In the far tail of the galaxy spiral, on the third planet in the solar system, there is a strange land called Ohio. Once, large predator animals lived there. First there were the dinosaurs. They were there for millions of years, and then they weren’t. It was no one’s fault. A freak accident of meteorites and volcanoes, and most of their bones became dust. Then, before becoming the stuff of fiction, there were saber-toothed tigers, cave lions, and dire wolves. Then they too were dead and gone. On October 11, 2011, large cats such as African lions, leopards, and Bengal tigers roamed the neighboring farms and suburbs of a town called Zanesville. They were held captive for human entertainment at a roadside zoo, but after they were released, they were shot and killed. Now, there are no large free-range carnivorous predators in Ohio.
Naturally, you’ll still find the predatory insects and barn cats, owls and falcons, fox and rat snakes, and so on and so on, but you are unlikely to encounter a man-eater anywhere at all in Ohio.
Unless you stop at the truck stop a few miles off route 70, about twenty miles outside of Dayton, and you find the manager when she isn’t taking too long talking to the customer buying Camel Lights, or stocking the bathroom with toilet paper. Proceed to say the code word, which is “grizzly.” She’ll probably pause to search your face, gather your intentions, and then shrug her shoulders before taking you to the arena hidden behind the stacks of tires and lumber and old trucks and dumpsters.
The arena isn’t so much of an arena as it is a makeshift fighting cage, and the bear isn’t much of a grizzly either. She’s actually a Gobi bear, a critically endangered species from the Mongolian desert. And when it comes down to it, she isn’t much of a man-eater either. For one, when given the option to look for her own food, she usually eats berries and vegetation. Her preferences rarely include meat, and when they do, it’s usually rodents. Two, she’s just too sad anyway. When she was a cub, a man who wafted of tobacco and filler smoke drove her crated and hidden in the back of a trailer all the way from Texas. When she arrived, she was put in the pen that is now too small and kept a few yards from the enclosed ring.
She was almost two years old the first time she fought a man. She was scrawny and scared. Looking back, it is no surprise that the fight ended quickly.
Her opponent was a man named Frank. The fighting cage was typically used for human fighting and betting, but Frank bet he could best the bear. He wobbled from the bourbon he began drinking shortly after his shift ended, and the men from town and the regular truck drivers noted his inebriation. Bets were tossed and the shit talking commenced. The manager’s husband retrieved the dart gun, just in case.
The fight lasted less than two minutes. The drunk human charged the bear, who was surprised to find herself the target of a missile of a man. Rising to two legs, she swiped back, knocking the man off course.
“Jesus, Frank!” someone yelled. Even a less strenuous bear swipe is a force, and bear claws are both long and sharp. The gashes across Frank’s forehead and cheeks allowed blood to freely flow down to his chin and drip to his black t-shirt. “Frank, are you okay?” a truck driver from across state called. “Hell, come on out of there.” “Someone get that bear back to her cage.”
The bear spun around. The humans screeched and rattled the cage. They were everywhere and she felt surrounded. But Frank made a bet and he wasn’t about to be outdone by a dumb wild animal. He pulled the Swiss Army knife from his back pocket and ran toward the spinning bear. For a moment, she could have reminded you of a circus bear in a pink tutu pretending to be a ballerina, pirouetting on a lit stage, until Frank reached up and stabbed her in the face.
When the bear reared back, the knife spun out of her skin and fur and out of his grip, clanking off the metal bars before hitting the ground. And then the dart hit. The bear whirled and growled. She charged the cage wire, turned around, staggered forward a few steps, swayed and fell to the ground.
“Help me get this damn bear to its pen,” the manager’s husband said. “Someone get Frank home.”
Looking back into the galaxy in the northern night sky from Ohio, you’ll most likely see the Big Dipper, part of the larger constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear. In Roman myth, Jupiter’s jealous wife finds revenge by turning Jupiter’s lover Callisto into a bear. When Callisto’s son doesn’t recognize his mother the bear, he tries to kill her. Fortunately, Jupiter still has his eye on Callisto and prevents her murder by transforming her son into a cub and then puts both bears in the sky. The Great Bear is a she-bear, meant to wander around the north pole, not live in a cage in Ohio.
The Iroquois also saw the bear in the sky. In their eyes, the stars sketched a story of a bear chased by hunters with bows and arrows; other Native Americans saw wolves attacking the bear. The bear is a hunted animal.
The bear sees no story in the night sky. She sees the stars twinkle when the lights are off, and she watches as they flicker and gently move across the autumn evenings. The only story she tells herself is the one happening right now. The stars twinkle and move across the sky. I am here, in this spot, in a cage, in Ohio, in this galaxy, among these stars.
When you arrive at the truck stop, you park your Ford in the back, close to the 18-wheelers. A woman is walking away from the building looking for grass for her dog. She looks tired, and her dog looks nervous.
You go inside and buy a pack of American Spirits.
“Grizzly,” you mumble.
The manager tells you to come back at ten o’clock. There is nothing subtle about the way she says this either. You understand there are few secrets here.
You return at ten. It is wintertime and dark. The Great Bear seems to be standing still, watching over the parking lot, but you know she is silently creeping, millimeter by millimeter.
The Gobi bear is pacing in her cage. She looks less like a bear and more like a broken, animated hide. You see her bones. She is on the verge of starving. Patches of fur are missing, and she shivers. If you were to get closer, you’d see the scars.
You meet Frank and his scars are easy to see. He’s no longer allowed to fight the bear for fear that one of them would kill the other.
“Pfft,” Frank scoffs. “They’re just worried about their revenue.”
You are a guest at the fight, so you are expected to pay an entry fee. You are also expected to bet. You can tell that you are supposed to bet for the bear. There is the pretense that the slowly dying animal stands in for the great wilderness itself. She is the wrath of nature; she is volcanoes and floods, fire and lightning; she is the mystery and power of the meteorites that shaped the earth. To bet on the man is to acknowledge the breaching of rules in the world order; fighting a caged and starved bear is cheating.
You murmur something about it being a shame, and you notice a woman nearby with thread and a needle, ready for makeshift sutures to avoid any trips to the E.R. You bet on the bear.
The man getting ready to go into the fighting cage looks to be in his late twenties, early thirties. He is thin and wiry, his body made of long, lean muscle from a couple of years of road construction.
“All I gotta say is when I knock that bitch down, she better stay down if she knows what’s good for her,” he says.
Knives and any other weaponry must be left outside of the cage.
The emaciated bear is not an animal to croon and coddle, you soon see. You see that she is dangerous. She can maul a man, in spite of being weak, tired, and depressed. She knows she is still alive. Her bones are made of carbon and not the gaseous light of stars, but she is hunted nonetheless. If she cannot run, she will stand her ground with ferocity.
The man in the cage approaches her like a boxer. His feet are light, as if lifted by tiny breaths of rising heat from the concrete. He circles around her, but the bear has seen this trick before, and she is faster than he thinks. The man steps in with a jab to her cheek. The punch is quick but not strong enough to push her off balance. The bear still stands on two feet, but it doesn’t matter to the man: the jab was the distraction and the real punch was to come next. He begins to pivot on his back foot. He will throw all of his weight, one hundred and thirty-five pounds, into her snout. He will smash her face, bringing her down to the ground, and maybe then she will retreat to the corner. The whole of his body turns and pivots as his fist comes forward.
Of course, this man, skinny with the muscles of an upright primate, is not the first amateur boxer the bear has seen. Before the punch can hit, even before the man’s body turns, the bear sees the soft shift of the man’s weight as he leans onto his back foot to turn, and she drops down from her full height to all fours, ducking the punch and rearing her head to the right before pendulum swinging it full force left into the man’s torso.
He falls to the ground. She rakes her claws at his head, turning him onto his side as he reflexively moves into a fetal position, covering his neck and face with his hands and arms.
The bear pushes the man across the floor. The humans whoop like baboons.
You were nervous when the fight began, but now you are scared. You look across the faces of those surrounding the cage, looking for the manager’s husband, waiting for him to stop the fight. You can’t find him. You start to say something without knowing who you are talking to or what you are even saying, and then you see him.
He is standing further back, his face lit by the light of his phone. He is not even watching the fight.
“Don’t worry,” a trucker next to you says. “Most of her teeth and claws are gone.” You recognize him as the driver with the shiny, brand-new-looking rig. It must have cost a fortune, you think.
“No one’s going to get hurt,” Frank says. “Except maybe the bear.”
Frank sees that you are not convinced. “It’s just good fun,” he says. You can’t even look at him. You just hear him tell you to relax.
The bear stands on the man and is close to putting the man’s head into her mouth when the gate is pushed open by several others who rush her off the inexperienced bear fighter. There is no need to sedate her. They pull the man from the cage and you can see that he is bruised and ego-bashed, while the next man is getting ready to enter, swinging his arms in circles, loosening the joints of his shoulders, cracking his knuckles.
You are surprised you won the bet. Many others won as well, but the house still profits. The manager collects more entry fees as latecomers join the group. You notice a man drinking canned beer on the other side of the cage. You can’t be certain, but you believe you saw him in uniform earlier at the diner where you ate dinner.
“This guy is one of the best,” Frank says of the man entering the cage. “He always finds a way to surprise her.”
You decide you’ve had enough. You drop your cigarette, kicking the butt into the gravel like everyone else does. You drive back to your hotel.
Take the road and go southeast, through Kentucky, into Tennessee. Hike in the woods in the Appalachian Mountains where you won’t find any grizzlies but you may find a black bear if you are quiet. Scramble over rocks and duck into quiet caves and you may discover the oldest known cave paintings in the United States. The images date back more than four thousand years to the late Archaic period, several thousand years after the dog stepped out of the wolves. In the caves, people scratched pictures of serpents and suns. In darkness, at least a mile from the mouth of the cave and the open sky, people may have once imagined themselves in the passageway to the underworld. Moving closer to death, they thought of light and sky and you wonder if they feared the cave bear would come and eat them alive.
Eventually the Great Bear will turn to face her hunters, and she will live or she will die.
You can’t stop thinking of the bear, and you wish that someone would do something. If the police already know, you don’t think there is much you can do. You watch the national and international news and are overwhelmed. The world is full of terrible things and you can’t save everyone, you tell yourself. There are bigger problems than bears, you say. You feel helpless, and the bear begins to haunt you in your dreams. You are chasing after the bear and you don’t know if you are hunter or savior, but it doesn’t matter because she turns to face you. She is dead and alive at the same time. She is the Gobi bear in Ohio and she is the Great Bear who has existed as long as humanity. You cannot save her. You must kill her, or she will kill you. Your sleep is restless. You wish someone could save you both.
You decide to return to Ohio. You don’t have a plan, but you know that you want to perform a kind of exorcism—you have no interest in becoming the hunted, even if only in your subconscious. Perhaps you could call animal control or the state police. Maybe a zoo. What is the value of a bear on its way to personal and species extinction? Some would say, Priceless, but you know others who would say, Who cares? You’ll see what you can do.
On returning to the truck stop, you make the decision to arrive early in the morning. You will go to the bear’s pen to check on her first. Maybe you’ll be able to get some photos. Once again, you park in the back with the tractor-trailers. You didn’t expect to see anyone you’d recognize in the morning, but as you are walking to the back, you see the manager’s husband. He is taking a wheelbarrow that appears bloodied back toward the fighting cage. You don’t know what to say, so you tell him the truth: you want to see the bear.
You imagine the bear as you saw her last. Tired, scrawny, all ribs and hips. What you didn’t imagine is the manager’s husband telling you that she was sold two months ago, and that he has no idea how you’re going to find her if you want to see her again. However, the man suggests you go over to where he just came from. He has something else there.
Close to the lot where the summer vacationers park their cars is a group of people, many of them squealing children, blond-haired and Midwestern. They are running around a cage the size of an old circus car. Inside paces a tiger.
There are few restrictions on exotic animals in Ohio, and this tiger is not critically endangered. It is on full public display. The large cat is young and lean and muscled. It is a man-eater. It opens its mouth and its teeth are pearls, healthy and sharp. Next to the cage is a donation box for donors who wish to support the tiger.
A retired couple walks toward their car. They are baby boomers. They glance at the tiger and children who run as close to the cage as they dare before turning and running away. The bars are too close together for the cat to reach out and swipe with its paw, but they are far enough apart for a claw to snag and pull a body inward.
The woman grunts her disapproval. “What a shame,” you hear her say before she gets in the car and her husband drives away.
In your lifetime, the Eastern Cougar went from endangered to extinct. You now feel safe hiking in the woods where the cave lions lived. You see children running on mountain trails with parents who never worry about children-eaters stalking through the brambles. There are other mountainous creatures—birds, fish, insects—who are now gone, but they were small and you don’t know their names. Maybe you never knew their names.
It is safe, but there is an emptiness as well. Other animals from lands far from your own, all gone in your lifetime. The western black rhinoceros and the Vietnamese rhinoceros, animals you never even knew existed until they were gone. The last black rhino died while you ate cake at a birthday party, or as you sat in your living room watching television re-runs. The last Vietnamese rhino closed it eyes while you waited for fries in the drive-thru. It stopped breathing while you ate in the car, food on your lap, on your way home after work. You would have never known anything at all about these animals, except you happened to turn on the television and heard short segments on the news. You never heard anyone talk about them again.
There are other animals too—tortoises and dolphins, butterflies. Lake Erie on Ohio’s northern border lost the blue pike and the longjaw cisco in the early ‘80s. You don’t fish, so you didn’t know. The Indiana bat is now endangered. So is the Kirtland warbler and piping plover. The karner blue butterfly. The American burying beetle. Many more are threatened. All from Ohio. You hadn’t paid enough attention.
You never would have known anything at all about the Gobi bear if you hadn’t run into one in Ohio. You like to think she was rescued and sent to an animal sanctuary. You imagine some place in the mountains with injured black and brown bears. You imagine her playing in a pool of water for the first time in her life. But then you go to sleep and you imagine her caged in a small roadside zoo, back in Texas. Few people know the difference between an American brown bear and a Mongolian brown bear. Both are endangered, but the Gobi is now the world’s rarest bear.
In your dream, the children mimic her and the adults think it’s cute. The bear paces and swings her head and the children pace and swing their heads.
“Bless their hearts,” a grandmother says. “They’re having so much fun together.”
When winter comes, you go outside and look up and over the horizon. The Great Bear is still there in the heavens, but now, you no longer see an animal that roams the wilderness sky with the gods. You see the she-bear roped and tied, trotted along the inside of a ring she will never escape. Behind her, the wolves howl and the humans chatter, but it’s only the humans who think they are free. Someday, the bear will circle back and the hunters will be the hunted. The oceans will rise and the rainwater will only drip. The Great Bear will come with fires and hurricanes and floods, ready to eat the hunters alive, and they, too, must stand their ground, and they, too, will live or die.
© Heather Momyer
[This piece was selected by Sommer Schafer. Read Heather’s interview]