The first time I ever saw Fatty Pants, it was four o’clock in the morning. My husband and I were sleeping. I’d awakened with my ritual insomnia occurrence. Rather than tossing about in bed, I got up, fully intending to stargaze on our front porch. Staring up into all that darkness expands the myopic, fear-filled 4 a.m. mind. A peace seeps in like fog into our mountain valley.
Plus, it’s become a habit to which I’ve become accustomed.
So it was to my surprise when the expected scene out the bedroom window was darker than I knew. It drew me in for a closer look.
Frank! Frank! I shook him instantly. You HAVE to see this! I whispered loudly.
My enthusiasm wasn’t squelched by his reluctance. What?
You HAVE GOT TO GET UP. I was now shaking him.
He sat up, sleepily. Grabbing his hand, I led him to the window.
THERE! Pointing down on the ground outside.
It’s – is THAT? – Oh, crap – It’s a BEAR!
There he was. That resplendent silken-furred black body, splayed in peaceful repose. Like some 19th Century bear rug placed in front of a fireplace in a mansion. Only alive.
I imagined him snoring.
What should we do? I felt stupid. I’ve lived in the mountains for twenty-five years. I’ve seen bears before. But none ever sleeping right next to our bedroom window.
He looks so…sweet. Like a teddy bear. I hate to wake him.
My husband was clear. We have to scare him off. He can’t get comfortable here. It’s for his own good.
I glanced down at our dogs lying sound asleep. I was surprised we hadn’t disturbed their dreams.
We woke our ursine friend from his slumber, by yelling and banging at the window. He woke with a start, lumbering off into the darkness of our woodlands just beyond our home. We thought he’d be well on his way, never to return.
The next day came and went, with no repeat performance. I wonder if we’ll see him again tonight, I mused with Frank.
The next evening came and went.
We live in what’s been termed the urban-wildlife corridor, just thirteen miles up the Canyon from one of the nation’s priciest cities. Our ten acres once hosted 5,000 miners in small, rude cabins and fabric tents. Now, it hosts our log home and just one other house. And a healthy population of wildlife.
Bears in the urban-wildlife corridor understand where opportunities for a quick meal may lie. And climate change is affecting their food supply.
It wasn’t an hour into sleep when the following night we were awakened to witness our ursine friend licking the Ponderosa Pine outside. Suet from the daytime bird feeders had oozed onto the bark. Fatty Pants clearly found it delicious.
Frank! Frank! Wake up…bear’s back! I whispered loudly.
This time, he woke with a start. I motioned him towards the bedroom window.
He’s HUGE! He exclaimed, staring at our ursine friend, standing on his hind legs – easily, he was six feet and then some. Just look at that fat bear bottom!
Frank turned to me, motioning, his arms wide. Mimicking Monty Python – She has HUGE…[hands cupping a woman’s cleavage]…tracts of land!
Let’s call him Fatty Pants, he smiled widely.
Both amused at Frank’s persistent sense of humor and terrified at the wild animal growing more comfortable outside, I expressed on an unrealistic preference. I just wanted to leave him be.
But we couldn’t.
Let’s go, I know, I took Frank’s hand. He retrieved the shotgun from the closet, loaded it with blanks and shouldered it. I followed him upstairs.
From the upstairs window, we could see Fatty Pants sauntering and sniffing around the edges of the tree. He skirted around the east side of the house, dropping just out of view.
Removing the screen from the window upstairs, Frank hung the shotgun outside and fired over his head. Fatty Pants ran off into the woods, and we returned to bed. All at once, I found him magnificent and hungry, sweet and terrifying, powerful and familiar. There was something about an animal that felt comfortable enough to sleep by our bedroom window one night, get chased away, and return for slumber once more. I felt that cognitive dissonance of wanting to protect him from the policies of the Division of Wildlife and fear looming that he couldn’t remain, eclipsed by my urge to stare at him in amusement and bewilderment. And yet, too many bears are killed each year from getting too close to human habitation. All on account of a rumbling appetite.
Frank and I had just been dating at the time I first met Fatty Pants, so it came as a sudden surprise on our “off-night” when he was back at his own home that Fatty Pants returned.
I’d been tired from the day. Looking forward to a glass of Cabernet infused by the soothing, syrupy tunes of Dido in a hot bath, I got the water running. Returning with candles just a few moments later, I stopped suddenly.
There he was again. I was walking into the bathroom, just as he was walking up to the French doors. That velvety brown muzzle on his resplendent silken-furred black bear body, staring at me. On just the other side of the glass.
He stood there quietly, watching.
I screamed. And ran to call Frank. He’d been gone an hour already.
For the terror of the moment, his number left my brain. I wouldn’t call 9-1-1 – that’d mean a tag for my ursine friend. One more, and he’d be dead.
Fatty Pants took three steps back. I ran for the telephone.
He’s back! I panicked as soon as Frank answered. Fatty Pants is back!
Okay, deep sigh…Okay, Bo, here’s what you do…
If I’d married for nothing more than the fact that Frank is the calm to my storm, that’d have been enough for my mountain existence. Before him, I had to sleep some nights with a shotgun next to my bed. Bears came with this kind of life. But it’d been four years of living alone on the land. It’s much easier to live up here in pairs.
I imagine Fatty Pants must’ve felt the same way.
I was stunned that he’d returned. We had no food for foraging, not a scent lingering in the air. But, I reasoned, I had to drive this bear away forever. And for his own good. No matter how much I wanted to roll out my sleeping bag and join him as he’d slept, so cuddly like a teddy bear outside, no matter how adorable I’d found him staring at me on the other side of my bathroom doors.
Hey Bo – you there?
Yes, I’m here. I was poised again at the upstairs window, shotgun loaded with blanks, Fatty Pants milling about lazily below.
Okay – so you’re going to put the phone down while you shoot –
Yes, right. Good thing he mentioned that.
Shouldering the 12-gauge, I breathed in – BAM! – golden sparks lit up the evening. Smoke poured from the long barrel.
I picked up the phone again. You still there?
Yep. I sure heard that!
I watched his jiggling bear bottom disappear into our woodlands.
My ursine friend never returned after that night. They say bears have tremendous memories – in my twenty-five winters here, I’d have to agree. Never do I see a bear return when deliberate efforts are made to send them away. And since I can’t really tell one bear from another, it’s more the case that once a bear is gone, no more appear for the season.
I felt sad and guilty. It may have been all for his own good – a fed bear is a dead bear – not just a platitude or catchy meme. I worried for him, a bear so innocently unsuspecting as to find comfort sleeping next the bedroom of humans. What would become of him, if he slept by the wrong house and people panicked, calling the DOW, earning him an ear tag? When did it become the reality that bears needed protection from the habits of people and our powerful laws enforced by lethal weapons?
I’ll never know what happened to him. One thing’s certain – it took a special bear like Fatty Pants to help me understand the depths and complexity of their ursine lives. We’re the ones that take their lives away when they don’t conform to our idea of safe living in shared landscapes. When it comes to threats — who poses the greater one – a bear sleeping next to humans, or us with our laws backed by firearms?