Maggie Gallagher
There's a bear in them thar woods.

Three thousand, two hundred of them, according to state officials (although other experts put the number as low as 1,350).

As a habitat for people, New Jersey's appeal may vary, but bears increasingly just love living there, as close to people as they can get. Huckleberries make mighty thin eating compared to the tasty treasures in the local garbage can. Bears, being no dummies, have actually started changing their habits, foraging for leftover jelly doughnuts at night and sleeping off their binges in broad daylight in nearby parks.

In one rural community (according to The New York Times), schoolchildren have started carrying their lunch bags in their hands instead of their backpacks. That way, if they see a bear, they can just toss him their noontime meal. Saves wear and tear on the backpack. Not to mention the children.

Since 1998, the number of incidents of bears breaking and entering have doubled, to almost 60. So far, no fatal bear injuries have been reported, but last year for the first time in decades, two human beings were attacked by black bears. So New Jersey Gov. James E. McGreevey, despite being "personally opposed" to bear hunts, bowed to public pressure. This week marks the first legal bear hunt in New Jersey since 1970. And the ideological sparks are flying.

Sometimes a cigar may just be a cigar, but a bear? A bear can hardly be just another animal. To both sides in the great bear hunt debate, the bear is obviously a symbol of human longings. Both the hunters and the anti-hunters are bear-lovers. But what the bear signifies to each is, well, different.

To the anti-hunters, the bear is a symbol of nature as they love to experience it: pristine, untouched by human hands. To kill a bear is to desecrate nature. And nature is a kind of religion, an escape from human depravity, a place of innocence.

Maggie Gallagher

Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist, a leading voice in the new marriage movement and co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially.