We all know the look. It’s the same look a child has when they’ve been caught with their hand in the cookie jar. Many of us have seen cute viral videos of dogs and cats displaying the same guilty look when they’ve been caught red-handed doing something they know they shouldn’t. Well, it turns out that big, silly, beautiful bears do it, too.
It was an early, brisk morning when I entered the animal compound, and the caretakers were just beginning to arrive for the day. Bramble was in his usual spot, sitting in the front corner of our indoor pool enclosure and watching all the humans show up. I called out to him as I do every morning: “Good morning, Bramble. Did you have a good night?” He recognized my voice and looked toward me, as he always does, so I proceeded on my way to the kitchen to check in with the caretakers. However, as soon as I walked through the kitchen door, I stopped dead in my tracks, realizing something seemed off. Bramble had looked at me, but he hadn’t made eye contact with me. Instead, he looked beyond me, or over me. Odd.
I peered back through the window of the kitchen door and realized his body position was also a bit unusual. He was sitting up, with his hind legs under him, but his front right paw was sticking out to the side, outstretched farther than his usual wide stance, with his paw planted firmly on the ground. I called to Bojack, one of the animal caretakers, and he joined me at the window. Bramble knew we were looking at him and looked sheepishly away from us.
We walked out to investigate, where he decided to look at us, but again, over us, not at us. And as we got closer, Bramble’s awkward stance hardened a bit. Once again, he looked past us, directing his gaze towards the wolf enclosures, almost pleading with us to look that way instead of at him. That’s when we knew: Bramble was hiding something.
We walked right up to his enclosure and he planted his paw even more firmly on the ground. I took a few steps to the side of him, hoping he would get up and move towards me, but instead, he simply stretched his neck as far as he could to get closer; his front paw still firmly planted in its original place. Bears are smart, and Bramble is no exception. He knew I was within his reach, and he also knew he was not about to move. That’s when we realized that he knew that we knew he was hiding something from us.
Getting him to move away from his hidden treasure wasn’t going to be easy, so our next attempt was to offer him food—after all, he’s a big brown bear in hyperphagia, so he’s always hungry. I offered him a handful of grapes and he took a few. Then I took even more steps away from him. Again, he stretched his neck as far as he could, but the delicious grapes were out of his reach. He tried extending his reach even further by sticking out his long soft tongue as far as it would go. When he still couldn’t reach the grapes in my hand, he decided the treasure was far more important and opted to forgo the tasty treat.
Hmm, grapes didn’t work. Should we try marshmallows next?
When we returned with a bag of marshmallows, he perked up. He wanted them. But he had a big decision to make since I had stepped even further away… get up to go eat tasty marshmallows or continue hiding whatever was under his paw. He looked at his paw, still firmly planted, then he looked at me with the bag of marshmallows. Would he follow me for a marshmallow or continue hiding whatever was under his paw? Quite the conundrum for a bear.
After a few moments of deliberating over his two options, he reluctantly got up and walked over to retrieve the soft marshmallows I was offering. Lo and behold, we could finally see what he had been hiding; Bramble had decided to do some demolition work on his hammock the previous evening and was hiding a big, shiny metal washer that he had precisely removed. He knew he shouldn’t have it. To him, it was a toy, but to us was a potential choking hazard.
I continued to give Bramble marshmallows while Bojack slowly and carefully reached under the enclosure fencing with a shovel and pulled the washer out. Bramble knew he was busted. He looked at Bojack holding his treasure, then he looked back at me with two pleading eyes. You know the look: “I’m so sorry. Can you forgive me in all of my cuteness, and can I also have some more marshmallows, please?”