Illustration by Harry Chaskin
All humans agree there is nothing more fearsome than a bear. Black, Grizzly, Polar, Spectacled, or Otherwise; the bear is a nightmarish monster made real by nature’s mighty blood and dirt.
Despite years of human colonization and interference, certain regions of the American West remain dominated by these crooked mammals. Man’s only means of defense, of course, is to appear larger by waving our ineffectual hands in the air and hoping to whatever Great Spirit we believe in that the bear can be duped by this cheap, bipedal parlor trick. Until now.
I first met Ranger Colby Tanner while on a lonely vision quest to the California mountains at the Sequoia National Forest’s Giant Forest Museum of Forest Wildlife and Forest Fauna. The SNFGFMFWFF is a majestic wooded bastion brimming with educational displays, trail maps, and a twenty-four hour tutorial on how to properly fold an American flag.
Bored with the tutorial before it began, I couldn’t help but eavesdrop on a conversation near the Giant Mud exhibit. An animated fellow missing his entire bottom row of teeth spoke quickly and passionately with a young couple looking for some advice on tackling Bearpaw Meadow Trail, which takes hikers directly through an area of the forest notoriously infested with disgusting, terrible bears. This was Ranger Colby Tanner.
He cautioned, “If you run into one of the hairy fellers, don’t you dare back away! Raise your dominant hand up high, don’t matter if it’s left or right, and wag it disapprovingly. Then spit yer worst insults at the awful beast. Shout somethin’ like ”˜I don’t like the way you got hair all over yer body!’ or ”˜Y’all like honey too much!’ Somethin’ like that.”
I wondered: was the ranger high on giant, psychedelic mushrooms or did the method actually work? The answers are sometimes, and it did.
An hour later I found myself sharing coffee at the SNFGFMFWFF’s adjoining Giant Coffee Hub talking all things bear. Tanner excitedly shared his discovery in a thick Southern drawl, sneaking a few drops of what he called “liquid brainfuck” into his brew between steamy gulps. It calmed him after long, sober days of teaching.
“Let’s see, I reckon it happened ”˜bout three months ago. I had just finished a Crystal Caves Crystals and Caves Guided Tour of the Crystal Caves, and it was ”˜bout time to break for my lunchtime beans. I was so focused on openin’ my bean can, I didn’t see the angry mama bear growlin’ her ugly fangs in my face ”˜til it was too late.” He paused.
Tanner wiped his mouth and continued, “I thought to myself, WWTRD? What Would Teddy Roosevelt Do? Well, I didn’t have an old shotgun to blow its crooked brains out, so I thought to myself, what’s more piercing than a bullet? The word. The human word is more piercing than a bullet. It shall be my bear bullet. So I shouted, ”˜Bears are dumb!’ The monster mama froze in her tracks, an’ I swear I saw a single tear roll down her ugly cheek before she disappeared back into the woods.”
At this point Ranger Tanner excused himself to the bathroom, as the table had apparently, “begun to sprout legs and spoken the tongues of a devil mystic.” I took the time to speak with a few of the other rangers: every one of the naturalists swore Tanner’s method to be an effective deterrent, and a nonlethal one at that.
These days, Tanner teaches an Introduction to Bear Insults self-defense class every weeknight at the SNFGFMFWFF. Within a couple months the class has grown from just a few bear-hating aficionados to rooms packed with zookeepers, lumberjacks, aspiring screenwriters, and grandparents. All seem genuinely excited to learn bear-hating tactics.
For those worried that it’s just chalkboards and desks, Tanner promises practical experience. “You can’t pass my class without making a real live wilderness bear feel legitimately bad about itself. Everyone has to go into the woods with me and make one of ”˜em feel like a worthless trash pile. It’s really gratifying for the student.”
Registration is competitive and limited, and with the increasing interest, Tanner has planned an expanded curriculum. “I might start a class on finding your insult style. See, I’ve found the more personal an insult, the more effective it is. Think of whatever you hate most about a bear, and shout it. It’s easy but some people aren’t hateful enough, and I can provide easy steps to achieving artificial rage and bully-like hatred.”
But not everybody’s a fan. One of Tanner’s most vocal opponents is Professor Samuel Twank, a self-ascribed Bear Scientist and head of the Black, Grizzly, Polar, Spectacled, or Otherwise Bears Department at Stanford University.
Twank explained, “Our BGPSOB study has shown Ranger Tanner’s methodology disrupts the delicate ecological balance of the entire Sequoia and Kings Canyon region. We’ve found bears of all varieties developing lower self-esteem, sharp dips in their confidence, and squeakier roars. As a result, they’re too afraid to hunt and have resorted to bullying one another as a means of relief.”
The study further posits that salmon, rabbits, and other painfully harmless woodland creatures are rapidly adapting to make fun of their age-old predators. Twank even believes the indigenous flora have taken action: “We have slowed down video footage of a California Redwood attempting to trip a brown bear with its roots. I mean, it would take over a century for that to actually happen due to the minutely slow movement of the tree, but still, they’re trying.”
Professor Twank suggests that if bears continue to be treated poorly, they will be forced into permanent hibernation in less than a decade, eventually evolving into a wimpier creature without eyes or teeth by the end of the century.
It’s hard to separate right from wrong when paving new ground, and nearly impossible to maintain perspective without a sense of past. Is Tanner doing more harm than good? History shows there will always be a dissenting voice, no matter the cause.
All I know is I traveled to California to find myself after a messy annulment, but what I found instead was a sweet man with a gummy smile, a severe fondness for mushroom tea, and an inspired plan to protect us all.
Thank you, Ranger Colby Tanner. Should the time come, I won’t be the least bit sorry to say goodbye forever to these dark-hearted nature monsters. ♦