Contrary to one line of thought, beauty is more than skin deep. Especially when it comes to bears. And arguing against that is next to impossible after reading this account of Stephen Stringham's experience "bearenting" three orphan bears.
In a classic case of "a fed bear is a dead bear," the mother of Stringham's three youngsters met her predictable, but tragic end the summer after a well-meaning couple befriended the young female black bear. Although she never permitted them to pet her, she was comfortable enough with her neighbors to take snacks from their hands.
"Joan and John thought Doddy was tame," Stringham wrote. "They were wrong; she had simply lost her fear of them."
When the female returned to the couple's cabin the following summer, with her three youngsters in tow and all four of them in need of food, it resulted in a terrifying situation for the couple and the eventual death of the sow. And Stringham, who has over 30 years experience in Alaska studying grizzly bears, black bears and moose, found himself faced with a decision.
"The cubs were doomed unless someone convinced the authorities that the cubs would never bother anyone again," he wrote.
"I would try to do that, as well as to prove that the cubs could be a source of important scientific insights. If I could save their lives, maybe they could help save human lives -- including my own -- by contributing critical knowledge about bear communication and aggression."
What follows is an incredible account of Stringham and his wife opening the door to their home, their lives and their hearts to the three orphans. The book is divided into three parts. First there is the bonding with the wildly rambunctious youngsters; second is readying them for independence; third, Stringham addresses the pros and cons of acclimating bears to humans. As with any parenting experience, there are moments of sadness, worry and frustration, eased by commitment and softened with hilarity.
When the cubs initially fled at Stringham's approach, he laid the pelt of the deceased mother on the ground, hoping to draw them. Descriptions of the three orphans sleeping on the pelt tear at the heartstrings, but when the author decided to fool the cubs and draw them to him by covering himself with the pelt, the youngsters saw through his plan.
Covered in the blood and rotting flesh from the underside of the hide, Stringham is ordered by his wife to "peel off that godawful putrid clothing and use the soap I left outside for you."
Meeting the cubs' dietary needs and identifying their distinct likes and dislikes, while keeping up with their mischievous ways, was a challenge.
Attempts at bottle feeding were dreadful. Raw fish was passed up for salmon steaks cooking on the grill. And diet was only part of the equation. Unless their milk was boiled and their food pans sterilized, the cubs developed scours, watery diarrhea.
"We couldn't even consider leaving the sick cubs outside in the hot sun and bright light where they would feel insecure and be in danger from predators," Stringham wrote. "But that didn't make sharing the cabin with the youngsters any more pleasant. As soon as the diarrhea started, the cabin reeked like a zoo."
Throughout the book, the author draws from the experience of other wildlife experts. His knowledge of bear behavior, filling in where others' experiences leave off, provides a glimpse into the language of bears.
The position of the ears, the direction of the head, the sounds they made were clues, telling Stringham what to anticipate and how to respond.
And yet, for all he knew, there was even more to learn. Without the presence of an adult bear to teach the youngsters crucial survival skills, Stringham figured out how to help them understand "about foraging for plants, catching fish and hunting for terrestrial prey." Those lessons nearly met with disaster when a poisonous mushroom was mistaken for morels.
There were encounters with gun-toting humans, porcupines and protective cow moose.
Always, there was the nagging awareness that one day Stringham's young charges would heed the call of the wild and disappear from his life. When the time finally came, he and his wife discovered having answered that call, as well.
"We had ceased being alien tourists in nature and become fellow participants," he wrote. "We too had found our way home."
A sequel to this book is in the making and a short preview is included. Once again, Stringham invites the reader into the company of bears, creatures that have "the power to take your life, or to renew it; to re-create who you are, if only for a moment, and perhaps for a lifetime."
Stringham will discuss his book at the Kenai Visitor Center at 3 p.m., on Monday. His talk is part of "Science on the Kenai," the center's summer interpretive program, and is open to the public.
McKibben Jackinsky is a free-lance writer who lives in Ninilchik.
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