Animal Kingdom

There is a bear living in dane county. He is a big bear. Black and strong.

Like Epic Systems, he seems to have chosen Verona over Madison.

Probably got a tax break of some sort.

According to government animal counters, we have more than 33,000 bears living in our state. That is roughly equal to the population of Beloit.

And now some of these bears have ambled into southern Wisconsin. But according to the Department of Natural Resources, bears are not the only big-toothed, sharp-clawed, heavily furred animals increasing their profile in Dairyland.

Cougars, long a Wisconsin myth—like the Blessed Virgin of Necedah, Rhinelander’s Hodag and the Bucks’ NBA championship—have now been formally acknowledged as state residents.

Oh, and we have six hundred wolves.

Bears and cougars and wolves, oh my.

The truth is these animals, and others that our ancestors dispossessed, are slowly, smartly reclaiming what we have taken from them. And it leaves some citizens unsettled.

Well, never fear, my friends. Though this writer has yet to spot a cougar, I have had firsthand encounters with bears and wolves in our state—and I am not talking about eyeballing domesticated bears rummaging through trash at the Boulder Junction dump from the safety of a station wagon. No, I am talking about the wondrous experience of big animals in the wild staring at you. Let me tell you, it’s pretty cool.

Bear Incident Number One. Arbor Vitae. 1992. Our little cabin up north. There is incessant barking and then a human holler from across our small bay. “Bear!” Bride Diane herds the little ones inside. I stand on the deck calmly trying to spot the interloper. Our late neighbor Al, who had stopped for a visit while walking his dog, stood beneath the deck. Suddenly a very big, very confident bear rolls out of the trees, sloshes across a small wetland and ambles up our shore.

Although Neighbor Al was a woodsman, this day he has been to town. He is resplendent in white loafers, matching white expando-waist Haggar slacks with a wide red patent-leather belt complemented by one totally freaked poodle. There stands Al, thirty feet from the bear at ground level.

The bear stares at Al. Al stares at the bear. The poodle trembles. And then Al raises his arms and yells, “Boo!” And the bear tears up the hill and into the woods with Al and one very reluctant toy dog chasing behind him. Al stops, turns and smiles. “They are big ’fraidy cats.”

Bear Incident Number Two. 1998. Northwoods. Alone. Mountain biking in the Northern Highland State Forest. No phone. Nothing. Come around a corner and there, within rock-throwing distance, is a black bear. He remains motionless and eyes me. I slowly dismount, putting the Trek between the two of us. Then, for some reason, I say to him in a quiet voice, “Go away now, buddy.”

He snorts, turns and trundles down the trail, stopping every few feet to eye me over his shoulder. I wait until he is many yards away and then jump on the bike and pedal so furiously the other way that I bust a chain. I resort to furtively pushing the bike through the woods for fifteen minutes until I hit a local county road.

Only then do I stop and ponder, “Go away now, buddy.” Really? That is all I could think of to say to a live bear? Hardly a Daniel Boone moment.

Wolf Incident. 2007. Northwoods. This is not so dramatic, but driving over to the local supper club, just at winter’s first ice, I see a large animal cavorting across the lake. At first I think it is a coyote, but its carriage, confidence and size quickly change my mind. I stop and watch him play across the frozen expanse as if celebrating the coming of snow. It is then that I realize that I am looking at Wisconsin’s gray wolf.

This is later confirmed at the bar. It is strangely thrilling. Saw a real wolf. Wow.

There is debate over these large species growing in number in our state. Even fear. But I find it exciting. Unique. And utterly Wisconsin. Americans travel from all over the country to take pictures of these critters at Yellowstone, and we have them right here on our own beautiful land.

And for all the worry, it is actually the smaller species that present more constant problems.

Like the slow build in Hitchcock’s The Birds, woodpeckers poke holes in my house with impunity.

Squirrels are eating my garage door. Raccoons wander around on the roof and through the garbage.

And no matter how many times I say, “Go away now, buddy,” they pay me no mind.

And then it occurs to me.

This is not about us getting used to them.

It is they who are slowly, smartly, inexorably, getting used to us.

Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Comments? Questions? Write johneroach@mac.com.

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