk and took some of his earnings and bought the bear a candy bar. Somehow bear man found out I was from Alaska, and he wanted to talk to me about bears. Big Bears, bears much bigger than his. his bear would greet me by getting up on his hind legs and giving me a, well, a bear hug. Bear man scolded the bear and brushed paw prints off of my shoulders.
One day we were walking. I was practicing my Albanian, talking about bears, when a beggar approached. This was not in my neighborhood, beggars in my neighborhood all knew me. But it was a kid with his leg bent at the knee, leg folded up into his pants leg, leaving the pants leg flapping loose. It was intended to look like he had a leg amputated at the knee. He had mastered what we called the “mendicant crab walk” moving along with one leg tucked into his pants and one leg fully extended. In my apartment’s stairwell our neighborhood beggar regularly rigged himself this way in the morning. At quitting time crab walked back into the stairwell pulled off his pants and put them on the right way, brushed off some of the dust and went next door to shoot pool, standing on two good legs.
But this beggar didn’t know me. Bear man smiled and said, in Albanian “Watch This.” He gave the bear a command and the bear nuzzled the kid in the crotch. I heard a scream, a rip as one leg tore out the seam of the pants leg. The kid jumped up and ran away. The bear man looked at me solemnly, crossed himself and said “miracle” before we both broke up laughing.
In Sika bears don’t dance to a tambourine, and I certainly hope they don’t nuzzle kids in the crotch, but they can use American Sign language to ask for food. The Fortress of the Bear is a bear rescue center that takes orphaned cubs and rehabilitates them. Then can’t go back into the wild because they have become habituated to people. Some remain at the center, and some go to zoos, like in the Bronx.
There are three Alaska Coastal Brown Bears, two grizzlies, siblings, whose species is closely related to the Coastal Brown and who can sometimes share an enclosure with them, and three black bears in a separate enclosure. The enclosures are former, huge clarifier tanks from the Pulp Mill that closed in 1993. The tanks have been bear habitat longer than they have been part of the pulp mill anti-pollution system.
And the brown bears do know how to sign when they want to be fed, and know the sign form their people which says “enough.” Sometimes the bear keepers hide food in the enclosures to challenge the bears. In the fall they stock the stream that runs through the enclosure with salmon so the bears can fish. And there are eagles. When keepers throw food into the enclosures sometimes the eagles, and there are several of them in the trees around the Fortress, make a dive for the food. Sometimes they land right next to the bears to try to snag food that the local grocery stores donate.
And there is play. The bears have toys, and buoys. Some of the bears enjoy playing tug of war with a keeper who is standing on a platform outside the clarifier tank using an old fire hose. And the bears know their names. As I said, they don’t dance to a tambourine, but they are alive, well, hopefully happy, and are likely to live longer lives then they would have had they not had the misfortune of being orphaned. And they have more space than they would in the Bronx.