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The opinions expressed herein are those of Mr. Grady and do not necessarily represent those of The Wildlife Sanctuary or his position as Executive Director

Three Legged Bears - March 21, 2013

I once knew a three legged bear.

I was a boy of just six or seven on vacation with my family in northern Wisconsin near a small town called Manitowish Waters. This little town sits at the north end of a chain of 11 lakes where people had built 3-season cabins and a few year round homes. The lakes have mostly sugar sand bottoms and reflect the blue of the sky and the green of the surrounding tall pines and white birch trees. The air is scented with pine, like a fine Yankee Candle Company candle.

Back then, there weren't any fancy electronics to occupy the children, and my parents intentionally rented a cabin without a television or even a radio just to get away from it all. During the day we went fishing or swimming, or laid on the pier under the warmth of the sun with our feet dangling in the cool lake water. If the weather was a bit overcast, my parents would look into local attractions for diversions and interesting things to do for themselves and the children.

I can remember trips to Jim Peck's Wildwood, a wild animal park where you could - and still can - pet deer and hold baby animals. It is now called Wildwood Wildlife Park. We also visited Little Bohemia where John Dillinger, the notorious 1930's bank robber, was nearly captured in a shootout with the fledgling FBI. The bullet holes can still be seen in the windows, walls and trees at the north end of the lodge. Part of the movie, Public Enemies starring Johnny Depp, Christian Bale and James Russo was filmed there. You can still stick your finger into the holes in the walls made by the flying bullets inside the restaurant.

I also recall Aqualand, where you could peer through portholes and see the species of fish that were swimming wild in the cool, clear, clean fresh water lake I had swam in earlier in the day. There was Henkel's Museum that had a fabulous collection of stuffed wildlife, and Cecil Stein's Steincrafts in Presque Ilse, Wisconsin. Cecil was a woodworking craftsman who made clever toys, wooden bowls, wall sconces and creative nik naks out of the local pine. The floor was always covered in wood shavings, and a scent of pine filled the small shop. All are now closed and gone.

The evenings were filled with leisurely conversation around the dinner table, board games with the entire family, or fishing for Walleye from the pier, but about once a week we had to get rid of the trash. That meant a trip to the dump!

A trip to the dump was a highlight event in the Northwoods. While one wouldn't normally imagine that going to the dump was a big deal, it was one of the most popular family events that we all anticipated once we arrived at the cabin.

On that evening, dad would put all the paper grocery bags of very aromatic trash in the back of our blue and white Chevrolet Bel Air station wagon, where two adults and five children would pile in for the drive to the dump at just about dusk with the windows open to get some fresh air. Whew! About 100 yards from the dump, dad would turn off the car headlights and slow to a crawl, making his way around the dump to the far side, nearest the woods. There he would get out, open up the back of the station wagon and, bag by bag, throw our trash on the upper edge of the open pit dump. At least one of those bags had something extra special in it: either the gravy from the night's dinner, or the bacon grease from breakfast - something a bear's powerful nose could find easily in the darkness. Of course, our trash was often the most popular. Then dad would get back in the car and creep to another spot at the edge of the open pit across from where we had thrown out the trash, about 50 yards away, and there we would sit quietly, engine off, lights off, windows slightly open to air out the remaining smell of days old trash, our eyes slowly adjusting to the dark as we peered across the short expanse and looked for movement from the woods. If there was any kind of moon, it was a great help.

After many minutes, my father was usually the first to speak to mom in his familiar colloquialism, "Dere's a bear dere dear." Everyone would peer harder and plead with dad to turn on the headlights so we could see it, but he would make us wait patiently as the evening diners slowly and cautiously made there way out of the woods. By now, there were several cars around us, all anticipating the main event - a wild bear finding your particular bag of garbage that you no longer could identify in the distance except for its general location and your faithful belief that at least one bear would find our trash.

Eventually, someone would break the darkness and flip on their car's headlights to illuminate the landscape. This was often followed by one or two other cars turning on their headlights - but not everyone. Somehow, without any communication whatsoever, without cell phones or text messages, everyone knew that too many lights would frighten the bears and they would dash back into the woods. Whenever that happened, and it occasionally did, the show was over. The bears wouldn't return until the dump was closed about 11 p.m. that night.

When the headlights came on, there were often six or seven bears that had wandered down into the large pit or were hanging around the edges sniffing and looking for their nightly snack. They were incredibly entertaining to watch as they carefully lumbered and foraged through the vast selection of food and smells, their large paws tumbling bags of trash to determine their contents. While I wouldn't endorse open pit dumps where bears can forage today, as a boy this was fascinating to watch - a real, live bear coming out of the woods and occasionally finding the very bags of trash we had put at the edge of the dump. They would either stand on all fours and simply go through the bag with their noses, or lift a paw and tear a bag open. On that very special occasion, when they found the bacon grease, they would sit down and pull the bag into their front paws, holding the bag as you or I would hold a stuffed bear, and lap up the grease. All the children would squeal and chatter as we watched, and dad or mom would tell us to hush so we didn't scare the timid creatures away.

On one of these annual two or three week vacations in the Northwoods, what my dad called God's country, while at the dump one evening, which we visited once or twice during each trip, we spotted a three legged bear walking out of the woods. The car was instantly filled with a collective expression of pity for the poor thing as it limped toward the pit, usually at some safe distance from the other bears who were more mobile and agile, and might just make a meal out of a hobbled bear. But, they paid the three legged bear little mind unless it got a little too close to their foraging area, although the bears often gently swatted and growled at each other just to establish an area they intended to work without another nose in the trash.

Just like the other bears, this smaller three legged bear foraged through the pit and found food to eat. It also moved with surprising agility, having become accustomed to its missing left rear leg just below the knee. It never used it to support its weight, and never sat with a bag in its front paws, but ambled through the pit with an occasional loss of balance and a slide of a few feet down the trash pile whenever it happened to step on a pile that was unable to support its weight. That was an infrequent but delightful sight to see when some of the big boys did it, because they could slide for 10 or fifteen feet down into the pit.

The three legged bear instantly became our favorite. As many times as we went to the dump, it wasn't the same unless we saw the three legged bear. And year after year, it would appear, limping out of the woods and looking fairly well fed and groomed. We asked some local people about the three legged bear. They were familiar with it. We asked how it lost its leg, and they said that most likely it was caught in an illegal poachers leg trap.

A bear leg trap is a particularly cruel device. The powerful metal jaws are pried open by sliding a lock spring on each side down, exposing a center pressure plate. The 2-foot wide trap is laid down with the gaping, jagged metal jaws open. A welded ring on one side is attached to a heavy chain. The chain is usually long enough to wrap around a tree and then have the links padlocked together so it cannot break loose as the bear fights for its life. The leg trap is then baited and left for the unsuspecting bear. When a bear attempts to remove the bait and puts too much pressure on the pressure plate, the mighty metal jaws would snap closed, impaling, pinning and often breaking the bear's leg inside. Then horror would ensure.

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The Three Legged Bear

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Bear Trap, leg trap

The terrified bear, with a broken and trapped leg, would struggle with all its considerable might to pull free of the trap, but the lock springs would prevent the jaws from opening, and the chain would prevent the bear from breaking the trap free from its mooring. The excruciating pain would cause the bear to growl and cry out, often alerting the poacher to its predicament and allowing the poacher to carefully work closer to the bear for the kill. But if the poacher wasn't around, the bear simply remained trapped until it starved to death, died from infection, bled to death from the leg now ripped and torn in the struggle for freedom, died from the terrifying stress (bears are far more sensitive to stress than humans), or did the unthinkable to save its life. A bear with its leg in a bear trap will chew its own leg off to become free again.

This is what we believe our three legged bear did to free itself from the bear trap, although we never understood how it got a hind leg caught in the trap instead of a front leg.

One year was particularly memorable as we waited for the three legged bear to appear. That year, as she hobbled out of the woods, two small cubs tumbled out right behind her. We were stunned and thrilled simultaneously. Our three legged bear had bred. She had contributed to the circle of life and expanded her species, despite being partially lame. We would never have imagined that a three legged bear would breed or even be able to breed, particularly considering her missing part of a rear leg. But there she was, with her young charges by her side, and protecting them as if she had all her hindquarter capabilities in the face of some huffing and puffing larger brethren. And so it was the following year. When we saw her that year, she had two yearlings by her side and they all wandering down into the trash pit together, having as much fun playing as they were earnestly looking for a meal. It warmed our hearts to see her raising a family, knowing that she had a complete life experience, probably through shear grit and determination to survive.

By the time we graduated to the white 1963 Oldsmobile station wagon, our three legged bear had just one cub at her side. Although we feared one had been killed, we learned that bears stay with their mother for about two years and then go off on their own, or are chased out of the house to find their own den. The following year, our three legged bear was once again an empty nester, and I don't recall seeing her raise another brood.

In 1965, we made our Northwoods trip in the Buick VistaCruiser maroon red station wagon, and at one point during that trip we once again visited the dump. Everyone in the family recalls the event because one particularly rude human, uninterested in everyone else's pleasure at watching the bears, came barreling into the dump with little reduction in speed and pulled in right next to us without turning off his lights. We hadn't seen the bears ambling out of the woods yet, but his blusterous appearance wasn't going to help matters. In a few moments he got out of the car and began carrying bags to the dump and throwing them in. At one point he was apparently gathering the remnants from his truck when my father said, "Hey mister, there's a bear behind you." The unwanted human looked at my dad as if the brunt of a bad joke, but glanced over his shoulder just the same, only to find himself indeed staring at a bear less than 5 feet away. It wasn't our three legged bear, but that night I swear I saw a man fly, back into his car for safety. It was particularly fitting that a bear was also reminding this rude dude that he didn't appreciate his restaurant being disrespected, and we all did get a good laugh out of our thoughtless neighbor getting his comeuppance.

I don't recall the year we stopped seeing our three legged bear, but 8 or 9 years is about as long as a bear lives in the wild. If they become sick or injured, there is no bear vet that makes house calls. If they live to be twelve, they are pretty long in the tooth for a wild black bear, although they can live to 25 or even 30 in captivity.

So, when I read an article that someone shot and killed a three legged bear, as if it cannot have a full and useful life, I recall my childhood joy at seeing the truth of a bear with determination, freeing herself from a bear trap in a most ghastly way, breeding, raising her young, and contributing to the species.

That open pit dump is closed now, bulldozed under, and the bears are probably better off foraging as wild bears do, instead of being exposed to broken bottles, rusty metal and other trash hazards, but in a slice of past time that few will ever experience in the future, I once knew a three legged bear.

Written by Tim Grady, Executive Director at The Wildlife Sanctuary
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