Clark's Trading Post | Bear Show in Lincoln, New Hampshire
“People ask, ‘How do you do that?’ adds Murray the elder. “Practice! And you take advantage of each bear’s talent. You find their inclinations and then develop those talents, reward them for everything they do. We use no clubs, leashes, whips, sticks, none of that! It’s all animal handling. I’ve been an animal handler since I was yea tall. What works with one animal won’t work with another.”
When he was 16, Murray the elder was mauled by one of his bears: “I was cleaning the pen and I went to pick up something in the gravel, put it in the pail, and I frightened the bear. He turned on me and butchered me up pretty bad … My father saw my clothes torn off, my head bleeding, my scalp all asunder, and he picked up a rifle and went down and shot the bear. That was it.” It was 1943, and at the time there seemed to be no other choice in a desperate situation. Our understanding of animal behavior has evolved since then; today we have additional options and approaches, and no doubt the outcome would be different.
“Don’t ever startle a bear,” Murray explained in a 2001 video interview. “Also, know your bear and its personality. Know where your limits or parameters are in handling them … You cannot handle bears without seeing your own blood. It’s a natural course of events … However, as you raise them, and constantly talk to them and touch and handle them, you then deserve their trust … and that’s what the whole thing is about. You must gain [the bear's] trust.”
Bears best suited for training are bears descended from trained bears. This is the ideal but not always the case. It’s illegal to take a bear from the wild, but bears occasionally come to the Clarks through New Hampshire Fish & Game or Vermont’s Fish and Wildlife department. Both states rely on the Clarks as they would a rehabilitation center. Moxie came to them that way, a little cub who kept showing up at the home of a woman in northern Vermont. The officials called the Clarks. They rescued the cub, a little tot so sickly the vet told them she wouldn’t live long and warned them not to become attached to her, a tall order for any member of the Clark family.
“She was about the size of a housecat,” Maureen recalls. “She was very sick. We all took turns sleeping with her; even my sister’s dog was brought into it. She feels more than your average bear; if something’s wrong, she gets upset. She always sides with the underdog. We love her. She’s 25 now. But she was in the ring only three seasons.”
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.”