The myth and the reality of the teddy bear

 

Chances are you have given or received a teddy bear in any shape or color at some point. The classic toy was inspired by a hunting trip taken by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902 in Mississippi, at the invitation of the governor. At the time, the Louisiana black bears were considered a pest. The party captured a smaller animal, exhausted by the persecution. The President was offered the honor of shooting it. But upon seeing the terrified animal, Roosevelt could not bring himself to kill him and walked away. The myth took off. A savvy businessman created the teddy bears that still sell by the millions: it may be the most ubiquitous gift in the world other than flowers. Roosevelt owes his credentials as a conservationist to this legend. But more importantly, it was a seminal episode in raising environmental awareness. The relentless hunting of the bears went on for decades until 15o were left in their shrinking habitat. In 1992, the Louisiana black bears were placed on the list of federally protected species. Now, they are back to a healthy figure of at least 500. The U.S. government has taken them off the list of threatened species. Not everybody is happy with the decision. The bears’ current numbers are a far cry from the 80,000 that once roamed the Mississippi basin. Yet it is a story of recovery. It shows that consistent policies and informed decisions can make a difference. We, the people, very often forget that the world is not ours alone. What about the myth, however? It is true that Roosevelt did not shoot the defenseless animal. Perhaps it was against his code of honor. Or maybe there was a more guttural feeling at work: even predators are unable to take the life of prey that no longer offers resistance. In any case, as chronicled the Washington Post reporters who were accompanying him in that hunting expedition of 1902, the President turned back after instructing one in his entourage, a Mr. Parker, to put the animal out of his misery. Mr. Parker duly did, with his knife. The myth was inaccurate. But the black bears today are all the better for it.

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