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The Bear's Foster Mother: The Story of Bruno and Ursula

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Mrs Weldon feeding Bruno the bear cub and her daughter Ursula at the same time

The remarkable picture of a woman feeding her infant daughter at the same time as a tiny bear cub is probably as surprising today as it was in 1903, when William Lyman Underwood took it. The Boston wildlife photographer had Mrs Weldon's1 permission to publish the photo. Her note, signed 'Bruno's foster mother,' was appended to the photo in Underwood's 1921 book Wild Brother: Strangest of True Stories from the North Woods.

The story behind the photo is interesting, so let's tell it.

How Bruno Got a Foster Mother

In February of 1903 it was very cold in Maine. The snow was at least four feet (1.3m) deep around the lumber camps. There the lumbermen dug paths through the snow and sledded their loads of logs to the next town. Logging was hungry work: they hired the best cook they could find, and let him bring his wife and small children to spend the winter. Mrs Weldon, the cook's wife, had a baby girl that winter. Her two other children and two foster children helped out and played in the remote cabin, far from anyone but the loggers.

It was 20° below zero Fahrenheit (-29°C) when the loggers shot the bear. They found it in a den: the horses kept shying when they passed the place. Black bears were plentiful in the Maine woods, and a danger to humans and livestock. The bear meat was a welcome addition to their diet, and the pelt would fetch $25. They didn't know she had a cub until they hauled the body out of the hollow tree and heard the animal crying.

It was tiny, weighing less than a pound. The loggers felt sorry for it and took it back to camp. But they didn't know what to feed it. They tried milk, but the bear cub was too small to drink. It appeared that it would die of starvation.

Mrs Weldon heard its pitiful cries – and took action. She took up the cub and fed it along with her daughter. When the logging boss tried to sell the bear cub to a passing circus, she and the cub both cried so hard that the loggers went on strike. The logging boss gave it up: Mrs Weldon was now the foster mother of the cub, and he was hers to care for.

A Photographer in the Maine Woods

Bruno the bear cub and his foster sister Ursula

William Lyman Underwood (1864-1929) was a wildlife photographer with a deep love for the Maine woods. He spent as much time as he could there, camping and taking pictures. His wife often accompanied him. In his writings, he calls her Comrade.

Underwood was justly well-known for another accomplishment: his research into food canning methods for his family's company2 led to important breakthroughs in food safety. He also provided microphotographs of bacterial growth. When not out in the woods photographing wildlife, Underwood worked, without pay, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which named a laboratory after him.

There wasn't a lot of news to share in rural Maine in the winter, so it's not too surprising that Underwood was told about the orphaned bear cub and its foster mother. Nor is it unusual that he braved the snowdrifts to go and visit the Weldons. The Weldon family were very hospitable and allowed their distinguished visitor to photograph the bear cub and the children. They also asked him to help them name, not only the bear, but the bear's foster sister. They felt she should have an auspicious name befitting the sister of a bear.

So the bear became Bruno and his 'sister' Ursula, which means 'little she-bear.' The Underwoods sent Ursula an engraved baby spoon. They sent the rest of the family money from collections taken up at nature talks given by Underwood. The family needed the money: they were very poor. But they never asked for anything. Mrs Weldon's only request was that Underwood take care of Bruno once he became too large for her to handle.

Life in Boston

Bruno the bear cub sitting in the Underwoods' parlour, on a chair.

Within a few months, Bruno had reached 11 pounds – still not very large, but big enough and active enough that he wasn't safe around a baby. Reluctantly, Mrs Weldon asked the Underwoods to take him to live with them in Belmont, Massachusetts. The Underwoods had a large home and several acres of land there. They took the cub home with them, where he played with their children. Underwood also rescued a fox terrier named Foxy, who became Bruno's best friend and playmate.

Bruno was a loveable guest, but also full of mischief. In his time, he damaged gardens and furniture. He broke into the kitchen more than once in search of a bear's favourite treat: sugar or molasses. He turned out to be afraid of frogs and toads, but fond of water hoses. He liked to 'help' Underwood with his photography. The photo that shows him sitting on a parlour chair was a surprise – someone forgot to lock the door, and for once, Bruno didn't break anything.

Bears are solitary by nature outside of breeding season. In the winter, they tend to hibernate. Bruno took long naps for a couple of weeks at a time. This annoyed Foxy, who sometimes woke him up by biting his ear until he agreed to come out of his den to play.

In all, Bruno spent about two years with the Underwoods. By this time, he was over five feet tall (1.5m) and weighed 140 pounds (64kg). A friend, trying to get Bruno out of the vegetable garden, hit him with a green  tomato. Bruno gave chase and the friend had a bad few minutes before the bear stopped being angry. But the Underwoods realised the liability issues of keeping a growing bear in an inhabited area. Luckily, the nearby zoo had the perfect habitat. They were used to caring for a bear – theirs had died recently and they were glad to welcome Bruno. His new home had its own swimming pool and hibernation den. Bruno settled in well and seemed to enjoy meeting all the visitors.

The Underwoods visited him often, and Mr Weldon came when he was in Boston to see his doctors. The Underwoods kept up with the Weldon family, as well, passing along reports on Bruno along with funds sent by well-wishers. Bruno lived to be 14. Underwood waited until 1921 to publish the story and kept his word, preserving the privacy of the Weldons.

For More Information

You can read Wild Brother for free courtesy of the Internet Archive, who continue in their fight to keep information open and available in the Internet age.

For more information on the American black bear, plus some bear footage, see this presentation by the Chesapeake Bay Program.

1Not her real name. Underwood used this alias to protect her anonymity.2Underwood Deviled Ham is a household name in the United States.

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