Our Relationship with Animals: It’s Complicated – Part I

It is one of those stories that changed the way we think about animals, and it happened a little more than a century ago.

It was the fall of 1902, when the Mississippi Governor invited the President of the United States at that time, Theodore Roosevelt, for a bear hunt.

It took the hunting party a couple of days before the hounds were able to track down and corner their first bear. But by that point, Roosevelt had given up and gone back to camp for lunch.

Cornered by the hunting dogs, the bear lashed out at several of them, and beat one to death. The guide started blowing in his bugle calling for the President, but seeing that his dogs were in danger, decided to strike the bear in the head with the back of his rifle. The bear was then tied to a nearby willow tree, waiting for Roosevelt.

When Roosevelt arrived to the location, he had a look at the old bear. The bear was a female, it was dazed, injured, and suffering. “No thanks,” so he said. He believed doing so would be unsportsmanlike.


Clifford Berryman “Drawing the Line in Mississippi” – 1902


Well, actually, he didn’t quite say that…

Actually, what he said was, no, thank you, and ordered one of his companions to put the bear down, and out if its misery. So his guide pulled out his knife and slashed open the bear in the gut, and they carried it back to camp.

Word of this sympathetic gesture – the “I don’t want to kill it” part – hit newspapers and spread throughout the country. And a few days later, the cartoonist Clifford Berryman commemorated the scene in a sketch in The Washington Post. The cartoon which was named “Drawing the Line in Mississippi,” was a political innuendo. It shows Roosevelt standing in the front, his back to the guide and to the frightened bear, with his gun down, refusing to shoot.


His goodwill just implicated cutting the bear open with a knife, but that is for another post…

The caricature’s popularity drove Berryman to draw similar cartoons, with smaller and cuter bears, throughout Roosevelt’s presidency. And if you take a look at those bears now, you would recognize them as “teddy bears”.

Essentially, back in Brooklyn, NY, Morris and Rose Michtom, an immigrant couple, and candy shop owners, were following the news of the bear hunting trip, and had an idea; Rose made two plush bear toys, which Morris displayed in their store window.

That day, Morris was asked by a lot of people if the bears were for sale. Motivated by that, he mailed one of them to the President as a gift, and asked for his permission to name the toys “Teddy’s bears”. Teddy’s bear became so popular that the Mitchtoms left their candy shop, and started mass-producing the stuffed bear toys, eventually forming the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company.


Teddy bear early 1900s – Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

Time went by, and up to this day, the teddy bear never lost popularity. It all can be traced back to that hunting trip, to that cartoon of the distressed bear, that has anthropomorphized the image of the bear.

For us now, in retrospect, this story would seem straightforward, an obvious outcome, because we would think, “teddy bears, cute and cuddly, of course the idea would sell as quickly as it did.” But looking back, just a hundred years ago, bears were seen as monsters, and children were frightened by them. All the bear toys children had were representing “terrifying beasts”.

And for decades, to that point, “predator” animals, like coyotes and wolves, were considered a threat to people, and were being demonized for killing their livestock, so the government was systematically slaying a great deal of them. Thus, when the teddy bear was born in such a time, it may be perceived now as an indication of a deep internal conflict within people towards all that killing. That was it, putting the bear down with a knife , doesn’t seem sympathetic now, but it did at the time.

It is intriguing how our ideas, and the stories that we share, are influenced by nature. But, and more importantly, what is more intriguing is how that those same ideas can dramatically change nature, once and again. Whether those animals live or die is entirely up to the compassion or the indifference of people.

And it seems as if it has always been like this, a phase of fear, when we start killing animals, and just before their extinction, we would start to appreciate, and a phase of empathy and protection begins.

It is by our diminishing fear of nature, that we were able to see the wild as “adorable and cuddly”. However, it is our influence that should have frightened us, because we are acting like a giant baby, stomping our feet across a small collection of toy animals, wanting to hug that teddy bear across the room…


Pets, witchcraft, Aesop’s fables, animal morality and more…
What happens when humans and animals interact.

To be continued…

Check out Part II, where we take a glimpse back at the beginning of animal domestication.

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