A Note from Diann Blakely

The Zanesville Bear Cub & the Puritan Tradition

A tru­ism of American his­to­ry and thought is our country’s ten­den­cy to project evil onto an object and then attempt to destroy that object. We call this “the Puritan tra­di­tion,” and it includes woods, Indians, wom­en pre­sumed to be witch­es, the entire South, New York City when near-bank­rupt­cy, smok­ers, mod­er­ate drinkers and eaters of trans­fats, prac­ti­tion­ers of Islam, those whom the Republicans call “aliens,” and, most recent­ly, exotic wildlife set loose in the small town of Zanesville, Ohio.  From the Deep South, I am accus­tomed to Crazy People, but not known those in the Midwest capa­ble of such extreme sce­nar­ios: an igno­ble mani­ac who’d kept, in cages, a vari­ety of crea­tures intend­ed to roam African savan­nahs, Indian jun­gles, and even American wilder­ness, freed them then com­mit­ted sui­cide, allow­ing yet more cru­el­ty to be inflict­ed on the animals–a shot on the night­ly news of four dozen of fau­na corpses is all I need men­tion.

But I didn’t see that par­tic­u­lar bit of sen­sa­tion­al­is­tic broad­cast jour­nal­ism till much lat­er.  Purely by chance, and in medi­as res, I turned on the TV, which is always set to CNN, and heard an announce­ment that reg­u­lar­ly sched­uled pro­gram­ming would be inter­rupt­ed for a news con­fer­ence.  I expect­ed to hear that Quadafy had been cap­tured, but his demise did not take place until the next day.  Instead, I wit­nessed a baby bear clam­ber­ing ter­ri­fied through the pro­duce sec­tion of a Zanesville gro­cery store, though sup­pos­ed­ly the locale which was on lock­down.  Radio and TV sta­tions, even flash­ing bill­boards, warned all cit­i­zens to stay inside with all doors locked as soon as “pets and their elder­ly loved ones” were safe­ly shut inside with them.

This part of the Zanesville dis­as­ter not only pro­vides an exem­plary inci­dent straight out of the afore­men­tioned tra­di­tion, but also a mea­sure of amuse­ment,  for no one was hurt, though I pitied the cen­ter of atten­tion because he was made to suf­fer such fright.  No one else seemed to give any thought to the obvi­ous trau­ma caused to the bear, or how unnec­es­sary the wild over­re­ac­tion to his pres­ence among the supermarket’s veg­e­ta­tion.  His tor­men­tors had obvi­ous­ly nev­er read by Hawthorne, Melville, or the Southern Fugitive/Agrarians, to whose pol­i­tics I gen­er­al­ly take great excep­tion, but whose uncan­ny warn­ings about ecol­o­gy and adver­tis­ing in I’ll Take My Stand resound more tru­ly with each pass­ing day, and they thor­ough­ly demo­nized and ter­ror­ized the poor crea­ture.

Which was not even ful­ly grown.  Brought to us by “live cam,” the cub’s every action was vis­i­ble, and the­se actions con­sist­ed of stuff­ing head after head of ice­berg let­tuce still wrapped in cel­lo­phane into his mouth.  The news crew made clear that lives were being risked to bring us this story–albeit with bear-fuzzy, obvi­ous­ly cheap tele­scop­ic lens­es for the video–and an over­weight wom­an, who had no busi­ness being in a store that had no busi­ness being open under such cir­cum­stances, attempt­ed to flat­ten her­self again­st an aisle stacked high with peanut but­ter jars, but this only knocked them all over the floor and caused her to scream.  The super­mar­ket staff were also behav­ing in the most unhelp­ful man­ner possible–only their backs and peep­ing heads were vis­i­ble from time to time–and a loud­speak­er in the store blared the sheriff’s pro­nounce­ments about await­ing tran­quil­iz­er darts and guns being by “experts from the Columbus Zoo.”  He also shout­ed, at reg­u­lar inter­vals, “we will not have this in our sub­di­vi­sions!”

But the lit­tle bear didn’t want to be in their sub­di­vi­sions, caged, and set loose only to become stuck in one of its mega-gro­cery empo­ria and sur­round­ed by such com­mo­tion.  Lacking any zoo­log­i­cal train­ing, I nev­er­the­less kept wait­ing and wait­ing for some­one to real­ize what I had imme­di­ate­ly: the pre­vi­ous slaugh­ter of wild beasts had been hor­rif­i­cal­ly unnec­es­sary had every­one sim­ply remained calm, and there was cer­tain­ly no need for the Columbus experts to pelt, so to speak, the bear cub with tran­quil­iz­er darts unless, by the time of their arrival, he had been fright­ened into a state past calm­ing.  Even then, clin­i­cal­ly appro­pri­ate dos­es of Valium, based on the bear’s esti­mat­ed weight, strate­gi­cal­ly placed into a head of let­tuce would have prob­a­bly have done the job, though I sus­pect the cub could have been lured out of the store with a shop­ping cart con­tain­ing zuc­chini, cucum­bers, pump­kins, and but­ter­nut squash, since he seemed to like green and orange veg­eta­bles in par­tic­u­lar.  There was no more need for the gen­er­al hys­te­ria in the store than there was for the news­wom­an to apply the lan­guage of inter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ism to the bear, hard­ly an Al-Quaeda oper­a­tive.  The store employ­ees had sought shel­ter and the only oth­er human beings present want­ed to boost view­er rat­ings: noth­ing of nation­al impor­tance had hap­pened in Zanesville since the great 1913 flood, a gen­uine­ly trag­ic event, yes, but TV and info­tain­ment had not been invent­ed then.

While the bear cub’s behav­ior met all known cri­te­ria for “stress eat­ing,” after the let­tuce, the only attacks I wit­nessed were on the car­rots, which should have made every­one rec­og­nize that the ani­mal was harm­less to human life.  Had he been met with jaws clamped in a death-grip on cel­lo­phane-and-sty­ro­foam pack­aged steaks or even plas­tic con­tain­ers of bolog­na, per­haps there would have been cause for alarm.  But the bear, black or brown though cer­tain­ly no griz­zly, obvi­ous­ly belonged to the fam­i­ly which includes pan­das, whose choice snack is bam­boo.  His bla­tant veg­an­ism was fur­ther borne out by his lack of inter­est in the cheese and even the tofu.  And if the TV crew was inter­est­ed in rat­ings, it was equal­ly clear that what fright­ened the store crew most was hav­ing their wages docked because of ruined pro­duce and thus loss of prof­it to the place of employ­ment.