In Yosemite, I noticed the flyers that said “Save a Bear. Don’t Feed It.” Basically the subtext was “If you feed a bear, we’ll kill it and the blood will be on your hands.” It sounded crazy. I imagined a scenario where a bear had eaten some of my campsite garbage. Later that night, the park ranger rustles me out of my tent.
“Please come with me,” he says.
I follow him to a darkened cabin. Inside, a brown bear dressed in a pair of green khaki pants is tied to a chair illuminated by a single light bulb hanging from a wire above him. The bear slumps against the ropes in a look of defeat as if it’s been worked over by the two other bearded park rangers flanking both sides of him. Blood drips from the bear’s lips and nose. One eye is purple and swollen shut. A crumpled park ranger hat and shovel sits at the bear’s feet. The first rangers holds up an empty Cool Ranch Dorito’s bag.
“Is this yours?”
“Ole Smokey here says he got it from your campsite. He didn’t want to tell us at first but we can be very persuasive.”
“Look. I’m sorry. I should have been more careful. I didn’t even know…”
“You got the flyer? The one that says not to feed the bears?”
“This is what happens when you don’t follow the rules.”
The ranger grabs me by the arm and pulls me over to stand behind the bear. He pulls out a chrome-plated .38 revolver and pops open the empty chamber.
“Remember. This is on you. YOU did this,” he says.
He puts on brass .38 cartridge into one of the empty chambers, gives it a spin and then snaps it shut.
“Wait!” I say but he forces the gun into my palm.
“Do it!” he says.
All three rangers take a step back. “You fed him. You kill him. That’s the rule.”
“I don’t want to,” I say.
“You do it… or we kill both of ya. We’ll make it look like the bear attacked you then we HAD to kill it. We do it all the time.”
A lump rises in my throat as I raise the gun trembling in my hand to the bear’s temple.
“I’m so sorry,” I whisper. My hand won’t stop shaking.
Smokey slowly turns and looks at me with his one good eye. He leans forward resting his furry forehead against the front of the barrel.
“Remember. Only you can prevent forest-,” he says just before the crack of the shot cuts him off.