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Sean Kirst: The 'Amherst Bear,' an oddity to most, was sacred to Senecas

Larry Becelia, like thousands of us in Western New York, had followed news reports about the mysterious journey of the animal that came to be known as the Amherst bear, until that bear was shot to death this week.

Unlike most of us, Becelia's job demands interacting with the animals in a way that is about as routine as it can ever be when dealing with black bears.

The tale in Amherst, he said, is a classic example of why he holds the bears in such high regard.

Becelia is a fish and wildlife officer for the Seneca Nation. He is involved in trapping and relocating an average of about six bears a year at the Seneca Allegany territory, an annual number that sometimes climbs to one dozen.

Amherst police said the bear in their community, already struck by a car and injured, had been moving in and out of residential yards, which is why an officer on Monday night shot and killed it. Without being there, without fully knowing the situation, without seeing the nature of the injury or observing the bear's behavior, Becelia does not want to judge that decision.

What he does offer, emphatically, is a feeling shared this week by several voices from within the Six Nations.

It is a tribute to the gifts and intelligence of the animal, he said, that it survived for so long, without true sanctuary, in a busy, paved and often subdivided world of roads, businesses and neighborhoods.

"This bear was like all bears," Becelia said. "They're incredibly agile and incredibly smart."

Police shoot to death bear that wandered through Amherst

Seneca hunters, he said, often call the animals "black ghosts," based on their ability to move with silence through the woods and to lose themselves in shadows when they feel danger is nearby – which means people can sometimes be in far closer proximity to a bear than they might ever realize.

"That bear knew where he wanted to go," said Oren Lyons, 88, a faithkeeper with the Onondaga Nation who taught for 37 years at the University at Buffalo. "He's much more solitary than the deer, who you see everywhere now. He's trying to get somewhere, and he gets caught in this tangle of civilization, and he's got no options. He knows where he's going, and he's just trying to make it through."

Oren Lyons, an Onondaga Nation faithkeeper, taught for 37 years at the SUNY University at Buffalo. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Lyons guesses the bear moved from "wooded patch to wooded patch," instinctively believing a larger forest would at some point open up. Instead, Lyons said, the bear found itself in a place "where he was at the juxtaposition of nature and society, and the fact that he was hit by the car is a culmination."

Throughout the weeks that the bear was being spotted in busy communities, the animal touched off a sense of regional wonder, powerful enough to lift people – at least for a moment – above their everyday routines. Pete Jemison, a Seneca born in Silver Creek who serves as manager of the Ganondagan State Historic Site near Rochester, believes it goes back to an enduring, even primal, connection.

"They're so humanlike,"Jemison said of black bears. "They have attributes we admire. They eat food we like to eat, and the situation that we're in right now is bringing bears more and more into contact with us."

Jemison and Becelia both spoke of how human sprawl is eating away, bit by bit, at wild habitat. At the same time, Becelia said, the bear population is on a gradual rise, causing older, more powerful males to sometimes chase younger ones away from woodland areas.

Once the animals are near a community, Becelia said, any exposure to an open garbage can or half-empty food containers, scattered in a park, leads them to a revelation.

"They've got a sweet tooth," Becelia said of the bears, who learn they love the food.

A hungry black bear, Lyons said, becomes a smart and wily "force of nature." Becelia said a bear is capable of "peeling a door off a car" to get at food locked inside.

Yet it is their intelligence, not their raw power, that causes Becelia to regard them with respectful affection. The Senecas do everything they can to relocate a wandering bear and change its behavior, and will only "dispatch it" as a last resort, Becelia put it. His department often makes use of a specially made, drum-shaped cage on a trailer, with a built-in trap.

When conservation officers receive reports of a bear near someone's home or yard, Becelia and his colleagues will scatter jelly doughnuts – for whatever reason, those treats are a bear favorite – to attract the animal, and then fill a basket at the back of the drum with doughnuts.

Once the bear hits the basket, a barred door drops, and the caged bear gets a ride to dense woods at the other end of the territory.

Not long ago, Becelia said, the Senecas received a complaint that a bear had raided more than 20 bird feeders in a yard. Becelia responded and set up the trap. The bear helped himself to doughnuts scattered on the ground, and even went into the drum and ate several doughnuts leading to the basket.

At that point, he turned around and got out of there.

"He wouldn't touch the basket," Becelia said. "We must have relocated him before, and he remembered."

The frustrated homeowner asked why Becelia had not caught the bear. Becelia, bemused, left the trap with the man and said good luck. A week later, when Becelia returned, the homeowner had an empty cage and a more realistic strategy.

Maybe, he said, he would stop leaving food in his backyard.

"The bears are wandering into places where they traditionally don't," Becelia said. "We've moved into their part of the world, and we're trying to figure out how to live together."

'The discovery of fire': A black bear in a Joseph Jacobs sculpture, Native American Museum of Art, Tuscarora Nation. (Photo courtesy Percy Abrams)

As for Jemison, he wonders if the burst of civic grief over the death of a bear speaks to some deeper communion, a revelation that he said had a lasting impact on his own life. Years ago, he said, he went hunting with some friends and bagged several deer and a single bear.

He and another man had to place the bear on the back of a car, in order to bring it home. Jemison said he lifted the animal from its upper body, and he said the entire feeling – the delicacy of the paws, the structure of its forelegs – was so similar to the weight and feeling of a human form that he could not get the moment out of his mind.

The sense of kinship was so powerful, Jemison said, that for his part – an intensely personal decision – he chose not to hunt again.

Lyons, the Onondaga faithkeeper, said it is his belief that any unexpected appearance in a city or town by an animal from the wild offers some larger signal. Across North America, he said, since a time before memory, countless communities of native people – including the Six Nations – have maintained family clans named for the bear.

They are medicine animals, Lyons said, meaning the rhythm of their life in the woods – and the way they respond to struggle – is seen as instructive on a level that ascends to the spiritual.

"We have great respect for them and their work," Lyons said. "We have many stories about bears, and all of them share this: The bear always has the last word."

He leaves it to us to work out what the message was, in Amherst.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive

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