HomeOutdoorsNewsThe Dark ‘Bear Show’ History of U.S. National Parks Took Decades to Overcome

The Dark ‘Bear Show’ History of U.S. National Parks Took Decades to Overcome

by Jon D. B.
Black Bear Show History Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Vintage color photograph of two couples in summer clothes standing on one side of the hood of a maroon Plymouth as a black bear stands on his hind legs with his foreperson the other side, 1950s. License plate reads ‘1953 TENN’ and one of the men photographs the scene with a press camera. (Photo by Found Image Holdings/Corbis via Getty Images)

Throughout the early history of our national parks into the 1940s, “bear shows” were staged daily in western staples like Yellowstone and Yosemite. And as these historic photos and Great Smoky Mountains brochure show, it took almost a century to reverse their damage to native wildlife.

Long before bison were restored to Yellowstone, black bears were the main tourist attraction for visitors to America’s first national park. The bruins have long been a symbol of Yosemite National Park, too, thanks in large part to their “bear shows” – a chapter of National Park Service (NPS) history we rarely hear of today.

In both western parks, rangers and officials would create mass swaths of garbage for bears to dine on. Typically, this was waste from park restaurants, hotels, and trash cans. And bears would flock to these smelly, food-heavy mounds like moths to a flame.

Bear show Yellowstone National Park postcard
Postcard showing a group of bears in the Upper Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, 1914. From the New York Public Library. (Photo via Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images).

So, too, did tourists. “Bear shows,” as they were outright called, were a spectacle known the country over. Western parks not only facilitated them, but advertised and banked on them. It was, for many reasons, a different time altogether.

During these shows, “Bears were on hand in varying numbers, and a ranger or naturalist was present to tell the people about the interesting animals,” the Great Smoky Mountains National Park brochure for 1961 cites. “Such a program, however, was more in keeping with manmade parks and zoos than National Parks.”

‘No such shows were ever featured in Great Smoky Mountains National Park’

As the brochure quickly adds, the U.S. National Park Service was built on principles opposite to using wild animals for spectacle:

“It has long been an accepted policy that every species shall be left to carry on its struggle for existence unaided, as being to its greatest ultimate good, unless there is real cause to believe that it will perish if unassisted.

The presentation of the animal life of the parks to the public shall be a wholly natural one and no animal shall be encouraged to become dependent upon man for its support.”

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GRSM) brochure, 1961

In kind, the bear shows of all participating areas were “officially” discontinued during the World War II era. Yet as the brochure notes, “No such shows were ever featured in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.”

Even so, the bear shows of the west lingered long enough to do serious damage. Starting in the late 1800s and finally fizzling out by the late 1940s, these spectacles habituated sixty-years worth of bears to humans alongside their food and trash. And in every park where bear shows took place, visitors took every opportunity to feed bears from their vehicles, campsites, or wherever a bruin was found.

Consequences of ‘Bear Show’ Mentality Ranged Coast to Coast

Although Great Smoky Mountains never hosted bear shows, unchecked feeding of black bears was rampant throughout the park. This would continue for decades. Our Tennessee/North Carolina gem has long been the most visited national park in the U.S., too. So, like today, millions of Americans flocked from all over the country to bask in the ancient glory of Appalachia in the early 20th century. And as they did, they brought the bear show mentality with them.

Of course, a part of this mindset already existed in the Smokies. Black bears are inherently curious and have a remarkable sense of smell. Their eventual relationship with human trash was an unavoidable one. As was humanity’s desire to feed and befriend these charismatic, fuzzy wild animals.

Black Bear Show History Great Smoky Mountains National Park
A Great Smoky Mountains black bear begs for food from visitors, 1950s. A reporter photographs the scene with a press camera. (Photo by Found Image Holdings/Corbis via Getty Images)

Being BearWise was not a concept at the time, to put it lightly. There were no bear-proof trash cans in the early Smokies, and bears had free access to garbage and food wherever they found it.

“Now, instead of depending on their own resources for a living, many bears patrol park roads and campgrounds, where they give the garbage cans a frequent going-over and where occasional food offerings, an illegal and dangerous practice, make paupers of them.”

GRSM brochure, 1961

The active feeding of bears by visitors, however, was by far the most dangerous for both bear and man, as the now 60-year-old Smokies brochure immortalizes.

Wild Stories of Black Bears Injuring Visitors Preserved in 1961 Brochure

“Bears are usually hungry. Since they will feed on almost any kind of plants or animals, garbage is quite acceptable. Feeding them, however, represents misguided kindness,” it continues. In turn, “the bruins come to expect such generosity from everyone, and, consequently, trouble is imminent.”

Same as today, park regulations of the early 1900s prohibited the feeding of bears. Violators were arrested at the time, too. But not with enough regularity to knock a dent in the bear show mentality.

Doctors located in Smokies’ communities treated “a number of cases of bear bites and bear scratches every year” for much of the mid 20th century, too. And the brochure’s recounting of these tales offers one of the best (if that is the right word) time capsules into Great Smoky Mountains National Park history:

One man was occupied with feeding candy to two small cubs when the mother bear appeared and insisted upon having some of the food. Shoving the big bear aside with one hand, the man continued offering candy to the cubs when suddenly he was struck a fierce blow in the face.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park brochure, 1961

One person placed his foot upon a sandwich which some careless lady tossed to the ground in front of a bear; the bite in the leg required medical attention.

GRSM brochure, 1961

A bear, prompted by the food which a lady kept offering to the animal, entered the car wherein the generous(?) person was sitting. Her efforts to coax bruin out of the car resulted in injuries.

GRSM brochure, 1961

A man, of sorts, required medical attention after he applied a lighted cigarette to a bear’s nose.

GRSM brochure, 1961

Another man attempted to boost a bear into the front seat of his car so that he might take a picture of bruin sitting beside his wife, who was behind the wheel!

GRSM brochure, 1961

Outgrowing the Bear Show

Incidents and injuries like these would continue with concerning regularity well into the 1970s. But with the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the paradigm shifted. And the National Park Service took full advantage of this.

Black bear history national parks
A large black bear approaches a vehicle for food. Circa 1970s. (Photo by Paolo KOCH/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Through extensive public campaigns, NPS continues to educate the public on best wildlife practices. Currently, the BearWise program developed by southeastern bear biologists is at the forefront for the black bear species. And as the Smokies’ lead wildlife biologist Bill Stiver told me last year, he’s hoping the park adopts it as an official methodology soon.

There’s simply too much conflicting information out there on black bear safety. Even within NPS. And the next best thing we can do after learning from our past? Build towards a better, BearWise future.