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Bear Facts

by Gary Clifton

“Holy smokes, Matilda, they’re having a special showing at the Bronx Zoo... Grizzlies.” Charlie waved his copy of The New York Times.

Charlie Popkin, a sensitive, caring man, had been raised by a single mother in a walk-up above Mac’s Deli on Flatbush Avenue on the cusp of the magnificent New York City skyline. His knowledge of animals, along with much of anything else outside his neighborhood, he learned from books or TV, and a single visit with his mother to the Bronx Zoo. Nonetheless, he had developed a lifelong interest in animals.

At eighteen, Charlie enrolled in a university near his Brooklyn home and quickly became a contented, competent student who supported the school enthusiastically. When the university received a grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior to fund a field trip to Yellowstone National Park, Charlie was first in line.

Personal costs were reasonable, and Charlie, who had never seen wilderness beyond Prospect Park, was soon on a jetliner along with thirty other lucky big-city adventurers winging west. The trip took place in early June and, although the chance of a Yellowstone snowfall was always a possibility, the weather was gorgeous.

The actual tour went by bus, maintaining a strict regimen of using only main roads and carefully head-counting after each stop. The park was a scenic panorama of nature’s beauty, the trip perfect. But then, fate reared its head.

Charlie, at a rather lengthy stop near the north end of the park, wandered away from the group, enraptured by the incredible scenery and sense of freedom. A good mile off the recommended path, Charlie overheard the piteous cries of a creature in pain.

Approaching, he recognized from photos a grizzly bear, little more than a cub. It had climbed a rotten tree, apparently reaching inside near the top to raid a honey-bee nest. The poor creature had lost its footing and, in the ensuing fall, had become trapped, its paw at an awkward angle, hopelessly wedged in the hole.

Charlie could see from the ground the animal’s paw was shattered and that it would eventually die an agonizing death. He also saw the tree was very fragile.

“I can help you, little fellow,” Charlie moved closer.

Despite frequent warnings by park personnel of the danger of approaching a grizzly, Charlie valiantly began shaking the deteriorated tree. Incredibly, after twenty minutes, the trunk snapped near the base and the young bear fell clear.

The beautiful beast galloped a few yards away, then stopped and turned back, and raised the shattered paw. To Charlie’s mind, it was waving a grateful salute. The large brown eyes held Charlie’s gaze for nearly a full minute, then it trotted away on three legs.

Charlie, elated at his humanitarian act, hurried back to the bus, to find the driver stomping mad that he was late in returning for the head count.

On the bus and the flight back to Brooklyn, Charlie related his tale of rescue to anyone who would listen, only to be believed by none.

Charlie finished university, landed a job as a bookkeeper in a large department store, and fifteen years passed. Never marrying, he had in fact taken up with a permanent lady friend, Matilda, a pleasant, cordial blonde lingerie clerk in the same department store. They lived together in a slightly upgraded walk up, four blocks further south of his boyhood home on Flatbush.

Now balding, edging toward pudgy, and given to reading hours daily and stamp-collecting, he had never fully lost his interest in bears as a result of the encounter. Charlie never saw another bear until, one summer day, he saw the Times’ spread on the Bronx Zoo.

The facility had taken in several new animals, including two grizzlies. Despite Matilda’s protest, the couple made the long, double subway transfer, Sunday trip to the Bronx.

They eventually came to the bear area. Revelation miraculously struck home. There, not twenty feet away, in a reinforced cage, behind two five-foot fences, the second topped with barbed wire, Charlie recognized the grizzly with the injured paw from Yellowstone fifteen years before.

The animal, now naturally massive, stared at Charlie intently. Charlie, behind his horn-rimmed glasses, could see it was love. When the bear moved about the cage, the mangled paw was prominent. He approached the cage and actually seemed to hold the damaged limb through the bars in a gesture that, in Charlie’s mind, had to be an attempt at communication.

Charlie was nearly overcome with elation.

Matilda screamed and guards came on the run as Charlie clambered over the outside fence, topping the barbed wire and tearing his clothing to shreds. Charlie mounted the cement wall surrounding the actual cage, and the crowd oohed and awed aloud in unison as Charlie reached through the bars and patted the animal on his huge stomach.

The bear stared with winsome eyes at his visitor for several seconds. Then he ripped off Charlie’s right arm and slumped in a corner of the cage, devouring the bloody morsel like a giant turkey leg at the state fair. Matilda fainted.

The audible “oohs” from the crowd morphed to phrases like “dumb ass” and “Wonder if he tastes like smoked ham.”

* * *

Charlie lay covered with a blanket between fences, and the Medical Examiner stooped over him. Matilda, strapped to a gurney, was hysterical. The bear was still plopped in a corner of his cage, gnawing on a tibia fragment.

“Hell,” the park attendant said to the media. “Old Bruno ain’t new. He was in the Fort Worth zoo for twenty-five years. Word is, he closed his front leg in an electronic gate ten or twelve years ago. Tore his paw all to blue neb.”

The uniformed NYPD officer stood, pen in hand. Then he called on his hand set. “Sarge, 627 Alpha here. I got a situation at the Zoo and I’m gonna need assistance with the report.”

Copyright © 2017 by Gary Clifton

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