It has been almost a year since this magazine devoted any major space to bears. In that period our mood may seem to have changed in relation to the family Ursidae, but that is only because Victor, the carnival bear whose story by Frank Deford begins on page 52, is a beast seemingly very different in personality and outlook from the antisocial wilderness grizzlies discussed by Jack Olsen in his memorable series last spring.
Victor, shown below in an obvious attempt to con Author Deford into some deal or other about movie rights, appears on the face of it to be a civilized bear, perfectly willing—unlike Olsen's grizzlies—to coexist with mankind. But Deford, even after long and cordial association with Victor, is not all that sure. A bear, he feels, is still a bear and should be treated with the cautious respect to which that status entitles him.
"Victor," says Frank, "is cuddly and cute and he doesn't smell and he has a much nicer disposition than many people I know, and for all these reasons it is easy to overlook the fact that he is a potentially lethal, 450-pound carnivore who could destroy you in no time flat."
Deford recalls a significant moment when he was wrestling with Victor near Colorado Springs. "I'm just goofing around with him and having fun, and all of a sudden it occurs to me that my hand is in his mouth. Now I know he's got a muzzle on and his real biting teeth are gone, but I tell you, when all of a sudden you realize that your hand is in a bear's mouth, and that bear weighs nearly a quarter of a ton, it sobers you up very quickly."
February 23, 1970
Another time Frank was "clowning around with Victor, having our pictures taken," and he gave the bear a piece of candy. The bear wanted more candy but Frank didn't have any more. Unlike the phony panhandling bear on the Andy Williams television show, Victor was not about to have a door slammed in his face. Instead, according to Deford, "He leaned over and bit my shoulder. I nearly jumped through the ceiling. Boy, was I glad that bear was tied up at that point."
Most Americans, conditioned to love amiable imitation bears from their earliest childhood, tend to direct that attitude toward the real thing. On his travels with Victor, Deford was constantly astonished at the casual way people treated this huge, feral beast. Once, when Victor broke loose during a carnival at Salt Lake City, everyone in the arena "started running after him, trying to catch up. They were crazy," says Frank. But, he says, "One thing I noticed was that the more rural our location, the more people acted toward bears as they should. We stopped once to get some straw at a sheep ranch in Utah, and no one there would come anywhere near Victor. It was the same at a gas station in the mountains of Colorado. People like that know what bears can do."
Despite his affection for Victor, Deford, like our other ursine expert, Olsen, concludes that "the best way to treat bears—even the nicest bears—is to stay away from them."