Bears Behaving Badly (And the Humans That Encourage Them)

Throughout my childhood, growing up in Canada, my family would often go on summer camping trips. We always used tents, not trailers (also known as RVs or Caravans), as I think that my dad always considered having a vehicle with a kitchen and a washroom inside it cheating. We also loved going for walks in the woods any day, and I have fond memories of my father pointing out animal tracks, animal scat, and various plants. He would quiz my siblings and I on the identification of various flora and fauna. (I still remember feeling ashamed at hesitating and not being able to immediately identify a poplar tree in junior high.) We grew up watching nature shows, and reading through big illustrated books of North American animals. We were always aware of wild animals and their habits. They behaved nothing like the animals with big eyes and squeaky voices we saw in cartoons on TV.

Whenever we’d go to the Rockies, we were always told about bear safety: by my father, in books, in cheaply printed pamphlets, and by park rangers and guides. I actually can’t recall a time where I ever thought that feeding a bear was a good idea. I grew up with the idea that wild animals should always be assumed to be just that: wild. They didn’t need human food. I have clear memories of struggling with the special bear-proof garbage bins in Jasper (littering is also something I have always thought of as a cardinal sin) and while we never hoisted bags of food up trees, I can’t recall the first time someone told me about the practice. I think that I picked up bear safety advice through osmosis.

That’s why, when I’m perusing images on Peel’s Prairie Provinces or other collections of old photographs of the Rockies, I’m shocked by photographs like the ones below. Fully half if not more of the early postcards with “bears” as a keyword on Peel’s Prairie Provinces portray some evidence of human influence or interference. What is pictured runs so counter to what I was always taught was good practice. I was also amazed at the sheer number of these historical images, and their variety. I suppose having a chance to interact with bears was a huge attraction in the park in the early twentieth century, as I’m sure some consider it now. People come to “commune with nature” or what have you. However, so many of these pictures, while shenanigan-filled and fascinating, leave me with unanswered questions. Crazy things are happening in front of the camera, to be sure, but the pictures only tell a small fragment of the story. Here are some of the most intriguing images of bears misbehaving that I ran across:

Harmon Byron (Photographer) . Black bear. Banff: Photographed and Copyrighted by Byron Harmon, Banff, Canada, [before 1942]. Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.

Postcard 11779: Black bear. Banff: Photographed and Copyrighted by Byron Harmon, Banff, Canada, [before 1942]. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Is this the photographer’s car? Did they lure the bear into the car with food to get this photograph? Did it get in their accidentally and did the photographer just take advantage of a great photo opportunity? Or did someone have to let it in? The passenger side door appears to be open…

Taylor G. Morris (Photographer) . Bear - Jasper Park Lodge. Jasper: Photographed and Copyrighted by G. Morris Taylor, Jasper National Park, Canada, ca. 1940.

Postcard 8070:  Bear – Jasper Park Lodge. Jasper: Photographed and Copyrighted by G. Morris Taylor, Jasper National Park, Canada, ca. 1940. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Real life “Teddy Bear Picnics” are never as full of charm and magic as the song. Dangerous! This “nuisance” ground is pictured in many postcards. Was trash laid out explicitly for the purpose of attracting bears to be photographed by tourists? Or was it to attempt to prevent the bears from strolling through the town site and only became popular with photographers after the fact?

Weiss J.A (Photographer) . "Hello You". Jasper National Park: Photographed and Copyrighted by J.A. Weiss, Jasper National Park, Canada, [1945]. Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.

Postcard 8197: “Hello You”. Jasper National Park: Photographed and Copyrighted by J.A. Weiss, Jasper National Park, Canada, [1945]. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Innocence is no excuse. I’m having flashbacks to my first summer job at a cabin place out by Hinton, AB – I had to babysit the manager’s kids a few times in between housekeeping and bussing tables at the restaurant, and the cherubic three year old approached a full grown moose in much the same manner, though she didn’t get nearly as close. Please don’t encourage your kids to do this, no matter how “cool” you think the resulting photograph would be.

Harmon Byron (Photographer) . Cinnamon bear.. Banff: Photographed and Copyrighted by Byron Harmon, Banff, Canada, [before 1942].

Postcard 9354: Cinnamon bear. Banff: Photographed and Copyrighted by Byron Harmon, Banff, Canada, [before 1942]. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Whose cup is that? Is this bear somebody’s pet? Is it the bear‘s cup?? Is there anything in it? Beer, perhaps? (I have read at least one historical account of a saloon owner with a pet bear giving it enough beer to get it drunk. Apparently drunk bears were entertaining.)

Harmon Byron (Photographer) . Cinamon bear.. Banff: Photographed and Copyrighted by Byron Harmon, Banff, Canada, [before 1942].

Postcard 9352:  Cinamon bear. Banff: Photographed and Copyrighted by Byron Harmon, Banff, Canada, [before 1942]. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

 Possibly in the Banff zoo? Whose hand is that, and what is it holding that the bear finds so fascinating?

Postcard 9355. Harmon Byron (Photographer) . A day's hunt, three grizzlies. Banff: Photographed and Copyrighted by Byron Harmon, Banff, Canada, [ca. 1910]. (Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.)

Postcard 9355: A day’s hunt, three grizzlies. Banff: Photographed and Copyrighted by Byron Harmon, Banff, Canada, [ca. 1910]. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Yes, Harmon, I respect you as a photographer and everything, and I understand it was a different time and all and you kind of had to be there, but… I’m not proud of you for being proud of this. Now I have to go and watch cheerful clips from Brother Bear and their anthropomorphized animals to make myself feel better.

Postcard 8196  Johnston Tom H. (Photographer) . Room service Jasper Park Lodge. Jasper: Photographed and Copyrighted by Tom. H. Johnston, Jasper, Alberta, [ca. 1941].  Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.

Postcard 8196: Room service Jasper Park Lodge. Jasper: Photographed and Copyrighted by Tom. H. Johnston, Jasper, Alberta, [ca. 1941]. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Again, what is this man holding? Is it the tourist getting room service, or the bear?

Now please, and I can’t stress this enough: these are historical photographs. Yes, they are amusing (uh, in general? Not all of them?), but they should be amusing because of their incongruity and ridiculousness. These are wild animals behaving in ways that they shouldn’t be because of human intervention. Please do not feed the bears. Or any wild animals, for that matter. Not even – especially not even – if it makes a good photograph.

Further Resources

Post Script: I deliberately excluded most of the hunting photographs from this list, because this post is too lighthearted for such things. But believe you me, they definitely exist.

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4 Responses to Bears Behaving Badly (And the Humans That Encourage Them)

  1. Ashley Z says:

    Have you read “Rocky Mountain Madness”? It has a number of amazing photographs of human-bear interaction in Banff and Jasper, in the 1890-1920 time frame, and probably a number of others you’d like: prohibitionist women destroying liquor, a woman climbing a sheer cliff-face in a 1905-style long dress, people using Brownie cameras, and more.

    http://books.google.ca/books?id=X6UhYIR6pYkC&pg=PA4&lpg=PA4&dq=%22a+fair+kodakerist%22&source=bl&ots=eQTxGk86LL&sig=JsQEHb5HUTyNNKagZ5LPdW4b4Ac&hl=en&sa=X&ei=-lcRUoaJMLTCyAGHmoFQ&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=%22a%20fair%20kodakerist%22&f=false

  2. lamarkewicz says:

    I bought a copy when I was in Banff last month, and it’s sitting on my desk. :) A good investment, I think! Thanks for the recommendation, though.

  3. Pingback: Postcards That Intrigue Me #3: Cattle Roping in Moose Jaw | History Research Shenanigans

  4. Pingback: Postcards That Intrigue Me #7: Wildlife in Jasper National Park | History Research Shenanigans

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