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PETER H. KING

Animal Crackers Galore

August 25, 1996|PETER H. KING

HUNTINGTON LAKE — With sadness I must report our failure this summer to see a bear. Spotting a bear among the mountain cabins of this Sierra Nevada lake can inject a certain thrill into a family vacation, reminding everyone that this isn't Disneyland. This is the woods, and the woods are filled with black bears, coyotes, foxes and other quite real creatures. Yow.

Bear encounters are not uncommon up here, and a good one can feed the fireside conversation for a long time. My dad once drove away an ursine visitor with a blast of water from a garden hose. Happily, he lived to tell about it, and tell about it, and is telling about it still. Not that he is immodest. It's simply a remarkable bear story, and thus always in demand.

A couple of summers ago, at another cabin, a black bear swiped at a yapping poodle through a screen door. The little dog's owners practically were put on a mountain-wide lecture circuit. They'd sit on the tailgate of a pickup truck and recount the adventure with increasingly hair-raising detail, while the poodle shivered on the storyteller's lap.

That we failed to eyeball any bears on this trip does not mean they weren't out there. They roam late at night, tossing about enormous "bear-proof" garbage dumpsters, nosing around certain cabins, exciting the dogs. One favorite bear haunt is a cabin that sits just down the hill from our own. This spring, when its owner came to reopen the place, he discovered a huge bear happily encamped in the kitchen, guzzling bottles of ketchup. Needless to say, this cabin owner's bear story is the smash of the season.

*

Retelling these bear tales makes me feel connected to a great journalistic tradition--the animal stories of summer. The classic of this genre is the New York tabloid perennial about crocodiles in the sewers. Closer to home, I recall a summer in Orange County in which many otherwise rational journalists roved in packs, searching for a sasquatch in the back alleys of Buena Park.

This summer has produced a bumper crop of animal stories. In San Francisco, the newspapers have provided serial front page coverage of the hunt for a tiny alligator in a city lake. The editors have commissioned Florida gator trackers, consulted with animal channelers--"He said his name is Fred. . . . "--and even donned wetsuits themselves to participate in the search.

From San Diego came the bizarre account of a pregnant woman who awoke to find herself wrapped up by a pet python. The giant snake also had sunk its teeth into her buttocks, and would not let go. Paramedics had to decapitate the still-attached snake with a hacksaw. "I don't think," one rescuer dryly noted afterward, "there's a written procedure on how to unravel a snake from its owner."

The best of the bunch, however, was the dispatch from the Brookfield, Ill., Zoo. For those who missed it, a toddler tumbled into the gorilla pit. A mother gorilla named Binti scooped up the child and, cradling the boy in her arms, carried him to a gate. She stood guard there until human help arrived. There's no television here, but I assume Binti already has done Letterman and Leno.

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One reason newspapers go crackers over summer animal stories is simple necessity. News tends to slow down this time of year, and the paper must be filled with something. Also, come summer, newspaper people need a break from urban carnage and governmental malfeasance as badly as any fleeing vacationer, and so critter tales offer a tempting diversion.

Not that all of them end happily ever after. Earlier this month came news from Yosemite Valley that a small black bear had been stoned to death after it wandered into a camp of Orange County Boy Scouts. Investigators are still sorting it out, but the incident appears to illustrate a larger, and humorless, animal story at work across the West.

As more people move into foothills and mountains, hostile encounters with wild animals inevitably escalate. And with each mountain lion attack or brush with a snarling bear, a them-or-us mentality promoted by those who would exterminate the troublesome beasts gains momentum. Calls for common sense--properly stowing camp food, staying alert in cougar country--are being lost in the clamor raised by the would-be Daniel Boones.

It's a troubling trend. Without bears and other critters, high country like this might well start to seem a bit too much like the cities below--a spooky thought. On Friday morning, I picked up a copy of the Fresno Bee. No room on its front page for summer animal stories. A college student had been discovered murdered in her apartment. A funeral home stood accused of defrauding the bereaved. A 4-year-old was killed in a drive-by. It's an even wilder kingdom, down there in city land.

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