I first started working in Yosemite’s bear program in 1999 and quickly became acquainted with a few bears, Blue 23 being one of them. The second time  I saw him, he was eating chocolate chip cookies in Housekeeping Camp and, before I had a chance to scare him away, he bluff charged me (my first, but not last, such experience). Blue 23 was the first bear I spent a lot of time with, the first bear I helped capture and work up (what we do when we capture a bear: an exam, measurements, give a tag or collar sometimes, etc.), and the first bear I helped to kill. It’s a cruel irony that the bears we spend the most time with and get most attached to (even when we try not to) are also the bears we’re most likely to end up having to kill because they’re usually the ones we’re seeing in the campgrounds most often.

Blue 23 was a six-year-old boar (male bear) and weighed 305 pounds when we killed him in May, 2000 as a result of his very aggressive behavior. (If you don’t understand why we have to kill bears, read this post.) I still carry his ear tag with me when I’m at work.

One night, a few coworkers and I went out to get some stock video footage of bears and we recorded Blue 23 investigating the Curry Orchard and Boystown areas. (The videographer had never been bluff charged by a bear, and especially not while looking through a zoomed-in video camera. Nevertheless, that part was funny for me and my other coworker–that was a pretty minor bluff charge as far as we were concerned.)

My mention of his ear tag reminded me of something I wrote a few years ago… I’ll paste it in:

Blue 23’s tag, or The Smell of Fear

For many years, I could still smell it.

An otherwise slightly-dirty plastic blue tag with a number 23 still kept a distinct, musky smell. Each year, the smell faded just a little until one year I realized I couldn’t smell it anymore.

Like the bear this tag once accompanied, the smell was gone.

It was the smell of fear.

The fear of the people this bear scared.

My fear, as this bear ran toward me again and again…

would he stop—each time, I wondered—would this be the time he wouldn’t stop?

The fear of this bear as he was darted and drugged. (And I thought he had no fear.)

The fear of those who captured him;

fearful of what they knew would happen.

The fear of those who killed him;

fearful they had done the wrong thing.

The fear of this bear as he died.

What was gone wasn’t the smell of this bear.

It was the memory of fear.

Inspired one slightly snowy night while listening—over and over again—to Alison Krauss and Union Station’s Doesn’t Have to be This Way.

December 28, 2004, 11 pm.

(The tag has not lost its smell… yet.)