Meet Scampi the Bear

Wow, what a week. My to-do list included dental forms and insurance confirmations and football ticket downloads, an agonizing development for the average fan.

Blame the glitchy tech. Is that redundant? Glitchy tech? Everything seems a download that doesn’t work 20% of the time. It’s a minor miracle I get into a sporting event at all anymore.

This messed-up technology is everywhere now – airports, restaurants, even the local urgent care, where you discover 25 people have checked in online before you and that your wait will be 5 hours.

“I thought this was a walk-in urgent care,” I told the clerk.

“It is,” she said. “But you can sign in from home.”

Now you tell me.

I predict that in 10 years, right when my health and mind really start to crash, a medical visit will require such enormous inconvenience – a series of sign-ins, verifications, fingerprints and robotic interfaces – that most people will drop over dead in the waiting room.

That’s where American health care is now headed. I’m sure some politicians will welcome it as economically “clean and viable.” Others will dismiss it as the inevitable price of progress.

Me, I welcome progress. Soon as I see some, I’ll let you know.

Like I said, an interesting week. On Wednesday, about 3 pm, a bear dumped over the neighbor’s trash in search of shrimp that he probably smelled from a mile away.

I have a pal, Steve Searles, the renowned “Bear Whisperer” of the Eastern Sierra, who taught me all about bears. According to Steve, one of their super powers is great patience, in figuring out latches, locks and car doors.

Another is an incredible sense of smell, he says. Is it any wonder this bear ended up at our house?

“No one has ever been killed by a black bear in the state of California,” Steve constantly reassures me.

Till now maybe.

White Fang was going monkeys in the yard. I thought she was just upset at the gardeners next door, who were standing around in the neighbor’s driveway. I figured maybe one swatted at her with a rake out of fear, which is not OK, though a bit understandable.

White Fang is friendly toward people, with a perpetual grin, yet she is big and wolfish. If a person were uncomfortable around big dogs, she could easily scare them into doing something rash like that.

I went to sort it out, rounded the corner and saw him: the bear who came for lunch.

“Careful!” the gardener shouted.

Now you tell me.

I wrestled White Fang inside. She was reluctant.

Like most wolves, she’s read a lot of Jack London. White Fang thought she’d entered a scene where the wild wolf saves the naïve and frightened family from a savage bear.

White Fang is big and healthy. In her short life, she has handled many encounters with wild creatures – mostly small poodles and pocket Pekingese. But our 5-year-old husky had never encountered a 300-pound bear. To her, it was like spotting a celebrity at the gym.

Like I said, she went monkeys.

This bear — we called him “Scampi” because he likes his peeled shrimp cloaked in garlic – has a green tag on his right ear, meaning he’s been busted before.

Now, the conventional wisdom is that we’ve encroached into the bears’ territory.

True. But it’s far more than that.

According to Steve Searles, we’ve created fresh and alluring habitats for these bears: They’re called suburbs.

In the suburbs, bears find golf courses and parks. They find shady lawns with grubs in them, plum trees and avocadoes, BBQs with sauce a little warm from the night before … hot tubs and pools, sprinklers for drinking, cool nesting spots under decks and porches, garage refrigerators full of stale pizza, trash cans full of garlic shrimp.

You don’t have to be Anthony Bourdain to realize that a suburb is far more comfortable than a parched mountain canyon with rattlesnakes and dried berries.

These bears will be tough to get rid of. Sure, you can relocate them 25 miles up into the mountains, but as Steve notes, bears have sophisticated internal GPS systems, better than an Audi. They’ll always find their way back – to the pools and the fruit trees, the pizza and the plums.

Best we get used to them, and learn to think: “How cool. I live in a place with bears. Wait till our guests see one at Christmas.”

Black bears are not predators, they will not hunt you. All they want is your leftover  sushi.

Like all newcomers, Steve says, the bears are misunderstood. And we’re better off learning about them than fearing them.

So, when I encountered Scampi, I did what Steve taught me to do – I wasn’t afraid. I was alert, that’s for sure. I clapped my hands and yelled, to scold him away from the spilled garbage. He bluff-charged me, which is what black bears do when they want their space. They take a couple of menacing steps, as if charging.

That pretty much worked.

 “OK, enjoy the shrimp,” I said backing away. “Would you like a glass of Pinot to go with that?”

As with teen-agers, you have to set boundaries. And that’s exactly what Scampi had done with me.

“Cool!” said Smartacus, so excited that he dropped his phone behind the bed while trying to get a photo through the window.

Obviously, he’s almost as good in a crisis as me and White Fang.

Finally, Scampi had his fill and left, garlic on his breath, in need of a nap, probably hoping for something sweet before bed.

According to Steve, who has been working with black bears for decades, the ubiquitous black bears are nothing to worry about.

“A grizzly is an apex predator,” he explains. “It’ll eat the tire off your truck.

“All a black bear wants to do is mow your lawn,” Steve says. “They are the tie-dyed hippies of the animal kingdom.”

There are no grizzlies left in California. They were shot to extinction 100 years ago, though they remain on the state flag.

But the black bears are increasingly common.

For hours, Scampi was the talk of our cul-de-sac, how this bear had arrived without a reservation, tipped the garbage and arrogantly ate his way through Lisa’s garlic shrimp.

People were impressed. “That’s bitchin’,” said Dogpark Gary when I told him the next day.

Right? You used to have to drive five hours into the Sierra to see bears. Now the bears come to you. That’s just good customer service.

For the bears, a mixed blessing as well. They should not eat human food; it bloats them and encourages them to overbreed and become an actual nuisance, which is what happened in Mammoth before Steve forced restaurants to lock down their dumpsters.

There is also danger from cars, from freaked-out residents, from local authorities who don’t understand.

To the affable bears, meanwhile, they’ve found the American Dream —  a house, a shady yard, a fridge full of food.

Good schools. A vibrant nightlife. Old-timey civility everywhere you look.

Welcome to the hood, Scampi.

Coming Monday: the September Newsletter, with updates on the move to college, my granddaughter Catty Cakes as well as a tribute to the late Ed Asner, perhaps the last great father figure in America. To subscribe to the monthly Newsletter, go to ChrisErskineLA.com and look for the tinted gray box on the right. You’ll also find past columns and books. Have a great weekend.

8 thoughts on “Meet Scampi the Bear

  1. Loved learning all about black bears from you and Scampi! Not only an entertaining piece, but a public service. Like hotter weather and frequent fires, looks like the bears are here to stay, so we’d best learn to get along with them. P.S. I am going through Catty Cakes withdrawal. Please include more stories and pics of her exploits!

  2. The last grizzly south of the Tehachapis was shot next door to my Sicilian grandparents’ ranch in Big Tujunga Canyon in 1916 by Cornelius Johnson.

  3. I agree with Carroll. A lovely piece, and a far more entertaining way to learn than those films we used to have to sit through in science class…although the ones from Dr. Roman Vishniac were pretty cool. By the way, tonight we’ll be inaugurating the Gin And Tonic Society glasses that just arrived. Surprisingly nice quality given the general fly by night nature of your approach to life.

  4. Scamp is a bit of a tramp who took a suburban off ramp into the Altadena perpetual summer camp. It’s called glamping, in the argot of the times. She (he?) may be an ursine comedienne auditioning for a contemporary rom com. This vignette bears, if I may say so, the heft of the usual rom com screenplay, or at least that of an unscripted reality TV episode. Thus, gravitas of the jocular kind is assured for those bearly attuned to the lumbering cultureI appeal of these art forms. I would upload this to social media, where it may go viral along with the extant Delta variant, hopefully with less lethal intent; though, in truth, if it suddenly appeared as a streamer on Netflix or Amazon, I don’t know if I could bear it. How swift the paw that knocks you flat, when Smoky appears without a hat.
    I wonder if the terrible fires up north have anything to do with this ? The bears may be getting the word that it’s better to den under a deck than in a pile of leaves in the woods. Then, if there’s shrimp on the Barbie, that would be the place to be. Perhaps even Smoky might agree, as for the others, bear with me, their charm a matter of degree, since they eat any dogs they see, considering them a delicacy, preferable to any wild berry, thus this word to the unwary, for like many an amiable carnivore, they consider the world a kitchen door. And…sic transit garbage.

  5. It’s good that Erskine figured out the logistics of urgent care now that he’s sharing space with a bear. Je suis l’ours.

  6. Seriously entertaining and informative post. Lots of fun bear facts. Like Dr Lester Fisher from Ark in the Park. Do the Chardonnay moms know about this wandering Scampi? Who can blame a bear for stumbling into your hood? If I was a bear that’s where I’d go too 😉

  7. Your post reminds me of the black bear my coworker told me about, Glenbearian. According to my coworker, all of the Armenian grandmas in Glendale competed to see whose garbage Glenbearian would pick on a given night. If he chose yours, you had best cook bragging rights. Glenbearian was relocated multiple times, but he knew where the best food was located, in Glendale.
    A black bear, and a photo of four month old Catty Cakes, excellent post!

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