Bear Fright


(This column was first published in the June 24, 2002 Buffalo News.)


When I was five years old, my family drove to Chicago to attend the World's Fair being held there. It was an exciting time for me as I was allowed to spend whole days wandering through the exhibits with my revered eleven year old brother as my sole companion and guide. We even rode one of the Amos and Andy tramcars — ours was "The Kingfish" — that took us by cable hundreds of feet high over a Lake Michigan lagoon. It was a harrowing ride and I spent the entire excursion with a tight grip on my brother's arm and my eyes squeezed shut.


But that was only my second most frightening experience of that trip. The scariest was not even at the fairgrounds. It occurred when we all visited the famous Field Museum of Natural History.


As soon as we entered the building, I raced ahead of my parents. This was a common occurrence as I was a frenetic child, unable to attune myself to the slow progress of adults.


I ran past the beautiful bronze Akeley sculptures of African natives armed only with spears confronting a pride of lions. Down one hall after another I sped, scarcely looking at the exhibits.


But then I rounded a corner and found myself suddenly face-to-face with a giant gorilla. I was so frightened that I couldn't move. All I could do was look up at this King Kong that seemed ready to grasp me in its arms.


It was minutes before I could convince myself that the ape was mounted in a glass case. It was so well displayed that it seemed alive, free and ready to attack.


Years later I again visited the Field Museum and sought out that gorilla. I still found the exhibit convincing, but no longer quite as frightening.


I have retold that story because the Buffalo Museum of Science once again has a similar exhibit. But this one is a huge, lowering brown bear. If you walk down that long hallway that runs from the entrance toward the theater, you are suddenly challenged by this giant reared up on hind legs to its nearly nine-foot height.


I can imagine coming upon this leviathan some evening when the museum lights are dimmed and having exactly the experience I had years ago in Chicago.


This bear has been in the museum since 1967 when Dr. Joseph Link donated it. He had shot it in Alaska a year earlier. No Teddy Bear, this 1650-pound monster had been in many battles. In fights with other bears its face had been badly scarred and its ears ripped off. The taxidermist who mounted it had to reconstruct those features.


Six months ago the bear was removed from its former location on the third floor for a thorough cleaning and for the preparation of a new case in which to display it. Immediately regular museum visitors missed this old friend and the number of inquiries led the staff to rethink placement of the exhibit. They have made a good choice.


Taxonomists consider brown and grizzly bears the same species but these Kodiak monsters are more than twice the size of our Rocky Mountain grizzlies and larger even than polar bears.


Local hunter Rudy Lupp tells me that bears have to spend the brief northern summers eating full time. To make it through the harsh winter they must add at least a six inch layer of fat to their bodies. To do so they eat almost entirely vegetation, insects and fish.


But don't get in their way: they also eat red meat.-- Gerry Rising