Clark's Trading Post | Bear Show in Lincoln, New Hampshire
That doesn’t matter to the Clarks. Currently the three show bears–Pemi, Echo, and Victoria–perform regularly throughout the summer and fall. But the Clarks keep eight bears altogether; the three oldest live in a large habitat behind Maureen’s home, and the others have moved into new, spacious, natural accommodations nearby. Some of the inactive bears are retired, and some just never enjoyed performing.
“They have to love it,” Murray A. explains. “They have moods, they have emotions. In many ways, they’re very human-like.” Physical attributes help as well. “Bears can manipulate their hands to do things; they can hold, grab, push, shove, stand. They can sit and run on two legs. So with that mechanism already in place, it’s not like working with a cat or a bird. They enjoy going to the next level.”
Not that training a bear is easy. “You put in all this time and energy,” explains Murray A., “and it just doesn’t seem to be paying off, and then one day, like magic, they’ve got it! Repetition is the key. So, I don’t know if it’s a measure of intelligence so much as it is diligence, but they’re all different; you just can’t compare. Just like people.”
Complaints about trained-animal acts have been something of a constant over the years. “We’ve always had that to contend with,” Murray the elder says, “but once they witness a show, that’s it, no problem.”
“Occasionally someone will write a letter,” adds Maureen, “but if you look further, you find that they’ve never been here before.” Murray A. notes, “There’s a whole group of people who object to any trained animals. Seeing Eye dogs, bomb-sniffing dogs, search dogs. They don’t want any animals to be trained in any way.”
To the Clarks, the show is their statement about how intelligent bears are and how profound their relationships with people can be. “We try to educate people as well as entertain them,” Murray A. explains. “The first part of the show, before the bears even come out, I teach things about bears. It’s always been that way.
“After a show, folks tell us that they didn’t want to come because they don’t believe in animal acts, but when it’s over, they’ve changed their minds. They see we’re not only treating them well but that these bears are our friends.”
“A number of hunters have come up after the show,” Maureen adds, “and said that they’d hunted bears, but that now that they’ve seen how smart they are and how close we are to them, they won’t hunt again.”
“Yes,” Murray the elder concludes, “we’ve converted a lot of people.”
Each Clark has his or her favorite bear. One of Murray the elder’s best bears was Jasper, a 535-pound male who towered over him when he stood up, which was often. Jasper and Murray had a wonderful relationship. In the show, Murray would sit on the big bear’s belly, walk on his stomach, tickle his feet, all while Jasper was lying placidly on his back, drinking from his bottle.
And then Jasper would pick Murray up and carry him around, give him bear hugs. They’d dance together, cavorting around the ring like best buddies on a lark. At the end of the show, Murray would say, “Ladies and gentlemen, what do you think of my friend Jasper? It’s been my pleasure working with him all these years!”
It was a deep love. Jasper was special–but so are all the family’s bears. “They’re our coworkers,” Murray A. says. “We talk to them as if we’re talking to humans. After a while, they pretty much understand what we want.”
There are no other shows like theirs–maybe even in the world–that the Clarks know of. Murray A. thinks about that for a moment, then says, “This is the center of the universe. That’s what I’ve always been told, and I believe it. There’s nothing else outside of what we have here. This is what we know and where we want to be.”
One of the saddest things that can happen in the Clark universe is the death of a bear. The life expectancy of a bear in the wild is only 6 to 12 years; they may be hit by a car or hunted, or, if they raid trashcans, may ingest plastics and food packaging. Most of the Clarks’ bears, however, have lived two to three times longer than that. One bear, Rufus–Jasper’s brother–lived an extraordinary 38 years.
Inside the park, there’s a small cemetery for bears who have passed on, each grave with a carved tombstone. When a bear dies, the Clarks all grieve. Maureen and her father never got over losing Onyx, Jasper’s son, to liver cancer at the age of 15, in 2002. Maureen wept and wept. “After a while, I just couldn’t cry anymore,” she told a reporter.
Just as with the passing of family members, the legacy of the Clarks’ bears lives with them, always. Right now, Maureen favors Victoria, a youthful 20. “She’s my best friend,” Maureen says. The bears generally work until they no longer want to, and then they retire. “There are certain times when she doesn’t want to work, especially during mating season,” Maureen explains. “However, toward showtime she’ll sit and watch and wait for her turn, pacing back and forth. She’s ready to go.”