Growing up in Northeast Pennsylvania, my parents taught me all the basics: Don’t talk to strangers. Look both ways before crossing the street. And leave bears alone.
“I mean it,” my father warned my brother, then 12, and me, 8, one night at dinner. “If you see a bear, don’t bother it.”
Not that my father followed his own advice. He twice admitted to having chased a bear through our backyard while clapping two metal trashcan lids like a pair of cymbals. In retelling the story, he seemed disappointed that no one woke up to witness it.
“Even if the bear is little and cute, if it looks like a toy,” he warned. “Leave it alone. The mother is around.”
My father had good reason to be so explicit with his instructions. A few weeks before, one of my brother’s friends put a Roman Candle in a frog’s mouth and blew it up in his driveway. This was twenty years ago – when boys could do outrageous things like shoot birds out of a tree with a BB gun or set several gypsy moth cocoons on fire with a cigarette lighter and the worst thing that would happen is a neighbor would complain.
For once, I had nothing to do with any of that nonsense. I was never in the habit of harassing wildlife. In fact, if my father wanted to tailor his advice to me, he would have told me not let my brother load me into a stereo cart and send me down a hill while he was at work.
“What did you do today?” my father would ask when he returned home.
“Long division,” we would answer.
In truth, we did do long division. In the morning. That summer, my brother was presented with the unenviable task of bringing my perfectly average math skills up to his advanced level. After a long morning of adding fractions incorrectly, I suppose I was only all too eager to prove my worth by climbing into whatever homemade go-kart he cooked up in the garage or cardboard box that he and I decided to throw down the front steps. Unlike multiplication, I was good at that. But we mentioned none of this to my father.
“Did she get them right?” my dad would ask each day.
“She did better,” my brother, always the diplomat, would reply.
“Good,” he answered. “Now go outside.”
And out we’d go where I’d set to making a pair of stilts out of two old broom handles while my brother hopped on his bike, presumably in search of a cliff to ride off. Between the two of us, we probably cheated death at least once a week, so it’s no wonder that the summer’s rash of bear activity didn’t register as dangerous.
“If you see a bear, don’t run,” my dad continued. “Lay down, cover your head with your hands and play dead. He might take a bite or two out of you, but he probably won’t kill you.”
This, by the way, wasn’t a joke. My father never jokes.
“Will it hurt?” I asked. “If the bear bites us?”
One would think that this question, when asked by an 8 year-old girl, would prompt any father to assure her not to worry – that no bear was going to bite her, especially if she played dead like he told her to. But that’s just not how my father operates.
“Well, yeah it’ll hurt!” he answered. “It’s a bear bite!”
I left that conversation with a healthy fear of bears, their cubs and any other animal that could tear my hand off. Seals, I suppose, would also fit into that category. But that was then.
If someone gives you the opportunity to feed a wild seal by hand on Hout Bay, you take it. That’s my philosophy. In fact, it’s the reason why I purchased a deluxe travel insurance policy and a rabies vaccine. Because I plan on being a little “hands-on” during this trip.
I mean, what do you think I came all this way to do? Long division?!