Hello, friends. Pull up a patch of grass — or, barring that, a relatively comfortable chair and a mental image of the forest. Let me tell you a story.
Once upon a time (ahem, November 1902) in a far-off land (the tiny town of Smedes, Miss.) a brave soldier (President Theodore Roosevelt) was invited by a local leader (the governor of Mississippi) to participate in a glorious hunt.
Their quarry: The Louisiana black bear.
(Cue gasp of dread.)
Don’t worry — these bears have been protected by the government for more than two decades, though on Thursday they were finally removed from the federal threatened species list (yay!).
But in Roosevelt’s time, black bears were a scourge, fierce predators that attacked livestock and terrified kids. Hunting them from horseback, slaying them with a single shot from a rifle — this was a gentleman’s pursuit. It was a badge of courage to slay one of the large and fearsome beasts.
Or so people thought.
By 1902, the wild woods of Mississippi were not quite as wild as people liked to picture them, and their inhabitants not quite so large and fearsome. Hundreds of years of hunting and habitat destruction had taken their toll. Far from the deadly predator of popular imagination, the black bear specimen that the hunting party happened upon that fateful day in 1902 was mangy and exhausted from the long chase. It snapped at the hunting dogs that harried it until one of Roosevelt’s companions thumped it over the head with his rifle and tied it to a tree. Then the man blew into his bugle, summoning the president to deliver the fatal shot.
Cartoonist Clifford Berryman, drawing for this newspaper, documented what happened next: Roosevelt arrived, took one look at the feeble beast with its big, frightened eyes. And he walked away.
It was exactly the kind of patriotic, feel-good fable so often peddled by politicians and people who are trying to sell you something, and both groups latched onto it, with gusto. It became part of Roosevelt’s larger than life persona, evidence of his benevolence, his principles, his kinship with nature. And, when a New York shop owner decided to name his signature stuffed bear after the animal-loving president, it fueled the production of a million toys and a new kind of relationship to wildlife.
No longer were wild animals something to be hated and feared. Instead, creatures should be protected in the wild and cuddled — in their inanimate, stuffed-animal forms — in our children’s beds. This anecdote fit right into the modern conservation crusade that started with Roosevelt: Animals were the underdogs now and it was our fault. We needed to do what Roosevelt did, and “draw the line.”
Teddy bears sell fast, but cultural shifts happen slowly. It would be another 50 years before Mississippi (and other southern states) stopped organizing black bear hunts and 90 before killing the bears became a crime. By that point, there were as few as 150 black bears in Louisiana’s hardwood forests and river basins, according to the Department of the Interior.
But the romantic conservation impulse that was captured in Berryman’s cartoon did eventually kick in. In 1992, the Louisiana black bear was placed on the federal list of threatened species.
“The Louisiana black bear is a symbol of our Southern wilderness,” Harold Schoeffler, chair of the regional Sierra Club who in 1987 sued to get the bears listed, told Backpacker Magazine this month. “Its recovery is an atonement for our sins.”
In what the Interior Department heralded as a “pivotal” partnership with farmers, over the past two decades Louisiana has restored some 750,000 acres of black bear habitat, much of it on privately owned land. The government also barred hunting of the vulnerable animals.
Now between 500 and 750 of them roam the southern United States, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Those numbers are a far cry from the 80,000 that Schoeffler says once dwelled in the area. And not everyone — especially not Schoeffler — is satisfied with them. He thinks it’s too soon to take the bears off the threatened species list.
“The media has bought this bulls–t feel-good story,” Schoeffler told Backpacker. “Nobody can read these numbers … and say we’ve saved the bear.”
But, hey, it’s better than what we had before.
“The Louisiana black bear is another success story,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said at the announcement of the bear’s no-longer-threatened status. “President Theodore Roosevelt would have really enjoyed why we are gathered here today.”
It was a cheery coda to the century-long saga of the imperiled Louisiana black bear. Much nicer than the real ending to Roosevelt’s teddy bear tale.
It turns out that, in addition to the cartoonist, there were Washington Post reporters — those reviled breakers of hearts and destroyers of dreams — along for Roosevelt’s hunt in 1902. And they wrote about what happened after the moment in Berryman’s cartoon.
“Put it out of its misery,” Roosevelt said to his companion, a “Mr. Parker,” before walking away.
When the president was gone, “the latter ended his life with his knife,” the reporters wrote.
And that is the whole, tangled tale of the teddy bear, Theodore Roosevelt and the plight of the Louisiana black bear. It’s not quite the one they put in National Park Service pamphlets or children’s books.
But it is true. And, it seems, after more than 100 years the species finally does have something resembling a happy ending.
Correction: An earlier version of this post used an incorrect first name for Harold Schoeffler. This post has been updated.