It was a scene certain to chill the heart of any animal lover. Under the shade of a sapling pine, the huge grizzly bear hunkered down to consume his afternoon meal. From a nearby blackberry bramble a tiny domestic kitten emerged and approached the ursine monster cautiously, deliberately.
Acting on instinct, I started for the compound gate to attempt a rescue before the bear spotted the orange tabby. But then I thought better of it. My action might doom the cat by frightening it into the bear’s gaping jaws. Watching helplessly from the gate, I scarcely dared breathe as the feline, no more than six weeks old and weighing 8 to 10 ounces, drew closer to the 650 pound bear as he consumed his meal.
Then came the sound of a faint purr as the cat’s ears perked forward and his tail went up. The grizzly heard too. Slowly, ever so slowly, the bear turned his head to eye the intruder. The kitten stopped in his tracks. There was a long pause during which neither animal moved. It was the moment of truth.
Incredibly, the grizzly appeared undisturbed by the interruption and turned back to his meal. The cat ventured closer and purred with increased vigor. And then, with a delicate touch and uncharacteristic tenderness that can only be described as “parental,” the bear pulled a small piece of chicken from his mound of food, turned with it in his teeth and dropped it in front of the kitten. Without a moment’s hesitation, the cat grabbed the morsel of chicken and dashed back into the protective cover of the blackberry bramble.
I was dumbfounded by what I had just witnessed. Over a career spanning more than 40 years working with and studying wildlife, in the wild and in captivity, I had never seen or heard of such an unexpected pairing of two animals so widely separated by size, species and behavior.
Yes, I’ve read about the gorilla who adopted a cat, and I’ve observed other unusual animal pairs, but most have been introduced by human keepers. The bond established between the grizzly and the kitten was entirely spontaneous.
The bear occupies a large wooded compound on the 24-acre sanctuary of the Wildlife Images Rehabilitation & Education Center, a non-profit organization I founded near Grants Pass, Oregon, almost fifteen years ago.
Every year we provide care and treatment for as many as 2,000 sick, injured and orphaned birds, mammals and reptiles ranging from hummingbirds and wrens to bald and golden eagles, from baby squirrels and rabbits to bear cubs and cougar kittens.
As an animal rescue and care facility, we have experienced a continuing problem with people dumping unwanted kittens over our fence because they know we’ll care for them and do our best to find them a home, although we are not legally a domestic animal shelter.
The tabby and three siblings were dropped off at our compound sometime last July, probably within three days to a week before I first watched the kitten and bear share a meal.
I suspect the inexperienced and possibly starving kitten found its way under the compound fence seeking scraps from the bear’s meals. That he was hospitably accepted by the bear perhaps surprised him as much as it did me. The other kittens from the litter were live trapped, spayed or neutered and adopted by our volunteers, their friends and relatives.
For the two weeks following my initial observation of them together, I managed to catch only an occasional glimpse of the cat as it hid among the trees and brush within the compound. While he had no fear of the bear, it became obvious he’d suffered some bad experiences when dealing with humans.
Exercising care and patience, I have gradually gained the wary feline’s trust. The cat now comes up and purrs as I enter with the bear’s afternoon meal, but ducks quickly out of reach if I attempt to pet him. The bear, on the other hand, is often able to pick the cat up by the scruff of the neck and carry him around. Only the bear’s drooling seems to bother the cat.
Although it seems difficult to believe, the cat and grizzly appear to share a genuine affection for one another. At night the cat retires to the den box to sleep curled up under the bear’s chin. There could be no warmer or more secure place to snooze on our compound.
During the day the tabby often hides in a brushy thicket waiting for the grizzly to amble by, and then, at the most opportune moment, leaps out and swats his giant pal on the nose. This generally leads to a chase lasting 20 minutes or more as the cat jumps in and out of cover just ahead of the bear’s reach.
Wildlife Images endeavors to return the animals it cares for to the wild. We achieve this goal with approximately 90 percent of the wildlife that survive initial injuries.
The grizzly bear is among the ten percent that cannot be released. He was sent to Wildlife Images by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service during the summer of 1990 as a non-releasable animal to be used strictly for educational purposes.
The grizzly was a tiny cub when he, his mother and sister were struck by a Burlington-Northern train on the Blackfeet Indian Nation in Montana. Apparently, the mother bear was foraging for grain spilled from previous trains when she and her cubs were hit by the on-rushing engine.
The female cub was found dead between the tracks. The unconscious male was rescued from beside the tracks by the Blackfeet people. The mother was never found. It was assumed that, mortally wounded, she ran off into the brush and died.
After two months of intense veterinary care in Montana, it was determined that the surviving cub was unsuited for release. Blind in his right eye and suffering minor neurological problems, he was sent to the Wildlife Images sanctuary as a permanent resident.
Soon it became obvious that he had grown dependent upon human companionship. If left alone for a prolonged period, he would cry piteously. I undertook the task of spending an hour or two with him each day if possible. Over the years he and I have forged a friendship, but he still isn’t comfortable with most other humans, nor they with him.
Now that the cat has entered his life, the grizzly no longer needs me to provide him company. How long will this special relationship last? I have no idea, but if someday the orange tabby decides to take off on an urgent “tom cat” mission, I’m afraid we’re going to have one lonesome bear on our hands.
Sad note – Dave, Griz and Cat are no longer with us – they brought such wonder to so many people all over the world. Dave told their story so well and of course, they showed their special love for one another for so very long – – The Siddon family, staff and volunteers will never forget them. Even today, their story is still being published in magazines and books.