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Strength2.13

Grizzly Insults

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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. ♦