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In today’s Fat Bear Week clashes, the story of the loss of a mother and the surprising embrace of an abandoned cub

2022 Fat Bear Week Bracket (Courtesy of explore.org)

Well, it’s a beautiful day in Fat Bear America. Let’s play big bracket!

We watched 151 Walker cross the winner’s line yesterday, and he certainly influenced what his mum gave him. Beach babe 901 released real babe 909 Yearling and it was very down to earth; also, I’m sure I saw her yawn as it happened.

Two new heavyweights enter the category today, and they are two of Brooks River’s greatest living legends.

Match 5: 164 Bucky vs. 435 Holly

164 Bucky is a good schmoozer, but in all honesty, a fake-til-you-fake bear has no business in this game. Sure, it has that lovely Fresh Prince of Bel Air vibe, but my lady 435 Holly is a real queen.

Not only is she one of Katmai’s oldest bears and a former Fat Bear Champion (2019), but she is one of Brooks River’s most prolific and experienced mothers. She’s given birth to five litters now, and seven bears call her mom. In 2009, however, she had a litter of a cub and that cub was killed in front of her by an adult male bear.

The natural world is full of beauty, and it is also dangerous, selfish and cruel. Bringing a child to a place where you could lose them is one of the scariest and bravest things a mother can do.

Throughout Holly’s reproductive history, she follows the same pattern, that is, she has another litter almost immediately after she emancipates her cub(s). Except in 2009, when her little one was killed. After this incident, Holly didn’t have a pup in 2010, or even 2011, 2012, or 2013. I guess that’s considered a random jab in Holly’s otherwise liberal breeding pace. There’s no scientific reason why Holly took such a substantial (for her) break from motherhood.

She finally gave birth in 2014. That same year, another mother, 402, gave up her yearling (a 1.5-year-old cub). The yearling was seen crying alone in a tree for over 10 hours. Although he is not the age at which bears are normally emancipated, the park assigned him a number, as his independence would now classify him as a subadult. That’s why they call it 503 Cubadult. About a month later, 503 Cubadult was seen spending time with 435 Holly and her one-and-a-half-year-old baby (719 Princess). Soon after, he was seen snooping around and sharing fish with the family, playing with Princess and tending to Holly. Holly had adopted him.

Adoptions of the bear species are extraordinarily rare, and there has never been a documented case before or since at Brooks River. Bears are kind of tough cowboy-like animals and they mostly work alone. There’s a theory that a bear could, maybe, potentially, probably not, but OK maybe, adopt another cub if it was part of the extended family, since the survival of, say, a nephew , could still pass on his genes. But there is no known genetic relationship between 435 Holly and 503 Cubadult. There is no scientific reason for their blended family to exist.

So, yes, Holly is fat. She emancipated her little one (335 Jolly) earlier this spring, and with no children at home, she is single and thriving. Instead of using energy around the clock to nurture her offspring, protect her, and share all of her food with them, she savors every bite and every minute – and it shows. But Holly is more than a heavy bear; she’s a bear who knows the heavy stuff. She witnessed the traumatic loss of her child and lived with that loss for five years. Anyone who knows grief knows that you don’t need a tree to feel stuck somewhere for hours. Anyone who knows grief knows what it’s like to mourn someone’s name and never see them return. Why did 435 Holly adopt 503 Cubaadult? Everyone asks; nobody knows. They weren’t related. And yet, they could identify themselves.

Bear 32 is a competitor in the range of Fat Bear Week 2022. (Photo by L. Law)

Game 6: 747 Bear Force One against 32 pieces

Thank goodness everyone did the right thing and voted for 747 Bear Force One out of 856 (no nickname as he’s not our friend). We’ve already established that the 747 is a true bear-shaped jumbo jet, so there’s not much wiggle room for a hunk like Chunk to compete if we literally weigh our options.

But 32 Chunk is a good example of how you can’t judge a bear by its cover. Although Chunk has no mode of transportation nickname, he is best known for being born chonky. Boasting a big back and front, well, really, all around, Chunk is one of the biggest, strongest and most dominant bears in Brooks River. And yet, he is not fully committed to the role. Unlike a boss bear, Chunk is sometimes seen picking up leftover salmon. And unlike a boss bear, Chunk sometimes plays with other bears.

He has a lot of scars but he doesn’t talk about them. Bear cams don’t show Chunk running an underwater fight club, but they don’t show him either. Chunk has a very anti-establishment personality and he’s also at the top of the echelon. Is there more to life than your rank? Why are some bears born big and some bears have to work there? Who is he, really? These are not just questions we can ask, but probably questions Chunk is asking himself. “Stacey,” Bear Cam viewer and Katmai National Park volunteer, once wrote about Chunk’s “perpetual worried stare.” Maybe it’s his narrow eyes and strong brow bone. Or, maybe it’s just the existential crisis of a big bear trying to get in touch with his animal side and his soft side.

Does the depth of complexity of the 32 Chunk outweigh the base volume of the 747? You decide.

Voting is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. AKDT at fatbearweek.org.

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