There is a curious habit of bears that is well known but not well understood. When walking along one of his trails, a bear will stop at a certain tree, tear it with his teeth and claws, rub his back and head against it as high as he can reach, even with the tip of the nose, and standing on tiptoe. There is no doubt that a bear coming to such a tree can tell by the scent whether another bear was there, and whether that bear was a male or a female, a friend, an enemy or a stranger. Thus the tree is a kind of news agency, where the bears get all the news. One can see very many such bear-trees in a part of the country where there are many bears.
The Family Life of a Bear
However, when I spent a whole season in Yellowstone Park, studying wild animal life there, I did not see such trees. I had many meetings with other animals, but did not meet any bears. One day I spoke about this to General Young, who was in charge of the Park. His reply was, "You are not in the right place. Go to the Fountain Hotel and there you will see as many bears as you like." That was impossible, I thought, but I went at once to the Fountain Hotel.
About fifty feet from the hotel I met a big, black bear with her two black cubs. The little bears were having a boxing match, while the mother sat near them and watched them. As soon as they saw me, they stopped the boxing, and as soon as I saw them I stopped walking. The old bear gave a peculiar koff — koff to warn her cubs, I suppose. At once the cubs ran up a tree with a speed that amazed me. When they were in the tree, they sat like small boys, holding on with their hands and swinging their little black legs in the air.
The mother bear, on her hind legs, came slowly toward me. And, indeed, I did not feel very comfortable, for she was about six feet high, and I had not even a stick to defend myself with. I began to walk backwards toward the hotel. The bear came nearer to me, and gave a low "woof". I was about to turn and run for the hotel. But at that moment the old bear stopped and looked at me calmly. Then she turned round and went back to the tree where her cubs were. She stood under the tree, looking first at me and_ then at her family. I realized that she did not intend to attack me, so I took out my camera. But it was near sunset in the woods, and the camera was of no use to me. Now I took my sketchbook instead, and made a sketch of the bears.
Meanwhile, the old bear, still looking at me, evidently decided that I was not dangerous. She looked up at her young cubs in the tree, and made a peculiar sound, "er-r-r er-r" at which the cubs, like obedient children, at once sat up straight as at the word of command. Then they swung from bough to bough till they dropped to the ground, and all went off together to the woods.
It amused me to see how quickly these little bears obeyed their mother. As soon as their mother told them to do something, they did it. I learned later that there was a good reason for that. When they did not obey at once, they got a very good spanking. Yes, they told me a black bear spanks her little cubs quite often. And she does it well, for she has a good strong paw, and does not stop even if they squeal hard. And each spanking lasts a long time.
At the Garbage-heap
At the hotel they told me that the best place for bears was the garbage-heap, in the forest, about a quarter of a mile from the hotel. So, early next morning, I went there with a camera, pencils and paper. At first I watched from the bushes, about seventy-five yards away.