Some time ago, some good friends bought me a book for my birthday. The book is called, “Theodore Roosevelt on Hunting“. And shamefully I must say I am just getting around to reading it.
As is the case most often, we as Americans tend to idolize past iconic figures. I suppose each of us has our own individual perspective on Theodore Roosevelt, but most of us are guilty of placing people like him on a level perhaps a bit above being a normal human being, capable of errors, poor decision making and having faults. When we take the time to read personal writings that include accounts of his life, it does offer us a chance to see someone in a different context than the one history has painted for us. Teddy Roosevelt was only human and as much as one might or might not enjoy his storytelling, it seems that he had some unusual views on others who told stories and what I would say was a near bizarre concept about the grizzly bear.
Early on in his book, Roosevelt writes about hunting grizzly bears. He begins by recalling some of his own experiences with hunting the big bears; interesting enough. But then he gets into an odd sort of protective proclamation about grizzly bears and how they have been wrongly labeled as vicious by exaggerated storytelling but then uses his own storytelling (exaggerated?) to label the bears as vicious, still claiming them not to be.
One of the last grizzly bear hunting stories of his own personal account he tells us is of a time when having shot at and wounded a bear, it turned on him. Roosevelt then goes on to write:
This is the only instance in which I have been regularly charged by a grisly. On the whole, the danger of hunting these great bears has been much exaggerated.
I’m not sure I understand what he means by “regularly charged”. I’m still pondering that.
Roosevelt justifies his claim that grizzly bears aren’t dangerous to hunt by telling readers that, “At the beginning of the present century”, (that would be early 1800s) grizzly bears were an “exceedingly savage beast” that would attack a man “without provocation” and that was because there didn’t exist the modern equipment that Roosevelt was using, which has evidently taught the bear to run in the other direction. Roosevelt describes it as: “he[grizzly] has learned to be more wary than a deer, and to avoid man’s presence almost as carefully as the most timid kind of game.”
But did it really teach the bear to run instead of charge or was this merely Roosevelt’s perspective of the temperament of a grizzly bear that, for whatever the reasons, he felt compelled to project?
In his book, Roosevelt pretty much appoints himself as an expert on grizzly bear hunting and behavior while doing his very best to discredit anyone’s grizzly bear story that he might not agree with.
Hence men of limited experience in this sport, generalizing from the actions of the two or three bears each has happened to see or kill, often reach diametrically opposite conclusions as to the fighting temper and capacity of the quarry. Even old hunters – who indeed, as a class, are very narrow-minded and opinionated – often generalize just as rashly as beginners.
I wonder if, in Roosevelt’s elitist mind, obviously placing himself in a class of hunter above all others, he felt the same way toward those “narrow-minded old hunters”, when he became one? He obviously didn’t recognize himself to already be one.
Not only, it appears, has Teddy Roosevelt appointed himself the lone grizzly bear hunting expert, he lays claim to be the only one qualified to tell a hunting story. In the thirty pages that Roosevelt appropriates for telling his grizzly bear hunting stories, ten of those pages he dedicates to ballooning his own self-importance with his self-proclaimed authority on grizzly bears and dumping on anyone else with a grizzly bear story to tell I assume because they were not as intelligent as he was.
But oddly, which brought me to audible laughter while reading this chapter, Roosevelt takes 20 pages to retell all the grizzly bear stories he has heard and they are all about hunters being attacked by grizzly bears; some of those attacks being unprovoked. And if that isn’t enough, he also tells tales of humans not hunting and being attacked by grizzly bears unmolested. I guess whether a grizzly bear story is exaggerated or not or tells of grizzlies being vicious or not depends on who is spinning the yarn.
I suppose how often people were attacked provoked or unprovoked back then was all relative and therefore, someone like Teddy Roosevelt could easily state that grizzly bears have no interest in attacking a human. He appears to have had some issues in dealing with “old hunters” and accepting stories or even companionship from some of the “outdoor men” of the time and region.
Don’t take me wrong. There is much in what Roosevelt writes that comes directly from his own experiences of what bears do during certain circumstances. This information was useful then and probably would be useful today if there was any grizzly hunting in the U.S. I wouldn’t, however, be too quick to disregard the other tales from the rugged outdoorsmen of the day. As tall as some of those tales might be, there is always a certain degree of truth in all of them.
I did find it interesting to discover this part of Roosevelt, what in my opinion appears to be a bit of haughtiness on his part – but wasn’t the bully Roosevelt a haughty person anyway?