Man vs. Bear in the woods

Maggie Gallagher

12/12/2003 12:00:00 AM - 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.

This view of nature has nothing to with what nature is, of course: Nature is ruthlessly indifferent to human sentimentality, and death and killing is abundantly part of the cycle. But the alleged nature-lovers urge alternative methods of bear control, educating humans on how to co-exist with bears ("Toss the nice black bear your lunch, dear"), or sterilizing bears, rather than killing them. I am not sure why, from a nature-lover's viewpoint, interrupting the reproductive life of bears is preferable to hunting them down on occasion. Perhaps bears would even prefer, if they have preferences, to mate and have babies and occasionally die young to a regime of contraception and sterilization. Bears may not share the sexual preferences of New Jersey urbanites.

But, of course, this not really about bears. It is about the intense inner meaning bears have for people.

Same goes for the hunters of bears, too. The bear-hunters are overwhelmingly men, seeking some kind of intense inner pleasure that from the outside (i.e. to most normal women) looks like a form of insanity.

"Rising at 4:30 a.m., Mr. Hefferan, dressed in a camouflage jumpsuit and blaze orange cap, loaded his truck with a thermos of his wife's creamy tea and his transitional Yeager rifle, a re-creation of a 1750 muzzle-loader," the Times reported. With temperatures in the teens, "Mr. Hefferan seemed thrilled to sit in the cold for more than eight hours waiting for a bear."

People pay money for this?

So the ritualized battle continues: One side seeks communion with Mother Nature as warm and loving but fragile, while the other looks for a brief re-enactment of the primal wilderness, a fierce implacable contest between a man and the elements.

The bears? They are just an excuse.