I got to pet some bears last week
Bears have always been a fixture in my life. As a kid, my mother supported our family by creating and selling teddy bears. She sold them at "bear shows," which were trade shows for handmade teddy bear collectors. She made these bears at home, so our house was constantly strewn with patterns, mohair, and heaps of plastic eyes, ears, paws, and other synthetic bear parts. Mountains of bear plush toys and massive rolls of imitation bear fur crowded the hallways. We had a coffee table shaped like a bear. Bear-inspired artwork hung from the walls. Bear statues adorned our yard. Our house was in the woods, too, so occasionally there were actual bears. I once commandeered my stepfather's golf cart for a bit of joyriding and almost plowed into a black bear that was lumbering past our driveway. Prior to the fire in 1993, my world was all bears, all the time.
One of the first comics I ever drew was called Things Bears Love., and I made it about a year before creating The Oatmeal. Its success spurred me into changing careers, and shortly after, I ended my career as web designer and began my career as a cartoonist. In fact, I almost named my website Bear Comics instead of The Oatmeal. Since then I've written comics about why we should ride polar bears to work. I've explained grammar using grizzly bears. I've drawn a flamethrower-wielding bear as a mascot for Sriracha. I've even made a music video about the offspring of bears and pterodactyls.
Last year I responded to a lawsuit by raising a bunch of money for charity, and I donated this money to the National Wildlife Federation. I chose the NWF because they seemed like great people, and also because it felt like I was paying the bears back for all of the
stupid excellent bear jokes I'd made over the years.
The NWF responded by presenting me with this plaque on my 30th birthday:
In addition, they arranged for me to privately meet two grizzly bears who inhabit the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle.*
The bears' names were Matt and Steve, and I got to go into their private feeding area and give them peanut butter:
Spoon-feeding peanut butter to an 800-pound grizzly bear is an experience I'll take to my grave. To the people at the National Wildlife Federation: you are a wonderful bunch. Thank you.
*Coincidentally, I added a tiny shout-out to the Woodland Park Zoo on page 66 of my cat book a full year before any of these events took place.
IT WAS FATE, I TELL YOU.
At the end of last year I made a large personal donation to PAWS. PAWS is an organization in the Pacific Northwest that rehabilitates wildlife, provides adoption services for rescued cats and dogs, and generally helps animals. This includes small critters, such as kittens and birds, as well as large animals like bears, mountain lions, seals, and bald eagles. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the more you donate, the higher your supporter level, and thus the more perks you get back in return. I donated enough that I received an invite to attend the release of a rehabilitated animal back into the wild. Also unbeknownst to me at the time, the animal they had in captivity which was set to be released was a FREAKIN' BOBCAT.
This was highly serendipitous, considering that I wrote a series of comics called The Bobcats, and now I got to meet an actual bobcat.
I'd never seen a bobcat before, and this one did not disappoint. PAWs had picked him up when he was a kitten because someone had found him trying to get into their chicken coop for what I imagine would have been a few hours of joyous, satiating slaughter. He was orphaned and starving at the time, and so they nurtured him back to health over the course of several months.
When I showed up for the release, the naturalist at PAWS had moved the bobcat into a large pet carrier in order to transport him to a release site a few hours outside the city. When I looked into the carrier, I saw a beautiful, adorable animal staring back at me. I remember wanting to reach my hand in and pet him. I also remember the bobcat letting out a guttural roar two seconds later that would befit a tiger and suddenly bolting to the front of his carrier like an angry, furry chainsaw.
My Bobs are adorable-yet-terrifying. This bobcat was adorable-yet-terrifying.
I consider my expectations met perfectly.
The release went off without a hitch. We met up with a park ranger and drove to a release site near North Bend, Washington with the ranger's Karelian bear dog. A bear dog is a special breed of dog from Karelia, located in Northern Europe. These dogs are bred to overwhelm and scare captured animals away during a release. The dogs encircle, bark, and nip at released wildlife, typically bears, in order to frighten them into fleeing the scene.
There are two types of releases: soft releases and hard releases. A soft release is when you open the kennel and politely let the animal wander off on its own. A hard release is when you intentionally traumatize the animal during the release so it learns to stay as far away from people as possible. They do this by shooting the released animals with small sacks of beans, siccing the bear dogs on them, and sometimes by setting off fireworks and making loud noises. The bobcat release was a soft release, since the animal needed no convincing to leave. Once the naturalist opened the carrier, the bobcat shot off like a bullet. Before completely fleeing, however, he paused on top of a fallen tree and posed for the camera by squinting his eyes and pointing his bobcat-butthole directly at us.
Ah, nature. Such unparalleled beauty.
One of the things I really admire about PAWS is their no-cuddly-bullshit approach to helping animals. They don't give their captured animals names, only numbers. They don't pet the animals or get to know them. They avoid entering the pens of the animals as much as possible to keep the fauna from becoming habituated to people. If they have to enter the pen of a captured animal, such as a bear, they wear a bear-urine-scented bear costume.
The point of all this is to disassociate themselves as a source of food or care for the animals. Once released, they want these wild animals to avoid people as much as possible. They don't want bear cubs to look at a human and think mom.
For adoptable animals, such as dogs and cats, the people at PAWS treat them like you would any pet. The cats are named, walked, loved, and cared for. Also, the volunteers aren't required to put on giant stinky cat suit when they go into a room full of kittens.
During the week of the bobcat release, PAWS also had a couple of black bears that were set to be released that Friday. Prior to their release, the bears were to be sedated, tagged, and radio collared, and PAWS invited me to stick around while they were unconscious.
They knocked out the bears by shooting them with tranquilizer darts and waiting for them to drunkenly fall asleep. The PAWS office is small, and they've long since outgrown it, so while one bear went into a tiny examination room, the other had to be laid out in a narrow hallway.
Even though I felt bad for the bear in the hallway, it was kind of funny to watch office workers carry on with their day while a bear was superman-sprawled in the middle of a busy corridor.
When I held his head like this, the veterinarian in the room encouraged me to grasp and wiggle his nose, which can pivot almost 180 degrees.
Bears have some of the most powerful noses in the animal kingdom -- better than dogs, even.
Also, the device on his neck is a biodegradable radio collar, not a restraint.
There were a couple Fish and Wildlife Service folks there, along with plenty of veterinarians and vet techs. They tattooed identification numbers to the gums of the bears, affixed radio collars which will monitor the bears' heart rates and locations -- until the straps dissolve off, which takes about a year, and gave the bears thorough physical checkups. They let me poke, prod, and pet both bears. The peak of this experience was resting my hands on the bear's ribs and feeling his chest rise and fall with each breath, punctuated only by a few grumpy little bear groans.
To the people at PAWS: I promised myself a few years ago that I would try to mature as a cartoonist and stop making bear jokes. I now have no intention of ever growing up in this regard, and I want you to know that it's all your fault. The day I stop writing
dumb magnificent bear jokes is the day I'm not The Oatmeal.
Here's to burping bikini bears.
Additional notes and links and stuff
- I want to give a big thanks to Danielle Brigida for reaching out to me several years ago about the possibility of working together. She's the reason I chose to work with the NWF, and she's also the person who coordinated for the bear/peanut butter shenanigans.
- I also want to thank Kara Gerhart, who is a volunteer at PAWS. She named her team after my bobcats during the annual PAWS walk, which is ultimately what led to my invitation to the bobcat and bear releases.
I can't write about my experience at PAWS without mentioning Kevin Mack. He's their naturalist.
His job is to capture the animals, take care of the animals, release the animals, photograph the animals, blog about the animals, and sometimes get mauled by the animals (he's got the scars to prove it.)
He's like a Macgyver / veterinarian / bear-whisperer.
Kevin even speaks bird -- while returning from the bobcat release we stopped at a tree because he heard what he described as "a grumpy robin," and wanted to see if one of the bird's chicks had fallen out of the nest.
I don't know what a robin sounds like, let alone a grumpy one.
Kevin also clicker-trained his cat to play dead and his cat went on to form a cult.
Kevin: the animal kingdom salutes you.
All photos are Copyright © 2013 PAWS