Friday, January 27, 2012

Ruminations on the Dark Side

After posting the link to the Night of the Grizzlies documentary, I had an online conversation with someone who did not believe that two bears were responsible for both of the deaths in Glacier that night. It is their opinion that the Trout Lake bear, which exhibited some signs of possible mental illness, traversed the distance from Trout Lake to Granite Park Chalet and then back to the lake, killing both girls. Truth be told, this is not completely out of the question. The distance from one site to the other is roughly nine miles and, considering that bears can travel great distances in short time periods, the four hours between attacks actually fits that theory nicely, but I don't believe it to be true for several reasons.

WARNING: The following contains graphic descriptions of the attacks that are unfortunately necessary to put this puzzle together.

First, the attack on Julie Helgeson at Granite Park Chalet seemed to fit the pattern of defensive behavior. Julie was severely wounded but left alive. The fact that the bear did not return for her in the two hours before she was found indicates that the attack was not predatory. While the bear may have had that idea at one point, it clearly lost interest and broke off the attack, either because Julie lost consciousness or played dead after being drug from the camp. The death of Michele Koons at Trout Lake was mercifully swift and her body was partially consumed, indicating clear predatory intention. It doesn't make sense to me that the bear would attack one girl, leave her, and traverse nine miles to kill and eat another. On top of that, the Trout Lake bear seemed to stay in the immediate vicinity of Trout and McDonald Lakes, harassing whomever he could find, and a bear matching the same description and aggressiveness as that one entered the campsite earlier in the night, as Michele and her friends were going to bed, and took some food.

That said, the fact that the bear responsible for Julie's death was never conclusively identified is still a mystery. A sow with cubs was shot and believed to be the killer, though there is no clear evidence proving it. Personally, I think this bear is the more likely culprit. Considering the defensive nature of the attack, the presence of cubs would be a clear instigator. It's strange, though, that the bear saw a threat in this situation. Julie and her boyfriend were in a designated camping area that people often frequent and were lying still and quiet when the bear entered camp, doing nothing to provoke it. After the sow was killed, it was found that a pad on one of her paws was partially cut off and hanging by a flap of skin, an injury that would have caused tremendous pain, provoking not only a bad attitude but possibly a mental derangement of its own. The presence of cubs coupled with the short-fuse mentality of a mother bear, egged on by dull, enraging pain could have easily created a very unstable animal. The fact that no human remains were found in the bear's stomach is not proof of the bear's innocence, just that it never fully switched over to predatory mode.

What this person I was conversing with could not accept was that two separate bears turned killer in the same night, an event that is beyond improbable. I think of the story of Mary Pat Mahoney, a 22 year-old girl killed and preyed upon by two grizzlies working together in Glacier Park in 1976. These same two predators had been raiding campsites and behaving very aggressively towards people for some time. If the night of the grizzlies was improbable, this one is off the charts. All of this led me to ponder the attitude that many bear advocates have about the dark side of the animal they love. With the increase in Yellowstone bear attacks, I've heard many of them respond with confusion and denial. Some have been quick to put all the blame on the victims while others believe that bear attacks are somehow all "propaganda". Truthfully, I understand where a lot of them are coming from. I remember the days when I was a bear attack apologist, when human lives were nothing more than statistics on a piece of paper, but those days are long in the past. After reading four dozen books, talking to almost as many people, and following this path for so long, the dark side of the bear has been unavoidable. To me, authors like Doug Peacock paint the most accurate picture of the bear and its mentality. It's a picture of an animal that's much like human beings: complex, intelligent, emotional, shaped by their sum total of life experiences, a creature entrenched firmly in a very gray area with some individuals leaning more towards the light gray and some leaning more towards the dark gray.

That's ultimately what fascinates me the most about grizzlies more than any other bear. At the moment, a whole new way of thinking about the black bear is sweeping the country but the grizzly remains a puzzling enigma. To me, the idea of peaceful co-existence with black bears is not that revolutionary. All one has to do is compare the number of black bears remaining in the lower 48 states of North America with the number of grizzlies to see which of the two is more docile and easier to get along with. The grizzly is a very volatile animal and - even though danger of attacks is exaggerated to an excessive degree - is partly responsible for giving itself the bad reputation its been stuck with. Here is an animal that has left a big question mark in the wake of almost all attempts that have been made to get along with it, a challenging animal that demands your respect and still makes no guarantees, a rogue that, in its arrogance and pride, refuses to conform to any whims our society seeks to place on it. That, to me, is the best thing about the grizzly. They make us look a little closer and work a little harder. They let us know that they're willing to get along but that they hold the cards and they will make the final call on their own fate. They are undeniably the ultimate symbol of true wilderness.


  1. It is my understanding that Julie and her boyfriend used a fairly newly-designated camping area, and not one that many people had previously occupied (see the Sports Illustrated article on the event). The sow may have perceived a threat, since she was not used to campers in that spot.

  2. That's true. The campground at that time was just being built, unknowingly on a trail corridor the bears were using to get to the garbage dump. It has since been re-located. I'll be hiking into that area this Sunday.