Pet Vultures and Bad News Bears

July 14, 2008

I came around the barn on my way to put out some food for the band of cats that live there when I saw something odd.

Standing patiently around the cat’s bowls were three black vultures, an adult and two fledged chicks.

The adult flew away, but the chicks flew only as far as a horizontal beam on the lean-to on the back of the barn and kept their eye on me. I went in to the stall, brought out the cat food, and filled the bowls. The chicks fidgeted a bit. I put the cat food away and walked out, very matter-of-fact and stood still, watching. A couple of the cats came up and started to feed. One of the chicks flew away.

The remaining chick stayed behind, watching me. Maybe sizing me up for a future buffet.

“Don’t start polishing the silver yet, Bozo,” I said. “I feel OK.”

But it got me thinking. I’ll bet that if I came out every day or so, I could eventually have the vultures acclimated to me. I could condition them with food to the point that they would be like pets.

I stood for a few minutes in this sort of Disney fog of universal “the animals are our friends” nonsense, and snapped out of it.

Not that I disparage vultures. They are admirable birds that do important work. Think of them as recyclers. And they fly beautifully, though up close they are, I admit, decidedly homely.

It is tempting to try to get to know the neighbors. Naturalist Loren Eiseley wrote in a poem that he loved forms beyond his own and regretted the borders between them.

But those borders are there for a reason, and erasing them can be fatal to the nations on either side.

Yes, I said nations, referencing another naturalist, Henry Beston, who wrote, in the early decades of the previous century, that “(animals) are not brethren; they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”

The other night I watched an ABC News piece on Alaskan Charlie Vandergaw and his bears.

A retired science teacher, Vandergaw gets up close and personal with the black bears and grizzlies found near his summer cabin about 50 miles outside of Anchorage.

Charlie is about 70, bespeckled, bearded, well-spoken, and a sort of outlaw.

He is ignoring some of those borders. Sometimes he has 10 black and grizzly bears wandering around in his yard, poking around in his kitchen. Mama bears allow him to play with their cubs. He says the bears are not pets. He says a lot of things like that. I think he really loves those bears.

God knows what the bears think.

That’s it, you see. Nobody knows what goes on under that great skull. Something, surely; bears are known to be highly intelligent. But, unlike dogs, they are not the product of thousands of years of selective breeding of the kind that makes dogs want to be our buddies. Bears are territorial. They are predators and scavengers. And quick-tempered.

In most of the press stories I have read about him, Charlie said he had never been injured in the years he’s been buddies with the bears. But during the ABC News special, he confessed that a grizzly had put a pretty good hole in one of his hands. An accident, he said.

At one point in the program, though, Charlie, visibly upset, said something had occurred to him as he was watching one of the mama black bears, Annie, rolling on the ground in front of the camera crew.

A real wild bear would never do that. Charlie knew that, and knew that if Annie could be that relaxed in front of strangers because of his fondness for bears, he had put her in danger. The next human Annie walks up to hoping for a handout or even to have her ears rubbed may not be so keen on the idea of having a few hundred pounds of clawed predator trotting their way.

To be honest, I’d love to visit Charlie Vandergaw and his neighborly bruins. I’d love to be able to sit on a tree stump and dig my fingers into the scruff of a grizzly’s neck and say hello. I’d like it to look into my eyes with the kind of kindred recognition that I get when I look into a dog’s eyes.

But that’s the Walt Disney version of bears I am thinking about, isn’t it? Next, I guess, I’d expect him to do a little dance, sing a little song, and try to sell me some toilet paper.

I wish Charlie all the luck in the world with his bears. I hope they are not so conditioned not to fear humans that they wander around and get themselves killed, or killing people themselves. And I hope people will forego their admittedly kindly desire to get friendly with animals. Respecting the borders between us may be the only way to save them.


© 2007 Marsh Creek Media,

Gettysburg, Pa.

“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.

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