Wild Kingdom

When I am in New Jersey visiting with my grandchild delivery device and her gifts to me, I am often amazed by the abundant variety of wildlife that populate the wooded areas around her apartment. I have seen great, wild turkeys strutting down the middle of the sidewalks, turning their heads to watch for traffic before they step into the street. Fat gray groundhogs hump along the top of a hill, while brown bunnies squat in the stripe of sunlight that escapes the trees. In the early hours of a new day, deer step carefully out of the woods, dipping their heads to feed. But on my most recent trip, my daughter brought my pastoral reminiscences to a screeching halt with a wildly modified version of the parlor game, “Clue”: “You mean, I didn’t tell you about your granddaughter in the back yard, with the bear?” Shocked that my granddaughter might be mentioned in the same sentence as a bear, I told her mother, “I think I would have remembered that, considering the LIFE-THREATENING IMPLICATIONS!” I finished with an adrenaline burst and a bit of breathlessness. “Trust me, Dad,” said Lisa. “There was some serious terror going on.”
Unlike Indiana, which saw no black bears in the state from 1871 to 2015, the Garden State’s lush lands have never been bereft of bears. Four years ago, when I helped my daughter and son-in-love move into their new apartment, Bing mentioned to me that he had heard that “Smokey” was roaming the woods. I looked around and saw that there was a lot of wooded area surrounding the buildings. It seemed as if the plows and backhoes of construction had plunged into the middle of a woods and dug out a space for the buildings. I had envisioned some interesting birding outings with my grandbeauties, but silently scoffed at the idea that a bear might be that close to an apartment complex.
“We were on Morell’s back deck and Imani and Naomi  were goofing off on the side of the garage,” Lisa began. Bing’s brother Morell and his wife have two children of the same gender and approximately the same age as my grandchildren. They live in a suburban area on property that abuts a woods. “I saw the bear cross the neighbor’s back yard and start toward Morell’s garage.” At this point, two giggling 8-year-old girls are separated from a black bear by the width of a two-car garage. “I just put up my hand in the ‘STOP’ position,” Lisa continued, “and the girls just froze.” Which was an amazing result, since my granddaughter usually grinds out a few more goofs before she stops doing anything. “The bear stopped too, when he saw me put up my arm, and Dad — it seemed like, forever, that me and that bear stared at each other,” while the girls stayed frozen. When the bear turned and moved toward the back of the garage, Lisa screamed at the girls, “RUN!” They got the message and raced from the side of the garage, onto the deck, and tumbled like two hot puppies through the sliding glass doors and into the kitchen.
The girls never saw the bear, and have no lasting or residual fear of the backyard it had briefly claimed. But after hearing her story, Lisa’s adventure in the wild kingdom that is her slice of New Jersey is as great a cautionary tale for me, as the recent escape of a Colorado teen from the mouth of a bear. One would think that this is far more likely to happen in the mountains of Colorado than the suburbs of New Jersey.