Lost Bear, Lost Human

I thought long COVID had ended my wildlife adventures—but then the wildlife came to my backyard, looking for help

By Aaron Teasdale

October 31, 2022

baby bear

Photo by iStock/CarlaMc

An anguished cry, carrying through my bedroom window, woke me at daybreak. A forested hillside rises behind my rural Montana home, steep and slippery with layers of loose pine needles. It’s surprisingly difficult to climb—for humans anyway. But wildlife—lions, wolves, fox, deer, elk, and bear after bear—take advantage of it all the time, leading all manner of forest creatures to traipse through the open trees overlooking my family as we sleep.

This mingling with the feral is why we live here on the border of a vast national forest. I once watched a large black bear with three hearty cubs waltz by just outside my door, close enough to touch if I’d opened it. I’ve found fresh mountain lion tracks on the hill’s game trails, and wolf scat only feet from my bedroom window.

So when I heard the loud, repeating cry, I knew it could be anything. Whatever the creature, it wasn’t happy. I’ve heard distress cries in the mountains over the years—a wolf mother desperate for her lost pup, deer being slain by coyotes, despairing elk lumbering through the woods. This had that same tenor of fear and dismay.

I’ve eagerly spent much of my life exploring wild places, but since the pandemic finally caught me nine months ago, most days I’ve been too sick to get out of bed. (Despite conventional perception of “mildness,” Covid infections can be disabling, sometimes permanently.) Suddenly and unexpectedly, my world shrank to the inside of my house and, on good days, my yard. Words cannot convey how deeply I miss romping in the wilderness with my fellow animals, so I jumped at a chance to do so in the backyard.

A pileated woodpecker call cut the cool morning air and dry pine needles crunched underfoot as I scrabbled up the slope in hastily donned sweatpants and sandals. I paused and looked around—no shrubs shook, no shadows darted between trees. Then another cry, but to my surprise behind me now, from below. I spun and slipped on loose needles, falling to my hip. You’ve really lost it, Teasdale, I thought to myself as I stood up, wheezing, heart pounding worryingly. Then, out in the street where I least expected it, was a bear.

It was coming up my driveway, toward me. It was not large, but it was a bear. It disappeared behind the garage’s roofline, and I knew it was coming back to the hill, its likely route leading straight to me. I traversed about 30 feet to allow it space. Moments later it appeared, clambering up sure-footedly where I had just slipped. It stood directly across from me, crying its belch-like cry surprisingly loudly for such a small animal. I could see now how diminutive it was, a plush, ink-black cub that couldn’t have weighed more than 25 pounds. I’d been sick longer than it had been alive. I realized now that it was afraid and calling for its mother.

I stood still and silent. Had the cub determined me a threat, it could have quickly scaled a tree and been out of reach. But it seemed to deem me benign. After considering me and bawling for a few moments, it padded across the hillside above me, moving through shrubbery in and out of view. Now about 30 feet past me, it came back down the hill, stopped, and bayed at the world with all the volume its little lungs could muster. Then it turned and came straight toward me.

This was the last thing I expected. The cub hurried in my direction, almost running, until, perhaps 20 feet away, it held my eyes and paused, its front left paw suspended in air mid-stride. In its panic, had it forgotten I was here? Then it surprised me again by continuing to pad toward me, slowly now, repeatedly crying out. It paused again, shook its head and ears in that endearing, doglike way bears do. Because it was such a small bear, the shaking nearly made it fall over, but then it turned to where I was standing a few feet away and walked up to me.

What was it thinking? Did it imagine I could help it? As much as I wanted to stay quiet and see what the little bear had in mind—Would it touch me? Could I pick it up?—I knew I must turn it away. (Some bear biologists might take issue with me for not doing something to frighten it away earlier.) It’s always best for any wild animal to remain wary of people. Habituated bears often end up in trouble, inevitably finding food left out by careless humans. They return for more, growing increasingly bold as their fear of people ebbs, until they become a danger and are put down. Already this year, a poor one for the berries that are their natural seasonal food source, multiple bears in our area have been caught in this downward spiral until they actually forced their way into homes to raid kitchens.

More important, at least from my primal, amygdala-driven perspective, where was mom? I was concerned something had happened to her; bears had recently been trapped in the area. But more likely she was close by. Bears are skilled at concealing themselves when desired, and I had no idea how close she might be. She must have heard her cub’s cries by now. The last thing I needed was for momma to see her cub approach me and explode from the shadows to defend it.

So I spoke to the cub, quietly, gently, my voice weak and nine months' hoarse. “Hey, don’t come over here,” I rasped, and at the first word, the cub froze, its all-black eyes staring straight into mine. “I can’t help you, buddy. I’m sorry.”

The cub slowly swung its head to one side and then the other, as if processing this new information. Then it let out another belching cry and lunged backward toward the nearest tree trunk, its flight instinct finally triggered. It let out a kind of hiss as I croaked, “It’s OK, I won’t hurt you.”

Crying out continuously now, it looked up the tree for a moment, prepared to scrabble up it, but somehow determined once again with its little bear senses that I—standing still and quiet and emanating no hint of aggression—was not an immediate threat. Instead, it turned away and did the classic wary-bear slow-walk, momentarily glancing back at me, lifting its nose to absorb my scent. It let out intermittent, rhythmic huffs, a classic stress behavior I’d never witnessed in a bear so young.

From about 20 feet away, it assessed me carefully one last time. “I’m sorry,” I said. It considered this for a moment, took a final whiff, and turned away, stepping slowly at first, then bursting into a lope and bounding into tall, obscuring grass. I watched as it left through the foliage, huffing, crying, looking at me from time to time, and made its way back up the hillside, farther away from me and the temptations and perils of human civilization on the valley floor.

“I’m leaving now,” I announced to the bushes and trees and any creatures that might be listening. I felt sorrow for the little cub. I know something of being lost in this world, of feeling disoriented in your own home, removed from those you love, and terrified that this is how things will forever be now.

As I took the first steps down to my house, a large, dark shape stole through the bushes to my left, heading uphill. This, finally, was momma. She moved like ursine fluid, quickly and quietly up the hillside, concealing herself astoundingly well for such a large animal and much more stealthily than her incautious offspring. At a gap in the shrubbery directly above me, perhaps 40 feet away, she paused and looked down.

For a moment of grace, the bear and I locked eyes. I felt relief and joy, for cub and momma. I felt the exhilaration and humility of sharing space with a wild creature more powerful than I. As always in these moments, the world collapsed and I forgot everything, a sensation I hadn’t felt in too long. I was romping with my fellow animals again.

The cub cried from uphill. The sow turned away, slowly wary-walked, and then broke into a rump-bouncing bear lope up the slope. “Good job,” I whispered, to the bears and to myself. For this moment, things were right. Not every lost cub finds its mother, and not every sick person gets well. But one cub did and on this morning that was enough.