Years ago, I was driving in Yellowstone National Park when I came around a corner and saw something so shocking I almost ran off the road.
A male tourist, probably the father, was putting his toddler astride a bear cub like it was a small horse. A woman, obviously the child’s mother, was a few steps away taking the picture.
My blood ran cold when I saw another female nearby – the mother bear, pacing frantically back and forth, snorting and sort of deciding how to go about rescuing her cub.
Suffice it to say, those tourists were not the smartest people I ever encountered but they were the luckiest. The man, oblivious to the danger, finally lifted the human child from astride the cub, and of course, the cub scooted away to its angry mother.
The human mother and father and their offspring blithely went on their way without a clue as to what had just happened.
I thought of that scary incident recently when a similar blunder was in the Yellowstone news. A couple of ignorant tourists made a classic, well-intentioned mistake. They encountered a newborn bison (buffalo) and, wanting to help, put the little animal in the trunk of their SUV.
Attempts were made to reunite the youngster with its herd. But rightly or wrongly, Yellowstone personnel felt they had run out of options and put the small critter down.
The park has always been on the lookout for tourists and wild Yellowstone animals rubbing elbows, so to speak. Yellowstone is concerned that at least a few (or maybe quite a few) tourists don’t see the warning signs or don’t believe wild creatures truly are wild and capable of doing tourists a lot of damage.
I spent two summers as a college student in Yellowstone, hired to write press releases. Part of my job was to produce a small newspaper for several thousand college kids who spent the summer making beds and waiting tables.
Park employees got a kick out of some of the strange misconceptions of tourists, or “dudes” as they were called in Yellowstone jargon. I put out the word in our little newspaper to send me dude-isms.
For instance, it was fairly common for the college kids to be asked by tourists if the bears were mechanical creations of Walt Disney whose new Disneyland was running in California where a mechanical Abraham Lincoln talked to the crowds. But Yellowstone’s bears were dangerously real.
Some dudes complained to park employees that the Yellowstone forests were cluttered with the customary fallen trees and somebody ought to tidy up all 3,472 square miles of woods.
A more sober problem was trying to give tourists a view of Yellowstone and its wild animals without letting them mingle to the point of damaging the tourists or the animals. The park kept records on how many people were bitten each year by bears. In my time, the count was several dozen annually.
Bears were unable to tell where the doughnuts started and the fingers of people offering doughnuts left off. Bears accidentally munched tourist fingers.
Similarly, bears that used to break into automobiles in the park and devour picnic food were as innocent as choir boys, but with slightly larger appetites.
Sooner or later, the bears trained the tourists rather than the other way around. It only takes a missing finger or two before stubborn tourists realized that Yellowstone was correct when it urged people not to mess with snack-loving bears.
Let me give you the ultimate safety tip: Keep your toddlers off the backs of bear cubs.
Columnist Bill Hall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 1012 Prospect Ave., Lewiston, ID 83501