Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

Seeing Bears

June 10, 2011

Yellowstone, September ’11! My husband and I have arranged a visit to my favorite national park to experience it once summer crowds thin and the season turns to chilly. Our daughter will just have started college; an immersion-in-nature trip strikes us as an excellent antidote to the strange emptiness we’ll feel in the house.

Top draw for me are the Yellowstone bison, which I’ve written about elsewhere. Bear-sightings though are an additional significant pleasure. Both grizzlies and black bears inhabit Yellowstone.

When I spot a wild bear, intuitively I assume he or she is in the midst of doing, thinking, and/or feeling something purposeful. (Animal-behavior science, after all, propels us towards this conclusion for many species.) Despite this basic understanding, only upon reading Else Poulsen’s Smiling Bears earlier this month did I grasp the full extent of bear smartness and sentience.

The first bear to astonish me in the book was Sissy, a 27-year-old polar bear at the Detroit Zoo. Sissy was recovering from painful dental surgery at the zoo when Poulsen offered her some water with a hose, to distract and soothe her. As the water streamed out, Sissy began to do things that puzzled Poulsen.

“Staring into my eyes,” Poulsen writes, “she slapped her right front leg with her left paw… without dunking her paw in the water stream she rubbed her front right leg with her left paw, showing me a washing motion. She completed the demonstration by again slapping her right leg.” With disbelief, Poulsen turned the water stream on the bear’s right foot, but Sissy slapped her leg again. At this point the message was received! Poulsen hosed the bear’s leg, Sissy washed herself, and from that point forward, Sissy would slap the part of her body she wanted Poulsen to hose down.

This is no small cognitive accomplishment; it’s equivalent to the ways apes gesture to their social partner by indicating the specific part of their body at which they want an action to unfold. It’s no accident that Smiling Bears came to me via Joanne Tanner, a pioneer in identifying (via filmed data on gorillas) this aspect of ape gesture. [Close readers of this blog: should we just rename it “Barbara’s Blog Inspired by Joanne”?]

The gesture theme continues when Poulsen writes about Rocky Mountain grizzly bears Louise and Khutzy (Louise is Khutzy’s adoptive mother):

“When I gave treats to Louise and Khutzy at the fence, Louise would allow Khutzy to have treats first. When she wanted one, she would pick up her front paw, move it toward me, and put it down again several times, effectively patting the ground, meaning I want it here, now. If I missed her paw action, she would express a soft huff to get my attention and pat the ground again.”

For zoo skeptics, this book is an eye-opener. Both zoos at which Poulsen has worked- Calgary in Canada and Detroit in the US- went to amazing lengths to help their bears, especially the bears rescued from stressful situations: baking nutritious cakes for nursing bear moms, bringing in imaginative enrichment items ranging from watermelons to herring-filled barrels, encouraging seasonal denning by offering enticing material, and planning safe and smart bear-to-bear introductions. Poulsen notes, “I have approached every animal with the same two questions on my mind: Who are you? And What can I do for you?” This double mental query marks the attitude of an excellent zookeeper or animal rescuer.

Sometimes the text veers towards inconsistency. Paulsen declares, “Bears are governed strictly by their genetic sensibilities.” And indeed, excellent bear management does depend in part on knowing bears’ biological traits, for example their need to sniff fresh breezes to gain the informational bonanza contained in them.
But mostly, Smiling Bears is a book-length refutation of genetic reductionism. Poulsen writes later, “Bears are opportunistic and able to respond to their immediate circumstances.” Each chapter’s stories show how extensively bears learn from each other and from humans. And bears teach! The way Misty the bear instructed Poulsen on why frozen chickens aren’t as good as frozen rabbits is priceless.

Acutely sensitive to each other, bears adjust their behavior via social experience. Consider the bear Barle, sent to the Detroit Zoo as a rescue from 17 years of terrible circus life: close confinement, beatings, and being made to perform tricks. Barle’s gradual rehabilitation—getting her outside onto grass, introducing her to other bears—is all about her learning. Barle met Sissy first (the bear with the “hose-me-here” gesture) and made a series of social faux pas with her, but because of the zoo’s patience and skill (and the bears’ own smartness and resilience) she ended up living peaceably with Sissy and other bears. A huge male named Triton even courted her with a sugar maple branch. Barle wasn’t impressed. Then Triton brought her an entire tree trunk- and Barle smiled! (Yes, bears do smile.)

I admire Poulsen’s decision to leave the tough stuff for the end of the book. Her description of “bear bile farms” in Asia, where bears are constricted in impossibly small spaces as their bile is extracted, sometimes for years on end, is a necessary horror. By this time in the book, we care deeply about bears, and Poulsen offers suggestions on how to help them. Animalasia
In three months, I’ll be watching wild bears. How much I look forward to rejoicing in their freedom.


  1. June 10, 2011 3:55 PM EDT
    well, inevitably it's Joanne. With not much to say except I'm so pleased Barbara liked the book as much as I did and summarized it so well. Though I have spent many years ultra-aware of the skills and sensitivities of the great apes, and have been trying to bring these to a more public awareness, of late I am entranced by many other animals. And birds-- watch out, Barbara, I'm in the middle of another terrific book as well as having just finished one, and soon I may have another must-read or two for you!
    - joanne tanner
  2. June 10, 2011 5:36 PM EDT
    I'm about to read a corvid book (by John Marzluff) so birds are on my mind! Awaiting any and all recommendations.
    - Barbara J. King
  3. July 28, 2011 7:05 AM EDT
    I am so pleased that Smiling Bears spoke to you Babara. My sole purpose for writing Smiling Bears was to share the wonderful sentience of bears that bears themselves are rarely given credit for. As you know, I do not subscribe to genetic reductionism. What I mean by 'bears are solely driven by their genetics' is that all beings - us included - are only capable of what we are genetically programmed to do. Clearly bears are programmed to do all of the things that I have observed while they are not programmed to jump like a kangaroo for instance. They are however programmed with a great deal of mental dexterity that allows them to learn from their environment and respond to it in short order. Genetic reductionism is really a phrase given to define a bear's limitations as defined purely by the very limited human knowledge base. I don't subscribe to most of the theoretical diatribe developed to subjugate animals to humans.
    - Else Poulsen
  4. July 28, 2011 9:41 AM EDT
    Else, it's great to hear from you. I'd rather focus on all the wonderful things about your book, and your work! I'd only say that I don't believe in 'genetic programming,' and that's my point- we're not, apes are not, bears are not 'programmed' because our genetic substrate is highly responsive to ontogeny and the environment. I think we agree on all the important concepts and most especially on animal welfare issues, and that this is "only" an issue of language-- but of course I think language is very, very important. Anyway, I'm recommending your book right and left, including to an animal-behavior professor in Scotland who is interested in the best available work about bears.
    - Barbara J. King

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.