October 31, 2004|By Christopher Corbett

MARYLAND'S FIRST bear hunt in more than half a century was over in just one day last week after nimrods bagged 20 bruins. (I believe that I have my hunting clichM-is in order there.) The first Ursus americanus tagged was a very modest 84-pound female (about the size of a big Labrador retriever). The beast was said to be 10 months old, in bear terms a small child, probably still with its mother in Western Maryland.

Most Americans know bears only from children's literature, in which the bear is a fixture. The Enoch Pratt Free Library has about 620 books, tapes and films relating to bears - most of them for kids.

The bear is a beloved and gentle figure in literature, and that complicates bear hunting. What sort of person would drive to a tagging station with Winnie the Pooh splayed across the back of his pickup? The TV stations would crucify you. What would children say if Daddy told them that he'd shot a Care Bear or Paddington Bear? You are looking at years and years of therapy.

Or what of "The Teddy Bears' Picnic"? True, we assume the teddy bears stole the food, but, after all, they are teddy bears. What kind of man would shoot a teddy bear? No, in order to have a bear hunt, you must dismiss these bears from your mind. The bears of children's dreams are not easy bears to shoot.

Perhaps the best-known bear story is Goldilocks and the Three Bears. It dates from the 19th century, but its folk origins are much older. Most versions begin with a famous few words: "Once upon a time there were three bears who lived together in a house of their own in the woods."

True, it is never satisfactorily explained how these bears got this house. Did they win it in a lottery? Hardly. Obviously, they were squatters. Was it a home invasion? We don't know what happened to the original owners, but perhaps Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., in his wisdom, was thinking about this when he allowed Maryland's great bear hunt to move forward. Do you want to come home from a Ravens game and find "a little wee bear, a middle-sized bear and a great big bear" in your house? Of course not.

And what about Goldilocks, the Lolita of ursine literature? How did she meet the bears? A chat room? A bar? Never satisfactorily explained. In early editions of the story, Goldilocks is often described as "mischievous." That could be code for anything. Goldilocks appears in some versions of the story to have wandered upon the house. The bears were not home. They were out terrorizing Garrett County.

Remember Gentle Ben? Not Psycho Ben. Or Crazy Ben. But Gentle Ben. Well, you can believe that if you want, but the terrified residents of Garrett County know otherwise.

Or the Berenstain Bears. There are countless volumes in that series by Stan and Jan Berenstain: The Berenstain Bears Lend a Helping Hand, The Berenstain Bears Visit the Dentist, The Berenstain Bears Forget Their Manners. These books are for small children. Note that there are no volumes titled The Berenstain Bears Terrorize Garrett County.

And then there is the once-popular but probably a wee bit too violent Mr. Bear Squash-You-All Flat from 1950. It's about "Mr. Bear, the Neighborhood Nuisance who roams the forest squashing the houses of other animals - and finally gets his own hilarious, smashing comeuppance."

Perhaps Mr. Ehrlich had Mr. Bear in mind when he declined to stop the bear hunt. Mr. Bear Squash-You-All-Flat was in its heyday during the governor's childhood. Mr. Bear seems aggressive, threatening, antisocial. His tongue is lolling out in all of the illustrations. I'm not sure what that means, but he's largely a comic figure, a comedian in baggy pants, a better target for a cream pie than a .3006.

But perhaps someone misunderstood his story and this was the bruin Maryland's nimrods were aiming for when they took to the back country this week loaded for bear.

Christopher Corbett is the author of Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express.

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