Paula and her cub Racer
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Paula and Racer were regular fixtures at the mouth of the river where it runs out onto the mud flats and meets the ocean. One of the first things we noticed about Paula was her amazing ability to balance on two legs. All grizzly bears rear up onto their back two legs for a variety of reasons Ė to catch a better sniff of the air or to look over tall grass.
While fishing, most bears will stand on two legs to get an aerial view of a fish they are pursuing, hoping to catch a glimpse of fins moving through the water. But Paula took this skill to a whole new level. Unlike most bears who appear wobbly while standing in rushing water, Paulaís balance was perfect. She would stand perfectly erect, scanning the water, for minutes at a time. She would also effortless walk through the water on two legs. Having waded through the river ourselves, hugging each otherís arms for balance as the water pushed us to and fro, John and I realized this was no easy feat. With her birdís eye view, Paula was able to put the other bear's fishing skills to shame.
Once she spotted a fish, she would charge full speed, drive her prey into a shallow sand bank, and pounce Ė pinning the fish down with her paws. Lifting the long salmon from the water with her mouth, she would retreat to the edge of the river, or to a sand bar nearby. Racer would immediately run to Paula for a meal. Every single time, Paula perfectly bit the salmon in half, the crunching of fish bones rattling down the river. Half would go to Racer, half would go to Paula.
Racer wasnít so polite. We had been watching them fish for days. Ever the diligent and patient pupil he had been standing in the water, scanning for fish, and charging after any that he caught sight of. Although Paula was catching fish left and right, and sharing half of every fish with her cub, Racer still tried his hardest to catch one on his own. His focus was formidable, and John and I commented on how this young bear was going to grow up to be a very successful adult male grizzly. After two days of watching his exhausted concentration and effort, we were really praying for his sake that he would catch his first fish. When Racerís first catch came, it was quite a surprise. Racer had bounded near a sand bank on the edge of the river, and when he stepped down into the shallow water, he inadvertently stepped on a fish that was caught in the sand. He looked stunned, and surprised to realize that there was suddenly a fish underneath his paw. He started batting at it with his other paw, like a cat, patting it in disbelief. He then dropped his head, bit the fish in his jaws, and raised his head to reveal his very first catch! From our viewpoint we realized it wasnít a salmon, but a smaller, triangular shaped fish. Paula, who was standing nearby, glanced in Racerís direction. She realized he had caught a fish and walked his way. Seeing his mother, Racer immediately let out a deep, loud growl, and ran as fast as he could in the opposite direction. It was quite clear that Racer was not going to share.
For the next several days Racerís concentration and focus never wavered. He stood knee deep in the river for hours-lasting the duration of the entire low tide, even when handfuls of other adult bears gave up for the day, judging the numbers of fish to be too low to be worth the effort. We also began to notice the subtle ways in which Paula was coaching Racer.One afternoon, Paula sprinted down a salmon,trapping it under her formidable claws. Almost the instant she caught the fish, she spotted another salmon skidding through the shallow water, leaving a rip tide trail in its wake.
She immediately abandoned the first fish, and charged after the second one. The first salmon skidded off the sand bank, wiggling its way back to the water. We wondered why she would abandon one fish for one that she hadnít already caught? But as Racer charged after the first salmon left behind by his mother, we realized Paulaís plan. She had wounded the first fish, but only slightly. The salmon was still able to make a dash for deeper water, but it wasnít swimming at full speed and Racer was able to easily chase it down and catch it.
He pounced on the salmon and lifted the fish up in his mouth, and the huge salmon looked so long in his mouth! Racer was overjoyed. He sprinted through the water with his prize fish dangling out of his mouth. His front paws bounced up and down with exuberance. His body language seemed to be screaming, look at me, look at this amazing fish that I caught! He raced around in the water with pride, before dropping the fish and eating. It became clear to us that Paula had a teaching strategy. Paula was enabling Racer to hone his fishing skills on a fish that she had slightly wounded. She had slowed this fish down just enough for Racer to have to work hard, and engage in a real chase, but to also be successful at eventually catching it. What an intelligent mother. She also caught the second fish she chased down after leaving the fish for Racer.
© 2008 Jessica Teel