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.