Craig Childs - House of Rain
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Field Notebook

April 30, 2008
Living in a World of Animals

In April near Big Bear Lake east of Los Angeles a man died when he was attacked by a grizzly bear, an animal not seen in the wild in California since 1922. Grizzlies that are here now exist solely to service Hollywood. This particular animal, a 700-pound Ursus horribilus named Rocky, was a trained movie-bear, the kind you would have seen Grizzly Adams wrestle, only now it is Will Ferrell. Perhaps forgetting the weakness of the human spine, Rocky ended its trainer's life during a routine wrestling match. Witnesses say it was an accident, a single lunge, but who really know the mind of a bear? It may have suddenly remembered what it was like to be a grizzly in the Sierra, a place where its kind used to hump and shit and eat. Maybe it got the smell of pines in its big, dark nostrils and remembered it used to be king of the land, and no pale barker was going to tell it what to do. Animal rights groups are taking the opportunity to call for this practice of turning animals into actors to end. They pose an important question. Is there still a need for these animals in an age when any living thing can be digitally replicated for an audience? Instead of a person wrestling a live bear, one can be shown wrestling a digital construct. I believe there is a need for us to see living animals on screen. In fact, the need is so great it is worth the unfortunate death of a trainer every now and then. You have no doubt seen digital animals, the deer and lions in "I am Legend," the drool-dripping wolf in "300." Impressive what they can do, flawless almost. But for those of us who track wild animals and spend our time in the backcountry these facsimiles are more than just an entertaining farce. They are the writing on the wall. Every time they appear in a movie, we forget what is like to live in a world of animals. The delicacy and keenness of their movements are lost to gross, audience-pleasing gestures that you would never see in real life. Since this describes every aspect Hollywood why would it be any different? Losing touch with wild animals, we are left believing we are the last valid life form on earth. As far as animal rights go, that is not a good thing. As far as our future goes, the loneliness seems unbearable. If you have had the fortune of observing wild animals up close you will notice that each one has its own manner. Species are similar, but not alike. When I was once faced down by a mountain lion in a forest, it was not like any cyber-animal I have ever seen. Its tail painted the air, and its green eyes peered through my flesh. I was undressed by the cat in a way that will never come down to ones and zeros. In front of this mountain lion I became an animal myself arms out, feet apart, saying with my eyes, you can take me, but I will not make it easy for you. The cat studied me from ten feet away until it finally turned and left. The face of a bear, however, is unlike the face of a cat. The eyes convey a different kind of intelligence. On the Arctic tundra I once had a grizzly walk straight toward me. I was unarmed and standing barefoot in the hood of my sleeping bag. Even though they tell you never to make eye contact with a wild animal, I did. I could not help it. There was nowhere else to look. When our eyes met, the bear stopped. It did not seem aggressive. Its hackles were relaxed, its ears perked like woolen mitts. For a long moment, maybe minutes, we stared at each other in what seemed like mutual wonderment -- me wondering what the bear was up to, and it wondering if I was edible or a threat. Then the grizzly reared back as if suddenly spooked. It turned and bolted away. Maybe it caught my scent and remembered a hunter, a rifle, a bad experience in its past. Or the expression on my face told it that there are billions more just like me, and it was terrified. For the most part, though, my relationships with animals are like most, restricted to obediently-waiting pets, and out of doors parasitic squirrels and pigeons. For all of us the thread the rest of the world's animals is growing thin. Hollywood is sometimes all we have left from the animal world. Your choices have now been limited to an animal built inside a computer and one trained by professional handlers. They are both constructs, wild-animal forgeries, but at least one still has teeth. My hat is off to Rocky the bear who killed his trainer. Deepest apologies to friends and family of the victim, but it was perhaps a necessary move, a reminder that the real world is still out there, and we are not on top of it.

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