As the mother bear watched from shore, the man swooped in and grabbed the weakened cub by a leg and, to further wear it out, dunked the creature underwater. And dunked it again. Then he tied it with a rope as he raced for the public dock, where Canadian wildlife officials intervened.
They didn't charge the man in what they're calling the "Buddy Bear" case. Nor, however, did they let him keep the cub, which is recovering in a wildlife sanctuary — yet another victim in a type of story that lately seems commonplace: A human and animal come together in a tale that is supposed to glow with warmth but instead takes a bizarre or chilling twist.
Increasingly, wildlife experts and veteran outdoor types are shaking their heads at what might be labeled the Doolittle Delusion — the belief that with the right attitude, it's possible for a human to bond with a wild animal in the manner of Hugh Lofting's fictional doctor, whose knack for sensitive rapport led to spirited, interspecies rap sessions.
Recent news clips reveal that socializing with lions and tigers and bears often turns unpleasant. Within the space of a few days this month, a 600-pound tiger dragged illusionist Roy Horn off a Las Vegas stage by the neck, and grizzlies in Alaska's Katmai National Park killed photographer Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, as they attempted to live among them. And then there was the tale of Antoine Yates, a New York cabby hospitalized after a run-in with a 400-pound Siberian-Bengal tiger.
The creature, which Yates had apparently taken in as a cub, had grown so big that it had taken over an apartment in a Harlem housing project. To capture "Ming," a SWAT team rappelled down the side of the building and shot the big cat with a tranquilizer dart. Inside, authorities also found a 5-foot-long alligator.
Yates, whose injuries were relatively minor, told reporters he was keeping the creatures because he wanted "to show the whole world that we all can get along." The tiger, he told the New York Times, "was like my brother, my best friend."
Naturalist David Quammen, whose most recent book is "Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind," puzzles at the paradox of people's "ancient compulsion to bask in the magnificence" of the creatures they most fear. "Some people treat these things as accessories to their identity. And that's true of animals generally, not just dangerous ones People say, 'I've got a great big scarlet macaw in my living room. I must really love the wild.' Well, wrong."
Yet such interspecies infatuations have fueled a wildlife black market that's only getting bigger — and the more dangerous the animal the better. The Humane Society of the United States estimates there are more captive big cats living in this country — as many as 10,000 — than all of those living in the wild in Asia. People have as many as 300,000 wolves or wolf-dog mixes roaming their homes or yards. And in 2000, people owned 9 million reptiles, including snakes, as pets. As many as 90% of these lizards and serpents die each year. But fatality cuts both ways in such relationships.
In 1999, authorities entered a Van Nuys trailer home and found a menagerie of poisonous snakes, piranhas and other exotic animals. In the middle of the living room lay Anita Finch, curled in a fetal position. Her hand, pierced by two small wounds, clutched a note: "Northridge Hospital ask for ICU." The bite marks suggested she had been killed by one of her snakes, probably a rare, foot-long Gaboon viper.
"The lesson," says Richard Farinato, who monitors captive wild animals for the Humane Society, "is don't try to turn wild animals into stuffed toys."
Common sense is not always the human species' strong suit, though, and men and women often behave in ways that fall somewhere between risky and stupid, Farinato says, offering as evidence the photos he's seen of people grinning beatifically while standing within charging distance of bison, elk and bears.
Michael Hutchins, director of conservation and science for the American Zoo and Aquarium Assn., is not amused by such naiveté.
"We have, as a people, become ignorant of animals and animal behavior," he says. "Yet at the same time, we yearn to be close to animals and wildlife. It's an odd combination, and it has some dire consequences."
Jim Peddie, who runs Moorpark College's respected exotic animal training and management program, says that once every two or three years the school has to drop a student. The reason: They can't keep their hands off big animals. "Physical contact with the animal — that seems to be the thing that they crave," Peddie says. People who love animals too much "make all kinds of assumptions that they can communicate with these animals, or that they are beyond the dangers. You never are beyond the dangers."
In some cases, getting within chomping distance of a bear or mountain gorilla is part of the attraction, psychologists say. Consciously or not, people are making a raw power grab — hoping that if they survive their close encounter, the animal's strength will transfer to them.
"The belief is that there's danger, but I'll be able to escape it," says Steve Sultanoff, a psychologist and diver in Irvine. "It's almost a sense of immortality: 'I can get out of danger, I'm all-powerful.' "
The adrenaline and endorphins surging through the body only encourage that feeling, and incite an sense of transcendence. For someone who feels powerless, that's a big draw, a way to compensate. "It creates a feeling of superiority," says Sultanoff. "It says, 'I'm different from others. I can do things others can't do.' "
For many, the phenomenon becomes even more intoxicating in the wild. "Americans love their pets, but wild animals are magical," says Deb Liggett, the outgoing superintendent of Katmai National Park, where the bear maulings occurred. "Wild animals in their natural habitat are even more compelling and spectacular."