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Please Feed the Bears

  • 10 min to read
Please Feed the Bears

Lambert “Frog” DeMers stalked an escaped black bear over clipped lawns, slinking along the wooden sidings of suburban homes. Every time he peeked around the trunk of a leafless tree, the cub nonchalantly moved out of range of DeMers’ lasso. It was a warm, late November, low 40s the previous week, so there was no snow to mold the cub’s tiny prints or show its brown fur. But that didn’t matter, because a bear wandering between houses in 1920 was an oddity, even in Missoula, Montana.

Lucky, a female, was the University’s football mascot and had been spending her time at the Delta Rho fraternity. After climbing a tree, her leash got caught in the bare branches and she slipped out of her collar.

The fraternity brothers spent the next three days coaxing and baiting the bear back into the house. Residents must have giggled, shaking their heads at the slapstick comedy. There were no safety concerns; by all accounts, Lucky patiently sat through the ruckus of football games and would eat candy from the palm of students’ hands. This was a matter of pride.

Enter DeMers and his lasso. The football team’s right guard was going to wrangle a black bear, so this was spectacle: There was a crowd and beers were handed out. The fraternity boys stood by, but not close enough to spook Lucky. DeMers slowly swung his lasso, built momentum and let it fly.

For a second, a braided halo hung over Lucky’s head, and then, snag.

Unlucky and Not the First

Lucky escaped two days later. As she resisted her handlers, not biting or scratching, but trying to wiggle away as a tight collar was latched an extra hole or two. She jumped or fell or was thrown — reports don’t specify — and broke her neck.

The University of Montana had at least 17 bear cub mascots paw the gridiron throughout the 20th century. Some were black bears, some were grizzlies. None were officially sponsored by UM, and most of them did not retire as suddenly, or at least as violently, as Lucky. Some bears’ names honored the football coaches they shared a sideline with — Doug Fessenden, Ted Shipkey, Jerry Williams —  while others’ names seem like inside jokes or an excuse for a young man to open the door, look at his roommates, look at the bear, and say, “It smells like Smex in here.”

These UM bears were cared for by individuals and fraternities, but often were mostly left to Bear Paws, a traditionally-sophomore hospitality student group in charge of showing guests and opposing teams around campus.

Live college mascots are not rare, and for many campuses, are a sacred tradition. Two famous animals are University of Colorado’s buffalo, Ralphie V, and Air Force Academy’s Arctic gyrfalcon, Aurora. Baylor University has two live bears, although they’ve grown too large to attend games and instead live in a habitat on campus.

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Sourced from  “The Sentinel”, page 92, 1938, Archives & Special Collections - Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library

Montana State University’s bobcat representation was less prevalent than UM’s bruins, although there are a couple famous exceptions. In 1951, Winky was compact at 20 inches long and housebroken; and Freddie Fang, the school’s final cat, actually possessed no fangs or claws. The student senate voted to give Freddie a life of jazz and gumbo when it donated him to a man from New Orleans in January of 1971.

Teddy the First

Here’s a daydream: the holy grail of bear mascots.

Somewhere on campus, in the basement of a 100-year-old building or an outlier storage room where the knob hasn’t been twisted in years, is a crate with a patina of dust. Inside the crate is Teddy, UM’s first live mascot. His brown fur could use a conditioner and his teeth aren’t as white as they were in 1904 when he patrolled the gridiron with a stomach full of candy.  But that’s him, for sure.

Teddy was more popular on campus than his namesake Rough Rider, the Roosevelt president running for re-election. Students would reward the 16-month-old brown bear’s tricks with sweets. He could wrestle and spar and his acting garnered first listing on the Thanksgiving play’s program.

After the football team finished 3-2, Teddy was retired for winter at team captain Leo Greenough’s family property. Greenough was responsible for dragging the stubborn bear into his buggy and back home.

It had been a mild December and the sky was clear, but the forecast called for rain and transporting a dry bear is much simpler than transporting a wet one, it seems. Teddy was heavier than when he arrived on campus, but Leo finally got him into the carriage.

The horse’s shoes padded along East Front Street before turning north onto a dusty road toward the Rattlesnake and Greenough property. The change in direction put the wind at their backs, and the horse caught a threatening whiff of the bear just a few feet behind it.

Somewhere during the walk-to-trot-to-canter-to-gallop, Leo jumped off, leash in hand, expecting Teddy to have no choice but follow suit. But the bear didn’t. Perhaps Teddy had become wedged against the seat, or dug his claws into the wood floor, but as rocks and friction ripped Leo’s clothing, the bear did not come out. The 182-pound right guard finally yanked the chain a new direction, or the horse took a turn, and Teddy became unstuck and fell into the road as the horse ran off.

Teddy ended up wintering at Fort Missoula, where he got sick and died in late March 1905. It’s unknown if a diet of sweets caught up with him or if being yanked around the neck in a runaway buggy incident were the culprits in his untimely demise.

The Kaimin reported the beloved Teddy would be mounted and placed in the University’s museum. The museum has been relocated, and packed-away mysteries have a tendency to go missing.

If Teddy had hibernated in Greenough property, he would have been put up in the bear house. The open-air, stone structure was built into the side of a hill the previous year and featured two separate burrows that could be closed off with metal doors.

In the early part of the century, men in crisp suits and bowler hats and women with ribbons on the backs of long dress and parasols in their hands leaned over the metal rails to watch bear cubs climb on a thick leafless log, erected like a cat tree in the center of the octagon.

Today, the structure stands in the southeast corner of Greenough Park, sealed off with a wooden ceiling and concrete roof. Stones have been worn off by weather and time and the mortar is cracked, despite being redone a decade ago. Instead of bears, joggers and dog walkers can peer through the original oxidized gate at branches, leaves, wrappers and PBR cans that have fallen through a bore in the roof.

A small blue sign above the gate is zip tied to the rusted fence: “Sad Bear Cafe.”

Don’t Be Extra, Fessy

Bears are pleasers, says Krystal Whetham from Zoo Montana in Billings. Whetham has been working with grizzly bears there since 2008, and has worked with wild cubs and adults, as well as a bear that was treated poorly in captivity.

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Sourced from  “The Sentinel,” page 93, 1938, Archives & Special Collections - Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library

All bears have at least a little bit of Teddy in them.

“[They] are easy to train,” Whetham says. While Teddy was trained to perform, Zoo Montana’s grizzlies are trained to make it easier for humans to administer veterinary care.

In the fall, the zoo’s bears just want to eat, says Whetham. They can devour 24 pounds of fruits and vegetables a day. The zoo encourages natural behaviors and natural foraging, but it isn’t easy. Produce- and protein-packed bear kibble locations have to be sniffed out at each meal. Watermelons are entombed in blocks of ice, providing an answer to the question, “How many licks does it take, Mr. Bear?”

The early mascot bears did not have this lifestyle. They were kept in cages, jail cells, and frat house bedrooms and basements. Most were let out only to be flanked by rows of screaming Griz fans as they were marched down Main Street, or to sit beside a raucous Yell King — the loudest student leading cheers —  at a football game.

After spending a year as UM’s mascot, many bears were given to zoos or government agencies. Fessy I and II, however, were let out into the woods. Whetham said a bear that was released into the wild would probably be able to find the berries and grasses it would need to survive, but its social skills may not be up to par. If it had never encountered another bear, it may not recognize territorial markings and wander into an aggressive male’s territory.

The mascot caretakers knew bears hibernated, so they tried to send them to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Sometimes, if necessary, they’d try to induce hibernation with warm beds and cave-like setups. But human activity and extra lighting resulted in the bears’ difficulty settling in after football season.

Fessy didn’t hibernate during the winter of 1937. She just ate and ate, running up a considerable grocery bill for the members of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity. The boys may have rationalized: Fessy was a bear and bears need meat. Immediately following the end of football season, the frat brothers crossed the river, to the Schramm-Hebard Meat Company on North Higgins. As the weeks added and their checkbooks only  subtracted, and Fessy stayed awake, they may have decided that since bears are also omnivores, five pounds of candy for $3.75 from the DeLuxe Candy Shop could go a long way.

As spring semester bloomed, the students could have sneaked plates from the Campus Corner: 10-cent breakfasts and 25-cent dinners. It is known that by March, the members were considering making her keeper, Chink Seymour, her next meal.

During Aber Day in 1938 — a spring celebration honoring early faculty member William Aber and designed for campus beautification — students held mock trials, including a feast on the lawns, the hazing of freshmen and the naming of top athlete Chawky Miller, “Daddy Aber.” The climate was ideal for depantsing, flirting and bear-napping.

With the day’s distractions, no one noticed someone take Fessy, cage and all, to Montana Power Park and let her loose among trees and picnickers.

Seymour reported attempting to recapture Fessy three or four times, without success. But bears don’t eat grocery receipts, and that was getting to be all he had, so returning Fessy may not have been a high priority.

In 1946, Fessy IV and two students with both hands on their leashes led the first UM vs. MSU Butte parade since 1941.

The Griz Marching Band was in starched regalia, and the seven silver trombones in the front row reflected the sun’s glare. It was 40 degrees, and it must have felt good to move, to get blood circulating. The white cowboy boots of eight drum majorettes swiveled, as batons, like propellers, floated down and took off, never slowing.

The parade left the Finlen Hotel and headed down Broadway. The crowd jammed the sidewalk, those in the back peering over shoulders as the noise passed the Montana Power Company, Northwest Airlines building and Butte Floral.

What About Jerry?

Fessy IV was a success — the student government wanted a permanent bear cage built on campus — and was the start of six bears in six years. Fessy IV had been obtained from See ‘Em Alive Zoo in Deer Lodge (“Over 200 Native Wild Animals and Birds”) under an agreement that as long as the bear’s stomach was kept full and it was returned with no additional meanness, the zoo would supply a bear cub every year.  

Dick Barney is a retired Forest Service fire behavior specialist living in Green Valley, Arizona. In 1956, as a junior forestry major, he coordinated the acquisition of Jerry, a tiny female grizzly cub from the Montana Fish and Game Commission. It was the first time he’d pet a bear — at least a live one, he says.

Jerry ate a lot of vegetables from the UM Food Center, Barney says, although some groceries were purchased to supplement the cub’s appetite. She was often brought out to the field in the back of a pickup with her custom collar and double-leash setup.

The first two football games bothered Jerry. The crowd’s cheering and foot-stomping on the Dornblaser Field bleachers must have caused the little bear to pull at the two chains around her neck, alarmed by the noise and sudden swarm of students. After the Grizzlies lost at home to the Bobcats, MSU students swarmed the field, determined to tear down the cast-iron goal posts. Earlier in the year, police tear-gassed students after Washington State defeated Idaho in Moscow. Wooden goal posts were erected to replace the metal ones at a cost of $25 a piece.

The team finished the season 1-9, and Jerry was becoming too big to keep. She spent time at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon house before being moved to Fort Missoula. She was stranded, but not forgotten. Periodic updates appeared in the Kaimin, including a humorous Christmas list that included, “Someone to want me — Jerry the Bear.”

Santa must read the Kaimin, because days later, Jerry was on her way to Helena to be put into induced hibernation, courtesy of Montana Fish and Game’s Frank Dunkel, who later headed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under President Ronald Reagan. Dick Barney did not interact with another bear until one raided the garbage at fire camp in Alaska.

But Y Tho?

The bears all come with quirky histories.

Chawklit was sent by Lt. Gov. Frank Hazelbaker to take part in the annual match against MSU. The bear arrived in Butte by train and accompanied the University’s band, wearing brand-new airmailed uniforms.

The first Teddy was replaced by an unloved goat, but it never really had a chance.

Fessy was captured by University of Idaho fans and painted the Vandals’ yellow and white.

Beulah showed up in Bozeman three days early. MSU’s student body president called his counterpart in Missoula, who said to keep the bear fed. He’d pick it up on Saturday.

Coco, the last mascot, received a loaf of bread, a pound of raisins, a gallon of milk, Karo syrup, vitamins and an unlimited supply of

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Kaimin, ““Meet Fessy IV,” page 1.,”  1946. Archives & Special Collections - Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library

water during his stay in the Phi Delta Theta house. Coco was orphaned — his mother killed by a car — and was on loan from Montana Fish and Game while he was found a permanent home. Trainer Tom Riggert, a 2012 UM Distinguished Alum, suspects Coco was the last because Fish and Game was reluctant to lend more bears whose diets would be altered and could become garbage nuisances.

Coco would stretch his legs on the Oval and was a football game celebrity, but had to be restrained with two leashes to keep from biting people, “especially big foresters who hadn’t seen much wildlife.” Coco was given a tranquilizer injection before games in order to be fitted with his collar.

Coco was cared for and found a home at a zoo, but when the bear has to be put into a drug-induced stupor, what’s the point?

There were warning signs: bears having to be yanked from their cages and onto the football field, bears refusing to hibernate. The 1920 Sentinel yearbook records the escape artist bear, Lucky — who wasn’t — as having an attack of temper and committing suicide.

A bear-mascot combined record of 66-78-3 wasn’t worth it, anyway. Even when you do beat the Cats.

Current live college mascots are well-cared for and respected. When Air Force’s Arctic gyrfalcon, Aurora, was returned bloodied after being snatched by West Point cadets earlier this month, the U.S. Military Academy apologized and opened an investigation.

Substantial money and time are invested in the animals, and they’re taken care of through retirement and death. Texas A&M’s Shetland sheepdogs, all named Reveille since 1931, are the highest ranking members of the cadets. This sounds silly, but the current Reveille is Reveille IX, and the previous eight are all buried in a special cemetery outside the football stadium.

A bear can be a mascot if the environment is right, but that takes money and commitment and professional handlers. It takes a devotion to tradition, not novelty.

In 1914, Ed Craighead was panicking. He was manager of the University football team, and the next day, Nov. 5, was the MSU game. He didn’t have a bear. Maybe he was a procrastinator. Perhaps this was a last-minute addition, spurred by a drunken boast to team members or a pretty co-ed. Whatever the catalyst, Craighead did what anyone would in a time-crunched search for a live bear: He placed an ad in the paper.

“The Daily Missoulian” article specified that breed didn’t matter; Craighead was desperate. He wanted a rental bear, but would buy outright if necessary. “If you have a bear or know of a bear now out of employment,” reads the article, “it is, one might say, a case of bear necessity.”

Traditions fade away. Sometimes it’s better to say goodbye, but it’s fascinating to see where they began.