A Tale: Watching Bears Fight at a Dump — 1896

Tourists watching bears.Bears are remarkably adaptive animals that adjust their behavior to the activities of people they encounter. When people began visiting the Park in the 1870s, bears were fearless and easy to find. But they soon figured out that rifle shots are deadly. By the 1880s bear sightings were rare.

In 1883 the Army forbade firearms in the Park and soon developers built grand hotels. The hotels began dumping their kitchen scraps in the woods and bears took that as an invitation to dinner. Watching bears at the dump soon became a popular pastime and it continued until the Park Service began locking garbage away in the 1960s.

When cars were admitted to the Park in 1915, bears discovered they could approach them because there were no horses to scare. Bear jams blocked traffic and became a nuisance until the Park clamped down on feeding bears in the 1960s.

While visiting Yellowstone Park in 1896, author and naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton decided to study bears. So he spent a day in the garbage dump hiding among the carrot tops, rotting potato peels and tomato cans with his notebook and sketchpad. The bears obliged him by trooping into the dump to eat scraps and lick jam jars. A large female and her three-legged, pot-bellied son caught Seton’s attention. The sickly little bear became the inspiration of Seton’s famous story, “Johnny Bear.”

Despite his infirmities, Johnny Bear’s mother, Grumpy, loved him dearly. Like all momma bears, Grumpy was fearless when it came to protecting her son. She drove the other bears away from Johnny and left him alone to lick syrup cans.

When Johnny got his head stuck in a can, he yowled, and complained, and struggled until he was able to pull it off. Then he punished the offending container by smashing it flat with his little paws.

Suddenly, a huge grizzly ambled into the dump between Johnny and Grumpy. To protect her son, Grumpy charged the much larger animal and thumped him on the head. The grizzly responded with a terrible blow that sent her sprawling. The two bears clinched and rolled around in a battle that left Seaton nothing to watch but clouds of dirt and flailing legs. Johnny climbed to the top on a tree and whined as the battle raged. The grizzly easily defeated Grumpy so she dashed up the tree to join her son.

While the grizzly ambled though the dump grazing, Seton decided he need photographs the combatants. So he began snapping pictures of Grumpy and Johnny. He then pointed his camera at the grizzly and it began moving toward him. When the giant got within five yards, Seton thought he had met his end. But the bear turned away and began licking tomato cans.

Seton returned to the hotel after his day of bear watching, but the hotel staff refused to let the stinking naturalist in. They made him take off his clothes in the woods behind the hotel. Then they brought a fresh change from his hotel room. But Seton wasn’t humiliated. He considered the day a great success. After all, he had the material for his most famous story.


—Read a condensed version Ernest Thompson Seton’s “Johnny Bear” in my book, Adventures in Yellowstone.

— F.J. Haynes Postcard, Copperplate Photo Gallery.

— To find more stories about bears, click on “Bears” under the “Categories” button to the left.

One thought on “A Tale: Watching Bears Fight at a Dump — 1896

  1. Pingback: An Event: Ready To Sign Adventures in Yellowstone at Old Faithful Inn « M. Mark Miller

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