Teton Totem: A Bear with Personality

Jean Simpson with grizzly bear cub

I would like to tell you about a grizzly bear. Not bears in general but a very specific bear. An individual.

Teton Totem came to Jean as a child of divorce. Born in captivity, his owner had 30 bears and with the divorce, could no longer keep him. When I first met Teton, he was bear perfection—an artist drawing the most perfect adorable teddy bear couldn’t have come close to his cuteness. Jean even suggested making a poster with a whole row of stuffed teddy bears, putting Teton in among them—it would have been hard to pick him out. But even as a tiny cub there was no doubt about his strength and “bearness.” This was a serious, strong-willed animal.

We had just bought the land for the future Earthfire, and Jean was camping out in a small trailer as he began to put in a bridge, well, electricity, etc. I was working in Colorado and only able to visit periodically. The tie between man and bear was a one-man tie, and when I came up to visit, he promptly bit me. He was about the size of a Pomeranian at the time but the power was impressive. Fortunately, when I was finally able to move up to start Earthfire, I could spend more time with him, and (also fortunately, since he got pretty big) that never happened again.

Jean was his surrogate daddy/friend/protector/companion and the bond was a beautiful thing to see. Man and bear would spend their days together. They would go for walks and plop down in a meadow for a nap. Jean would bring him to a tree and show him how to climb, introduce him to streams, show him grubs and berries.

Grizzly bear with log in front of Tetons

Teton grew into a huge, absolutely magnificent bear. As I got to know him over the years, I saw how many myths there are about bears. Yes, they are big. Yes, they can be dangerous to humans. Yes, a bear is always a bear—a wild animal—and you never forget that. But as we usually only see them in the wild, or in impersonal setting such as a zoo, it is hard to get to know them as individual beings and see their more personal sides. Teton—that massive, powerful being—is reduced to jelly at the sound of a diesel truck. I have no idea why—I doubt that he had any experience with them. When we had construction done near his quarters, I had to stay with him to reassure him and calm him down. Wild animals in particular take cues from how others around them are acting to judge if there is danger or not, and if I was calm it gave him a reference point. l spread my skirts so he could hide behind them. He would pace back and forth in terror, coming to me for comfort as I sang the song I had sung to him since he was a baby, a song that was his special song. He loved being sung to—you could feel him relax into it. I guess you could say yes, bears like lullabies, too. We certainly never grow out of them—not if we are honest—especially if we are ill or scared.

We discovered that he would talk to us in “bear sign language.” If he wanted something, he would put out his big front paw and pull it towards him. It basically meant “I want…” or “Give me…” Depending on the situation, it could mean “I want food,” “I want companionship,” “I want to play,” “I want a shower.”

Close up of a grizzly bear's face

It wasn’t just man and bear during those early years; Jean also had a lovely Belgian Malinois, Rodney, who took his dogly duties very seriously as he helped raise Teton among other animals. The bond between bear and dog was also strong. Jean would use Rodney to baby sit when he was busy and Teton needed companionship. When Teton was four, Rodney was killed and Teton went into a depression, looking for and calling for his friend.

I had recently acquired Chinook, a malamute-shepherd mix, but he did not feel a bond with Teton. Chinook would spend some time with Teton, Rodney, Jean, and myself, but he never connected with Teton as a possible friend. One day after Rodney’s death, we saw Teton in his enclosure, pushing his precious chicken under the door as an offering, inviting Chinook and trying to entice him to come play. It was a heartbreaking thing to watch. Chinook would come up, take the offering, and run away to eat it as Teton watched.  Chinook never caught on, or was not interested in a relationship. Poor Teton tried it again and again, trying to be as inviting as he could, but it never worked.

When he was an adolescent, Teton apparently injured himself. We didn’t realize it at first—the only thing we noticed was that he was getting short-tempered. Eventually we saw that he was having trouble walking. After much trouble and differing diagnoses, we were able to find out what was wrong and heal it, but not without the utter trauma of having to tranquilize him. As he felt himself losing consciousness, he fought it, racing back and forth, frothing at the mouth. The thought that came to me as I watched was that it must feel to him like losing control, which in a wild animal could mean death. Or perhaps it felt like dying itself. It was terrible to watch. Jean and I took turns staying with him until he came back to consciousness. That felt important somehow, to be there for him as he woke up. The good news is, in the end, he returned to full health. And he became sweeter. Perhaps he has associated humans with trying to help him out of his pain and infirmity, or perhaps it was just the relief of pain, but he is a now a very sweet bear.

Grizzly bear standing on hind legs and staring off into the distance

Teton hates the wind. When we took him to the Wildlife Garden on a windy day, we had a very nervous bear on our hands. He would stand and huff as the wind brought strange scents from afar. We learned not to take him out those days. And we realized that the standing and huffing, which could potentially be interpreted as aggressive, was just the opposite—for him, at least, it was a matter of fear. If he could have run to a safe place, he would have—and did. There was no problem getting him home to his enclosure, where he felt safe. In fact, for all their size, our bears definitely have a timid and anxious side to them, which we humans have a hard time seeing because they are so big and imposing.

There are many other Teton stories—such as falling through the ice, the intelligence and presence he showed during his rescue, and how very very affectionate he was afterwards—but my main point in telling you this story about a bear is to demonstrate that Teton is an individual with his own responses and reactions. We have four other bears and they are each unique individuals with their own reactions and responses. Teton Totem is one bear. As we get to know one dog we fall in love with that dog, and then we begin to realize that most dogs are wonderful and have their own unique personalities. So it is with bears. We see the possibility that many bears are easily frightened creatures despite their powerful appearance, with a capacity for friendship, playfulness and affection. Each is a specific being with all kinds of intelligence and capacities, even though we might not know him or her personally. It is the basic, essential ethical message: cast a wider net for our objects of compassion and understanding. Do not keep our sympathies only close to home with family and friends, tribe, nation, or species just because those are who we know, who we are familiar with and don’t find “threatening.” There is wonder and sweetness and potential friendship everywhere, and we get best results if we treat all life with respect and care. It is especially important just because we know so little.

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