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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Bearly Believable

As spring unfolds and campers, hikers, and cyclists fan out across our north woods, encounters between Wisconsin's bears and humans will start making headlines again. Long ago our ancestors lived in much closer contact with bears, and run-ins between people and bruins were a simple fact of life.

Close Encounters

In 1855, a bear tried to carry a pig off the homestead of a settler in New London, in Waupaca Co., but the intrepid farm wife ran out with a pitchfork and drove it off. Mrs. Herman Nass recalled raids by bears on her childhood home in Winnebago County about 1865, but claims that the families in the area were not frightened by them.

About the same time, the Bailey brothers of Eau Claire County, having killed the mother of two bear cubs, raised the young ones in captivity and turned them into loyal members of their remote forest homestead. When Racine troops left in 1917 to be trained for World War One, they even took a tame Wisconsin bear cub with them as a mascot.

Hunters and Prey

Of course, peaceful co-existence between bears and humans was far less common in Wisconsin history than hunting of the larger species by the smaller one. A great harvest of bears by the Potawatomi prior to white contact is reputed to have given the name 'Mukwonago' to that Waukesha County town. Experiences such as this 1877 hunt in Barron County were probably common to many early residents, who spent days afoot in the woods and fields with their guns. Two brothers in Chippewa Falls even used their oxen to haul a hibernating bear out of its resting place so they could have fresh food in winter.

Changing Attitudes and Actions

Bears found today are usually not slaughtered and eaten but repatriated to the forest. This change in our values - - from seeing other species only as exploitable commodities to respecting them as "fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth (Henry Beston)" - - occured slowly throughout the 20th century. Wisconsin thinkers such as John Muir and Aldo Leopold and activists like Sen. Gaylord Nelson did as much as anyone to change Americans' attitudes and actions toward nature.

Learn more about them at Turning Points in Wisconsin History. And check out dozens of historical pictures of bears at Wisconsin Historical Images.

:: Posted in Animals on April 26, 2012
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