A week or so ago, Andy Duann, a kid at Colorado University-Boulder, snapped a photo of a tranquilized bear tumbling out of a tree. The bear had wandered onto campus (perhaps hoping to meet President Obama in a bar) and decided to climb the tree, and wildlife agents wanted it out of there before somebody offered it a beer, I guess. The bear fell onto soft, cushy mats thoughtfully provided by the athletic department, and it was reported that after his tumble, he was resting comfortably.
The photo went viral, because it’s just one of those things you never see, and because out of the 300 or so shots Duann took, after running down five flights of stairs in sneakers that he was wearing without socks even though he hates wearing sneakers without socks, there was something simply otherworldly about this one. The sun shines down through dappled leaves; the bear seems so composed; the officers stand around looking relaxed, waiting for him to hit. (Well, except that one guy on the left who’s built like Roseanne’s husband on TV.)
Then a sordid understory began to seep out: The CU-Boulder newspaper hadn’t paid the student for the photo; he didn’t own the copyright; life isn’t fair. Tra-la-la-la-la. The brouhaha detracted from the glorious purity of that image of a bear captured in mid-flight. We didn’t want to read about poor Andy Duann’s woes. But then the many clever memes of bear-in-space (scroll down here), the Facebook page dedicated to him, the Twitter hashtag—drew us close again, made us feel all cuddly and warm as we recalled other bears we’d loved.
Then came the tragic news: The bear, our bear, had been hit by two cars while crossing the road (oh, why did the bear cross the road?), and killed. The ear tag he’d earned on his visit to CU-Boulder confirmed it. The wildlife officials had carted him 50 miles away after his fall, and yet he’d doggedly made his way within two miles of campus. This was a bear with a mission, a bear who’d taken to heart the President’s exhortations that every American should go to college. And see what it cost him?
If a bear falls out of a tree and everybody watches, we become vested in that bear. That bear is us, and we are he. And now he’s gone—and you know what? Maybe it’s for the best. He’s not going to wind up disgraced like Jason Russell, that Kony 2012 guy. No she-bears are going to come forward to accuse him of sexual harassment. No paparazzi will dig up photos showing him cheating on his mate; no bees will sue for destruction of their hive. Forevermore, he’ll remain the bear that we remember, the bear we love, falling, ever falling, never hitting the mat, staring at us with wide, calm eyes.