I sat on the tailgate of Ed Gulley’s truck, the bear’s head all but in my lap. I had never seen a bear outside of a zoo. His tongue hung out of the side of his mouth, his gums pale with death, his eyes closed.
I touched the bear’s head with reverence. His fur was blacker than I would have thought, it was thick and soft, it glistened. It was the fur of a young and healthy animal.
The whole thing took about two hours. From the time we heard the loud thump of the truck hitting the bear in front of our house, to Ed Gulley driving home with him in the back of his pick-up.
I couldn’t watch as the wounded bear climbed over our fence into our south pasture, dragging at least one broken leg, no doubt trying to get back to the woods. He disappeared in the tall grasses, but Jon and Ed kept watch as he settled down to die.
Jon called the police and we stood behind the fence as the sheriff got close enough to see that the bear was still alive. While we waited for someone from Encon to show up, Chloe ran the fence, ears up and snorting. The donkeys and sheep were alert, watching, but staying close to the pole barn.
They must know each other I thought. This isn’t the first time the bear has made this trip along our fence line, although most likely always on the other side. This is a well traveled route for many animals. Their place to cross the road.
Maybe when Lulu stands at attention, her ears up, it’s not a deer that she’s sensing, but a bear. Hidden in the tall grasses and reeds, like spider webs in the woods, that you only see when the sun shines on them.
And like the crows, the bear must know me and Jon too.
So as he lay in the back of Ed’s truck it felt like the right thing to do to get to know him as best I could. To acknowledge that he existed and that his life is now gone.
It’s a helpless feeling to see a 200 pound wounded bear limping across the pasture. I wanted to go to him, hold him and comfort him. Let him know that soon the pain would be gone. Bears look that way from a safe distance, big and soft and cuddly. Their strength, teeth and claws hidden in their stuffed animal-looking softness.
I couldn’t do it while he was still alive, but safely dead, I smoothed the fur around his head. Rubbed his ears like I would Chloe’s. I held his giant paws in my hand. Touched the surprisingly soft pads on the bottom of his feet. His claws, hard, thick and slippery like teeth.
I didn’t have any words, I spoke with my hands.
When the Encon Officer shot him, the bear let out a cry that traveled from my heart to my gut. Ed said it was called a death howl. It’s one of those sounds that transcends species, time and place. My eyes immediately got heavy with tears. It was impossible not to feel.
Back in the house, after everyone was gone, and Jon was blogging, I read what I could find about black bears. How and where they live and die, what they have come to mean to humans, in our lives and symbolically. It was another way for me to get to know the bear.
It seemed a small miracle that Ed was at our house when this all happened. That he was there to take the bear home to skin and get what meat he could from him. That something would come of his death.
And now I wonder if this is the same bear whose scat I’ve been seeing in the woods. That our paths have crossed already more than once. That I knew him better than I thought.