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What an Ancient Roman Writer Can Teach Us About Bears and Other Animals

A black bear in Yosemite National Park. | Photo: Dave Toussaint/Flickr/Creative Commons License

This was the summer of the bear.

Their antics -- or what we imagine to be antics -- have gone viral on YouTube. Such as the July incident in which a 300-pound black bear ambled into Lonigan's bar in Estes Park, Colorado. That sounds like the start of a joke, but the patrons are the punch line. So fixed were they on throwing back shots and nursing a cold brew that they never noticed the burly bruin wandering through the establishment.

As for the member of the Ursidae family caught on camera as it rifled through a dumpster parked outside the Edelweiss restaurant in Colorado Springs -- who doesn't love a bit of larceny? Frustrated by its inability to get purchase on the tasty morsels buried within, the upright bear used its powerful body to push-pull the heavy roll-away from the loading dock and out of camera's eye, presumably to chow down in peace. The presumption was confirmed when, like a next-evening return to a favorite dining spot, it showed up 24-hours later, replicating its late-night snack run.

A different sort of fun-and-games captured the North American imagination in August when a research cam that the Alberta Provincial Park system had set up to monitor animal behavior picked up a quartet of bears in full romp. The grizzly foursome starts by rolling in the dust and then does some serious backscratching against the pine's rough bark, a touch of midsummer madness.

And then there is Meatball, a one-time inhabitant of the Glendale, CA foothills who in 2012 gained an instant internet following after breaking into a garage refrigerator and wolfing down frozen meatballs. Sightings of it in other backyards captivated some residents, one of whom immediately established a still-active Twitter feed dubbed Glen Bearian. Although in time state wildlife officials captured the bold bear and sent it to a San Diego wildlife sanctuary, this summer the city decided to immortalize its arresting presence in the community's life: Meatball will be the featured (and animated) figure in Glendale's float in the 2014 Rose Bowl Parade, popping out of a flower-bedecked trash can.

So what is it about these magnificent animals that have so fascinated folks online and off? Why have hundreds of thousands of viewers spent so much time loading and reloading YouTube to watch them prowl and pilfer and play? What does our watching say about us?

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Another who wondered about the connection, direct or otherwise, between animals and humans was Claudius Aelianus (ca. 170 - ca. 235), whom we know as Aelian, a Roman writer and collector of tales and fables -- think of him as the Aesop of his day. Among his most famous almanac-like collections is a delightfully quirky text called "On the Nature of Animals." It has just been republished, an edition that is beautifully translated, carefully selected, helpfully annotated, and wryly introduced by Gregory McNamee.

Front cover of "Aelian's On the Nature of Animals." | Image: Trinity University Press

Although there is no real order to Aelian's selections, no classifying of these stories about octopi or gazelles or eagles by what we understand to be their scientific taxon -- kingdom, phylum, class, etc. -- the curious Roman scribe knew what he was about.

"I know that people will object that I have not grouped all the stories about any given animal, but have mixed the stories, writing one thing here and another thing there," Aelian observes. He did so to intensify readers' engagement: by weaving together "a pleasing variety of stories" he hoped his work would function like "a field of wildflowers of many colors, with each animal being a different kind of flower."

We may be as skeptical of this literary strategy as Aelian feared his peers might be, but McNamee cautions us otherwise. "If Aelian's science is sometimes sketchy, the facts often fanciful, and the history sometimes suspect," don't be fooled into thinking our preferred approach is superior to his. It is "clear enough that he had a grand time assembling the material" and that his gathering had a purpose -- "to support the notion of a kind of intelligence in nature that extends human qualities, for good and bad, to animals."

So, yes, Aelian anthropomorphizes, a violation of the modern ethos. But it is hard entirely to reject his strategy after reading what he relates about dolphins, a species that "is said to love its own kind."

The proof: "A dolphin was captured in Aenus, in Thrace, and wounded in the process. Smelling its blood, other dolphins came racing into the harbor and jumped around, subtly threatening the fisherman. The people of Aenus, frightened, freed the captive, and the other dolphins escorted it out of the harbor."

The moral: "People, on the other hand, will barely lift a finger to help a relative, man or woman, in need."

Aelian has a point, particularly when extended to others in the animal kingdom. Given the ongoing decimation of elephant populations in Africa as a result of murderous ivory predation, for example, we might also yearn for Aelian's faith that they are sacred beings, "guarded by the gods who govern woods and meadows." We might even embrace the deus ex machina plot device he employed in crafting this parable for his generation:

A certain king wanted to kill some of the elephants because of their magnificent tusks...[and] sent three hundred archers to do the job. They were just about at the place where the elephants lived when all of a sudden a plague struck them and all but one of them died. He returned to the capital and told the king what had happened. This is the way that those people learned that elephants are beloved of the gods.

Not all of his (tall) tales resonate, not all aphorisms match up with reality. Is it really true that if you "throw a wolf vertebra among a team of horses, they will all come to an immediate halt"? Or that an effective way to destroy caterpillars feasting on your vegetable garden is to have a menstruating woman walk through it? Or that beavers, when cornered, will castrate themselves to ward off their attackers?

What Aelian says about bears does not particularly scan, either. They give birth, he avows, to "formless flesh" and then lick it "into the form of a bear," a conception that is only slightly more fanciful than his depiction of how a bear weathers hibernation.

Because it remains seemingly inert for so long, Aristotle, who Aelian cites as his source, was convinced that its intestines must "dehydrate and atrophy, so that when she comes out she must immediately eat a bunch of wild arum, which makes her fart and opens up her insides so that she can accommodate food again." Humans had lost that instinctive prescription for enduring health, Aelian concludes: "Bears empty themselves out and fill themselves back up again, not needing doctors to tell them what to do or medicines to do it with."

We are hardly immune to such free, oft-curious associations, not least when speaking of bears. The Utah Supreme Court recently ruled that bears are not a "natural condition" in the Wasatch Range where they have roamed for millennia, because these migratory animals lack "a close tie to land itself." (Apparently only rocks qualify).

The Glendale (CA) City Council was under no such delusion when it unanimously voted to underwrite the construction of its 2014 float for the Rose Bowl parade, honoring Meatball the Bear. Yet its members were not above turning this bear -- constructed and real -- into a proxy for pressing cultural concerns.

"I think it's a really cute float and very topical, and really the first one in a long time that speaks to people," Councilwoman Laura Friedman told the Los Angeles Times. "A lot of us would like to work it out with wildlife and live side by side with them."

If that was the desired outcome, her colleague Ara Najarian countered, then why was the flesh-and-blood Meatball languishing in a "wildlife Guantanamo, as some have called it. I hate to be a spoilsport, but does anyone out there find it ironic that under the caption of 'Let's be neighbors' is the centerpiece of Meatball, a former resident who was deported from Glendale in chains and is now in a wildlife prison?"

The irony would not be lost on Aelian, who would understand these contemporary explications as but extensions of the ancient art of interpreting the correspondence between the natural world and the humans who inhabit it.

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About the Author

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and author of numerous books, including "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy"
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