One of the things we love about babies of any kind is the wide- eyed innocent wonderment at the world. It is an endearing, evocative quality and not what one would expect of a grizzly bear. But it is just what we need with one of our bears, Humble Bumble. How can that be? How is it that a full-grown grizzly bear has the sweetness and innocence of a young animal?
I have written elsewhere about his learning disabilities, and what it implies about the innate similarities between all of us. How an egg terrified him, and when he got the courage to swat it, it broke, and then he was terrified all over again. How it took forever for him to dare to go into his first pool. How easily he is overstimulated and how difficult it is for him to soothe himself. And his fear of anything new.
But as I spent time with him the thought kept arising… how is it that this grizzly bear’s main qualities are sweetness and innocence? It is not what his species is known for. It is not how they ordinarily develop. Survival in the bear world, as for any wild animal, requires clear focus and attention to reality and detail; awareness of varied seasonal food sources, den locations, territorial boundaries, protection from other bears or assertion over other bears. There is little room for wonder – being in a state of wonder leaves one vulnerable to attack. And yet there he is.
He clearly has some form of brain injury or genetically different wiring. It was evident from the very beginning when we brought him home as a baby from a roadside zoo. Whatever the cause, it apparently knocked out his ability to measure, judge, focus; instead soothing himself by bouncing up and down in a corner, using his coping mechanism of panic. Those very abilities; to measure, judge, focus, soothe, protect oneself by judgment rather than panic, require a maturing brain.
So – if other bears mature and apparently lose their sweet and innocent quality, but Humble Bumble bear retained it, what might that mean? Perhaps the original wiring is for sweetness but the need for survival requires rewiring or overlaying territoriality, anger, jealousy; maintaining self-esteem to maintain a place in the social hierarchy. Without the need for survival and the resultant biological imperatives, might this be true for all animals… and humans as well? Perhaps underneath, without the need for survival and competition, lies an innate sweetness in all of us? If so, how can we access it? Many religions teach the idea of compassion rather than judgment, which reduces competition and increases a sense of safety. Perhaps they are tapping into that innate capacity and suggesting ways to bring out the sweetness in the other. *
What I want to share with you now is how brave he was in daring to go out into the new bear gardens. He saw the other bears go out. He was interested. But it was a very long walk (from his perspective) from his enclosure, along the chute that protected him from the other bears, to the garden. Jean laid out a beautiful trail of marshmallows along the way. He even put a tempting bunch of five near the entrance.
It took a very long time for Humble Bumble to venture a foot over the threshold bar into the chute. A very long time to investigate the top and bottom; the left side and the right, with each step. He then took a few steps and bounced up and down to soothe himself. Sometimes he bounced even as he took a step. He made it to the tempting bunch of ve marshmallows and to the amazement of our watching staff, Stephanie and Amanda, he stepped right on them. That would never happen with our other bears – no treat would be missed regardless of distraction. Stephanie later came up with a story title, “The Case of the Five Flattened Marshmallows”.
The treats held no interest for him. There are several interesting theories why… he can only focus on one thing; the fear was too great; that wires are somehow crossed in his brain and he doesn’t make the connection between the white puffs on the ground and the sweet morsels in his mouth. In any case he did make it to the end of the chute but the second threshold, the entrance into the sunny garden, was too much for him.
“Perhaps underneath, without the need for survival and competition, lies an innate sweetness in all of us?”
He looked up at the vast blue sky, the spacious garden in front of him, and was overcome. He turned and went home to safety; to the known.
We tried again the next day. It took a little less time and a little less bouncing, and he arrived at the second threshold. Jean had given up on marshmallows which worked so well to focus the other bears. This trip was Humble Bumble’s alone, with no treats or extra distractions other than the comforting, orienting presence of Jean. And he did it! First one paw, then another; a third and a fourth. Then a slow sniffing and rocking back and forth as he ambled into the first part of the garden. Then he was ready to return. But he did it! It had taken us weeks and weeks to get him to go into the original Wildlife Garden when he was a young bear. In comparison his journey out to the Bear Garden was really fast. He has, on his own terms, in his own way, and his own time, learned to face life more easily. Humble Bumble has grown. It was a triumphant day for all of us.
* For another article and time – our animals also become sweeter as they age. What might that mean?