I have a suspicion that some of the tales told around campfires and here set down might be told differently if the bears could talk. It is a pity they can’t talk, for they are very human in other ways and have a sense of humor that would make their versions of some “true bear stories” vastly amusing. What delightful reading, for example, would be the impressions made by a poet of the Sierra upon the bears he has met! Perhaps no bear ever met a poet of the Sierra, but mere unacquaintance with the subject should be no more of a disadvantage to a bear than to a man of letters.
The California grizzly.
The California Grizzly made his reputation as a man-killer in the days of the muzzle-loading rifle, when failure to stop him with one shot deprived the hunter of all advantage in respect of weapons and reversed their positions instantly, the bear becoming the hunter and the man the game. In early days, also the Grizzly had no fear of man and took no pains to keep out of his way, and bears were so numerous that chance meetings at close quarters were frequent.
But with all of his ferocity when attacked and his formidable strength, the Grizzly’s resentment was often transitory, and many men owe their lives to his singular lack of persistency in wreaking his wrath upon a fallen foe. Generalizations on the conduct of animals, other than in the matter of habits of life governed by what we call instinct, are likely to be misleading, and when applied to animals of high intelligence and well-developed individuality, are utterly valueless. I have found the Grizzly more intelligent than other American bears and his individual characteristics more marked and varied, and therefore am disinclined to formulate or accept any rules of conduct for him under given circumstances. No man can say what a Grizzly will or will not do, when molested or encountered, any more than he can lay down a general rule for dogs or men. One bear may display extreme timidity and run away bawling when wounded, and another may be aggressive enough to begin hostilities at sight and fight to the death. It can be said safely, however, that the Grizzly is a far more dangerous animal than the Black Bear and much more likely to accept a challenge than to run away.
Want of persistent vindictiveness may not be a general trait of the species, but it has been shown in so many cases that it is at least a quite common characteristic. Possibly it is a trait of all bears and the basis of the almost universal belief that a bear will not molest a dead man, and that by “playing ’possum” a person attacked by a bear may evade further injury. That belief or theory has been held from the earliest times, and it is by no means certain that it is a mere idle tale or bit of nursery lore. Aesop uses