A quirky look at wildlife. To be taken with a pinch of
salt, but with more than a grain of truth!
The Bear Necessities
Christmas is almost upon us and most of us are acutely aware that for many people this could be 'the best of times' or 'the worst of times'. Some, like my other half go round like 'a bear with a sore head', grumbling about commercialisation, the waste of money, and saying 'it's just another day'. For others it is a time for celebration with the family, or it can be a time where there is a sense of acute loss.
I have no idea what the top selling Christmas toy is this year but I am sure the Teddy Bear is still one of the most welcome Christmas presents ever. A necessity when times are hard and we seek comfort in familiar beloved toys, such as teddy bears, for company and consolation. It is strange that such a fearsome beast has become such a source of enduring happiness.
I wonder how many children will awake on Christmas morning to meet a new cuddly lifelong friend? Stories too which include forms of the bear— Jungle Book, The Three Bears, Rupert Bear and Paddington Bear— seem to be a part of everyone's childhood. I loved the TV series Grizzly Adams: anyone else remember that?
I must admit that at this time of year I would 'be' a
bear too, if I could! As I write, snow and ice covers the ground and it is freezing cold. The idea of hibernating like a bear is becoming increasingly attractive!
I noted the other day that Steiff, the famous producer of 'toy' bears has brought out a limited edition of a brown bear for the first time, and it set me thinking about bears in general, the origin of a bear as a cuddly toy, the reality of life as a bear in the real world and the myths and legends associated with them.
The most well known bears are the grizzly, the black bear, the brown bear and of course the polar bear. One of my favourites is the lesser known Kodiak bear. There are many subspecies as well as the spectacled bear, the sloth bear, and the sun bear, who are perhaps less appealing in appearance. There are others who, while called bears, are not strictly of that family like the giant panda, the red panda, and the koala bear.
The grizzly bear Ursus arctos horribilis is a subspecies of the North American brown bear. They have lived on the North American continent for millions of years, but sadly human hunters have decimated their numbers and reduced the size of their habitat. So, now they are found mostly only in just a few Northern states and number perhaps no more than a thousand.
Strangely, they weigh in at up to 680 kilograms in the north, but further south they are only up to 200 kilograms. The male is almost twice as large as the female, with huge legs and shoulders. It can run at up to 35 miles an hour, which reminds me that I heard someone familiar with bears say 'if you encounter one don't run: to a bear, whatever runs is food'! Your chances of outrunning one are clearly nil, and grizzlies climb trees too, so that would not be an option either. If they manage to survive unhindered by their only predator, man, they have a lifespan of some 30 years.
Most of their diet consists of vegetable matter, but they will eat almost anything given the chance, from tiny ants to a poor beached whale. During the salmon spawning season they feast on the huge fat fish. Mating takes place between May and July and delayed implantation means that the cubs can be born, usually in midwinter, when the mother is well fed. Twins are common with weights of about 500 grams.
The largest brown bear Ursus arctos middendorffi, is known as the Kodiak bear, and can weigh as much as a ton. Its principal habitat is Kodiak Island and other nearby islands south of Alaska. They eat mainly plants and salmon, and are generally placid and solitary except during the salmon run when they tend to congregate. Despite its fearsome appearance apparently only one person has been killed by a Kodiak bear in the last 75 years.
Black bears Ursus americanus are considerably smaller than their brown cousins and are widespread in North America. They are not as aggressive as the bigger bears and tend to avoid them if possible. The brown bears are more creatures of open habitat, while black bears prefer forested areas. They are intelligent and resourceful, inquisitive and greedy! Though not generally regarded as dangerous they are just as able to kill humans as a grizzly, if they are cornered or their cubs are threatened. In appearance their heads are smaller, their head is held high and they lack the hump back characteristic of brown bears.
It is very sad that they are still the target of hunters who, for almost 200 years, have supplied the bearskins for the headdress worn by our Guardsmen at Buckingham Palace. Despite efforts by animal rights groups the MOD still maintains that bearskins are the only material sufficiently robust and weatherproof.
Hunting is strictly controlled and licensed, with laws varying according to season and which part of the US it is to take place, but as with all laws there is always someone who is willing to take a risk and shoot or trap forbidden game.
It is well over 100 years ago that the teddy bear toy came in to existence. Some people in the UK thought it was named after King Edward Vll but it is now pretty much accepted that Theodore 'Teddy' Roosevelt, 26th President of the USA, was the originator of this beloved toy. An avid hunter, he was confronted by a sad little bear cub and could not bring himself to kill it for fear of his children's wrath. The story was apparently picked up by a cartoonist and the drawing of a 'teddy bear' circulated all over America.
A soft toy maker of the time saw an opportunity and soon the craze for Teddy bears and all sorts of associated products took off, much as happens today with popular new toys. The German company
Steiff has throughout the years maintained a revered place in the world of collectors and lovers of the teddy bear with 'button in ear'™. The affection for this toy soon embedded itself among adults too, and many still have their beloved teddy as a souvenir of childhood. Moth eaten and threadbare maybe, but much loved.
Over the centuries bears became almost mythical creatures with many, many respectful names, especially among the native American tribes; Angry One, Big Hairy One, Divine One who rules the Mountains, and Big Feet being just a few of them. Bears were regarded with respect and awe wherever they were found, though that respect seems to be waning with the current disregard shown to much wildlife.
The Ainu, a hunter gatherer tribe living on islands north of Japan, were moved to Hokkaido at the end of WWll. They practised a 'bear cult', looking after a bear cub until it was fat and its meat sweet, and then sacrificing it in a ritual killing, the details of which are somewhat gruesome! The people are still there but have abandoned their traditions.
For the many 'star gazers' among you, two bears prowl the night sky: Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, the Great Bear and the Little Bear and many myths have become attached to them, some of them violent.
So, as we prepare for Christmas and the delights that await us, let us cuddle our tame teddy bears, while sparing a thought for the real bears, living in increasingly difficult times in the wild.
Happy Christmas Everyone.
Websailor's Wacky Wildlife
21.12.09 Front Page
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