The department of fish, wildlife and parks biologist parked his rig up along a small ridge in a remote part of northwest Montana and got out to address the reporter and photographer waiting for him.
“What we’re going to do today is try to relocate a small, 2.5 year-old male black bear to a prepared habitat where he will hopefully hibernate the rest of winter away and awake in the spring with no memories of the human food he was consuming,” the biologist said.
The bear was in a steel tube-like cage on a trailer making little grunting sounds and dragging its nails across the metal like a prisoner would drag a metal cup across the bars to irritate his jailer.
It was a black bear, a small-ish, fury creature that I would normally be terrified of if I encountered it in its natural habitat.
And though we were out in nature, out in a remote part of northwestern Montana, I was in a human-controlled environment.
At least a quarter-inch of hardened steel separated me from the bear, and the biologist had enough chemicals in a loaded needle to knock out a full-grown grizzly, if necessary. Not to mention the large rifle in the back of his truck.
As long as the bear was in the steel tube, all was safe with the world. There was grass and wind and sky, but the truly unpredictable – the animal I didn’t understand – was caged.
The biologist took a long tube with the needle affixed to the end of it and poked the bear in the hind quarters.
We waited 15 minutes, and the steel tube went silent.
The biologist pulled the bear out of the steel tube and placed it gently on the ground.
“Gentlemen, come over here,” he said.
The photographer and I walked over to the inert pile of fur lying on the ground.
“People think bears are scary,” the biologist said. “But they’re not. They’re actually very different from the way we perceive them.”
The man ran his course hands through the bear’s fur.
“People think they’re dirty and that they smell,” he said. “But they don’t stink, in fact, I think they smell like cinnamon.”
He leaned into the bear’s plush coat and sniffed loudly through his nose.
He invited us to do the same.
I reached for the bear and let my fingers drift through its hair. I expected it to be greasy, but I found it strangely dry and clean to the touch.
I leaned in and pressed my nose to the bear’s head near its ear, and I breathed in the bear’s scent.
Sure enough, the bear had a sweet smell, almost a fragrance. It was pleasant, and perhaps the idea had been put in my head, but I think I detected cinnamon.
“I bet you didn’t know that bears have a cholesterol level that would kill most people,” the biologist said.
“They run between 300 and 350,” he said. “A healthy human cholesterol is below 200.”
I immediately regretted the cheeseburger I’d eaten on the way to this assignment.
The biologist put the bear through a series of tests to make sure that it was in good health, and then we helped him place the bear inside a man-made hibernation box complete with biological monitoring devices and cameras.
A very wealthy man from Chicago paid a large sum of money to have the bio-box built for him, and he offered up his piece of Montana – the wild acres of land belonging to his getaway home many, many miles away – as suitable relocation habitat.
So the Montana FWP obliged and placed a young black bear in the box so the man’s grandchildren could have a zoo at their fingertips every time they picked up their smartphones or popped open their laptops far away in the big city.
But that’s not really the point of this whole thing.
In spite of the moral implications of this practice becoming a major hobby of the wealthy, it was the experience with the bear that taught me something about myself.
I love being out in nature. I understand a little of it but not much. And what I don’t understand, I fear.
This drives irrational behavior, which leads to poor decision making.
For the hour that we spent with the sleeping bear, I was completely blown away by the biologist’s reduction of my fears by explaining the basic functions of ursus americanus.
He told us stories that explained away some of the random and terrifying behaviors that bears sometimes exhibit, and he let us inspect every inch of the creature until it all made some kind of connected sense.
A kind of sense that can only be made when you’ve held your hands up to a bear’s padded paws and smelled its cinnamon scent and pulled back the gums to reveal its root and berry stained maw.
Every time I see a black bear in the wild, I think that this is a wild creature. Then I remember that they smell like cinnamon.