Having encountered thousands of wild animals over the years, my attention is always drawn to their eyes because they reveal so much about demeanor and intelligence.
The eyes looking at me from just a couple of feet away revealed a thinking creature, a curious creature.
In this case, it was a 350-pound black bear named Barnaby.
Last fall I filmed a bear segment for my WebTV series, Gods Outdoors with Chester Moore, at Sharkarosa Wildlife Ranch near Denton with founder Scott Edwards.
For the episode, we filmed a bear encounter with Barnaby and a similar-sized female named Bailey, three-year-old bears both rescued from a bad situation and trained to be ambassador animals.
"You can train wild animals but you cannot make them tame. There is a difference," Edwards said.
Encountering a trained bear is one thing but conditioning and feeding wild bear is a whole other thing that causes problems for both people and bears. Photo: Lisa Moore
Sharkarosa is an amazing facility that propagates a variety of endangered species and does educational outreach on behalf of everything from sloths to Pere Davids deer.
I came to get a little deeper understanding of bears since these great animals are returning to Texas in surprising numbers.
"Black bears are one of the few large mammals in North America that wasnt endangered at some point. They continue to thrive and in many areas even live right alongside large numbers of people," Edwards said.
"When people leave them alone they go stealth and are very rarely seen but when people start feeding them and treating wild bears as if they are pets then trouble starts."
Wildlife managers say "a fed bear is a dead bear" and the reason is bears accustomed to receiving food from people are often removed from the population as to not harm people.
"Black bears rarely attack people but you dont want to invite problems by conditioning them to come around people. And the truth is the bear will probably get hurt before a person ever does. We need to keep the interest of the animals in mind as well," Edwards said.
One of the chief reasons for filming me interacting with these bears was to show that once bears become accustomed to people they lose fear.
There has been a sharp increase in bear sightings in East Texas, the Hill Country along with an expanding population in the Trans-Pecos region.
"The black bear is a part of Texas natural heritage and forest ecology, the Louisiana black bear is on the federal threatened species list and is thus the focus of an ongoing restoration effort in Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma, and black bears appear to be poised for a slow return in East Texas," said Nathan Garner, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) biologist in Tyler.
A possible obstacle the bears return in the region is poaching, which still looms large in some areas. Shooting a Louisiana black bear (which all bears in East Texas are considered) is a state and a federal crime and since they come under auspices of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), fines could be as high as $25,000 and come with six months jail time.
Another potential problem is misidentification since bear and feral hogs can look similar at a distance especially when someone is not expecting to see a bear.
That is why it is important for people entering bear country to get educated about these great animals. Their comeback is happening right now. Four years ago we created black bear educational posters that were distributed as digital downloads to hundreds of individuals, teachers, scout leaders and church groups. If you would like one, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will get you a copy.
Just the thought of seeing a black bear here in Texas makes things seem a bit wilder and gives hope to those of us concerned about the wildlife and wildlife habitat.
My encounter while filming at Sharkarosa gave me an even deeper respect for the black bear than I had before.
In their eyes, I saw a glimpse of wildness and in my wild life that serves as a deep source of inspiration.
(NOTE: On March 9, Bears Den Food Safari opens at Sharkarosa Wildlife Ranch. They will offer a four course inclusive meal with artisan gourmet pizzas, wood fired vegetable dishes, hearty appetizers, and homemade desserts. The best part is there will be nightly bear demonstrations and wildlife viewing.
Reservations are currently being taken Thursday through Saturday. For more information go to www.bearsdentexas.com.)