Stories from the life of Dr. John Mathis

Going on a Bear Hunt

Going on a Bear Hunt

A number of years ago a call came into my office. A biologist from the local fish and game office was on the line enquiring if I had a tranquilizer gun, and if so, would I have time to give him a hand. He was on his way to the golf course where there was a report of a bear causing some disturbance. Always up for a new adventure, I said that I had a gun and darts and could meet him there in about 30 minutes. Somewhat excited to go on a bear hunt, I loaded my dart gun and supplies and headed out. 

Upon arriving at the golf course I met several Fish and Game employees and also Shirley Cook, a local hounds man that I knew quite well. The plan was laid out that if we weren't able to tranquilize the bear by sneaking up on it, that Shirley would then turn is hounds loose and tree the critter so we could get a shot. Once tranquilized we would load the bear in a cannister and have the bear relocated in the Book Cliffs away from civilization. A very fun simple project that wouldn't take too long so our plan was begun. 

I loaded a dart in the gun and two extra in my pocket. The Fish and Game officer had located the bear in a thicket along Ashley Creek so I began my pursuit. I slowly worked my way downwind from where the bear was resting and then slowly moved towards it. When I was just in what I thought was a good shooting range, a sudden noise from somewhere in the distance startled the bear and up he jumped. He was on the move and I wasn't able to get a clean shot so I moved back to the truck and we decided to turn the hounds loose to see if we could tree the bear. Shirley loosed his hounds and off they went for almost 2 miles they pursued the bear down the creek and then over to Ashley Ward where the bear must have been worn out and climbed a tree. When we caught up it was quite a sight: seven hounds lurching and baying at the base of a cottonwood tree with a bear about 20 feet up on a branch. Shirley finally got the dogs called off and I got ready to dart our bear. I worked my way around the tree to where I had a clean shot of his backside and took aim, and - perfect shot. 

As we waited for the bear to get sleepy we just laughed and visited, all along not thinking about how we would get the bear out of the tree. In about 10 minutes the bear kinda curled himself over the branch up against the main trunk and appeared to just go to sleep. Ok, I don't know what the others were thinking but I somehow had in my mind he would get tired and either back down the tree or maybe kinda stumble out, but no, he wedged himself and slept. 

At this point we were trying to figure out how we could get him out. We were in a thick patch of trees and couldn't get a loader or boom in o reach him. With all my wisdom of youth and the vast knowledge I had acquired as a graduate, licensed veterinarian, I decided the best approach would be to climb the tree and push him off and somehow lower him to the ground. After very little real thought and discussion it was decided that I, being the youngest, climb the tree for this task. Well, I did like climbing trees as a kid and the bear was asleep, after all. What could go wrong?

I grabbed a rope to wrap around him so we could lower him to the ground and put that over my shoulder and I got a good sturdy stick with which I could work him away from the tree to put the rope around him. With my rope and my sturdy 5 foot pole and all the wisdom described above I headed up the tree. When I got within about 3 feet of the bear I got a good solid branch to brace my feet on and one arm around the trunk. I used my other arm to try to pry him loose from his branch. Have ever had a thought come to you that perhaps you should have seasoned a course out further before pursuing it? Or have you ever had your life pass before your very eyes in a split second? Well, just as I applied the stick to the bear to attempt to move him, I had both of those experiences simultaneously, for just as I poked the bear, he reared up on both hind legs and stared right at me. It seems as though the bear wasn't quite as asleep as we had previously determined. I immediately (after reviewing my life and doing some very fast repenting) dropped the stick and hugged the trunk of that tree as hard as humanly possible. I'm sure the imprints of my arms are still evident on that tree 35 years later. All I remember is the bear turning towards me and lurching my way. I'm not sure to this day if it was me shaking so violently from fright or the smell of me messing my pants that scared the bear away, but when he lurched at me, he climbed directly over my back and down the tree and off he went. There I stood, hugging that tree, shaking so hard I'm sure the neighborhood thought an earthquake had hit. 

Well, Shirley turned his dogs loose, they retrieved me from the tree, and in the end we caught the bear and this time made sure he was actually asleep. I guess the moral of this story is: Never poke a sleeping bear with nothing more than a short stick. Oh, the wisdom of youth!

All in a Veterinarian's Days work.