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On Hibernation

On the subject of hibernation, Charles Dennis Rusoe d'Eres, an eighteenth-century adventurer who lived among the Indians, volunteered the following: “And what is particularly noticed of the Bear, is, that during the winter it rests in its safe retreat in a dormant state. On its first taking possession, it is careful to stop or plug up the most material outlet of its body, with a certain gum or gluy substance taken from the pine or hemlock tree.”

There’s no evidence that the fur trader Alexander Henry the Younger went so far as to acquaint himself with his tame bear’s “most material outlet,” but Henry did take it upon himself to provide a den for winter hibernation. In ursine circles, finding a den for one’s young falls to the sow bear. This didn’t deter the dispassionate hunter of buffalo, bear, and moose. In his journal entry for November 13, 1804, Henry noted:

Red river frozen over. My tame bear making a hole, apparently desirous of taking up his winter quarters. I got a place made for him, but he did not like it; although snug and warm, he preferred making it for himself.

Rather than fear his bear, an Ursidae quite capable of inverting the prey-predator relationship that conjoins Homo sapiens with so many other species, Henry feared for his bear’s well-being. He was nothing but solicitous toward his ursine companion, “so tame as to require no care or confinement.”

The phenomenon of bear hibernation stymied Pierre-François-Xavier de Charlevoix, who thought it “without Doubt surprizing that a Creature cloathed with such a good Fur, and who has not the Appearance of being very tender, should take such Precautions against the Cold, which no one else would think there was any Need of.” But Charlevoix, although a white-phase Homo sapiens, was less censorious than most and derived the following conclusion: “This shews we must not judge by Appearances: Every one best knows his own Wants.”

Like the rest of that select group who mingled among species, Charlevoix was prepared to embrace the wants and judgments of another. No matter that the other was sometimes obese and growled, bellowed, or even popped its teeth.




Excerpts from What Species of Creatures: Animal Relations from the New World:

On Hibernation
On Migration