Tony Vagneur: Momma bears — they just know |

Tony Vagneur: Momma bears — they just know

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

It was in a clearing about 50 yards from the edge of the timber. Chokecherry and wild raspberry bushes were abundant, and the other ground cover was thick. My mother had stopped the car to watch a couple of twin bear cubs rambling around the clearing when I jumped out of the backseat and went over to play with the cubs.

They, and I, were having a good time, jostling each other — they were on a similar path as what older canine puppies were like back on the ranch. Suddenly, there was a large crack of branches in the forest and my mother yelled for me to get in the car, right now. What? I ignored her.

Across the meadow came the mother bear at a furious, galloping run, coming to protect her cubs. At the time, I was 9 years old and knew very little of bear behavior, and as I watched the sow run toward us, there was not a bit of fear in my body. Curiosity, yes.

The cubs had heard her guttural command and were beginning to take off. Coming straight toward me, the bear slowed, passed on my left so close that I put out my hand and slid it down her back as she ran by. She then turned just behind me and chased her cubs back into the dark woods. The coarse hair and the naïve ease with which I did that is unforgettable. Poof! With that, they were jogging off toward the towering pines.

In the 60-odd years since, and having spent a great deal of time in the wild, I’ve had more than a few encounters with bears, none of them injurious to either of us (although a few have been messy), and they’ve always had my respect.

Imagine the other day I came across a Sierra magazine article entitled, “Does a Bear Think in the Woods?” Nice play on words. The tag line was, “Turns out animal intelligence is not so different from our own.” Not exactly an epiphany in my mind, but it piqued my interest enough to read on, which got me to thinking. Wait, can animals think?

First, it should be said that human-based measures of animal intelligence must be regarded with suspicion, because the incorrigible habit we have of measuring it up against our own intelligence usually taints the experiment from the start. For example, we do odd things like conjecture and attempt to empirically measure if animals have the ability to recognize themselves in a mirror. Does that help them with complex problems in their world? Is it even relatable? Let’s face it, rats can outrun us through a maze before we even get our boots on.

Those in the know say elephants have great memories, and that is probably true. On the other hand, horses also have stellar memories, which I’ve previously written about. If you get lost riding in the mountains, let your horse get you home. Don’t try to outthink him. They remember which fork in the trail you used last, which path heads for home and which one doesn’t. If I’ve ever dropped salt once at a cattle salt lick with a horse, that same horse will want to stop at that location every time we pass by, even years later.

Cattle, with bovine elan, can figure out the easiest and most direct route for them through a steep area with no existing trails. They can do it better than an engineer with complex equipment, simply by reading the lay of the land and paying attention to their own reaction to the land. They can do this with diabolical certainty, time-after-time.

Take a hike up Hannon Creek, the bear capital of Woody Creek. With a sharp eye, you can admire the scars left by bear claws climbing up and down the large aspens near the beginning of the stream. With a certain grunt, or gurgle, or whatever, mothers send their cubs up those trees for safety reasons, to get them away from perceived danger on the ground. Of course, the cubs and mother have to understand the verbal code for “all safe — come down.” This ability to discriminate is called “theory of mind.”

Was it this ability to reason that saved my life during my romp with the bear cubs? Likely no one knows, but I suspect the mother interpreted my innocent behavior as just that, and nothing particular to worry about, but she was going to get her cubs out of there to be on the safe side.

Or the other interpretation could be that she might have figured anyone that naïve couldn’t possibly be worth mauling and stomping to death. Luck, anyone? I prefer to think it was empathy on her part that saved my hide, a mother’s understanding of a cub of another species.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at

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