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Bonds endure between trainer and bear at New Hampshire amusement park

NORTH WOODSTOCK, N.H. — It’s the dead of winter in the White Mountains, the 22d day of January, and Maureen Clark pulls in to the back of Clark’s Trading Post to do what she always does on this day. It’s something children’s books tell you never to do. She’s going to wake a hibernating bear.

The bear’s name is Victoria, and it is her 22d birthday. Twenty-two is old for a black bear. Maureen has had Victoria since she was a cub, a gift from a famous bear trainer, small enough to run around in Maureen’s cabin.

Maureen has lived with bears all her 54 years. Her father and uncle began doing a trained bear act in 1949 in the amusement park her grandparents opened in 1928, and Maureen and her brother have been working there since they were kids. Maureen loved all the bears, but Victoria is her favorite, the one she calls her baby. For years, Victoria was the star of her father’s bear show, and Maureen was his helper in the ring, leading Victoria through her tricks while her father played the showman.

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Victoria is old now, and she has been retired from performing. But she still wants to be in the show, Maureen says. She can tell by the way Victoria gets excited each summer when the show season arrives, how she watches when the younger bears walk on the giant globe and ride on the swing while the crowd cheers. It hurts Maureen to have to watch Victoria go through it, but this year, she’s got a plan to make the aging diva feel a part of the show again. But for today, she’s just going to have a little birthday party.

Maureen opens a padlock to a large gate and the cold sound skips off the ice through the small park, just a half-dozen attractions and a few old-timey buildings. The Trading Post is known for its steam train that takes people on a 30-minute ride over a covered bridge and through the White Mountains, and the bear show.

Maureen crunches through the low snow to Victoria’s enclosure. All of the other bears spend the winter across the street at habitats. Victoria has never liked the habitats. She never wanted to leave her enclosure right next to the show ring. As Victoria got closer to retirement, Maureen built new accommodations for her behind her cabin, an elaborate habitat with cool caves to crawl in and trees to scratch and climb, and a pool of clean water. Maureen planned to build a corridor to connect it to her house, for the bear to come inside. Victoria hated it. The bear paced and refused to eat until she was brought back to the three-sided concrete box where she has lived her entire life.

Maureen says it is because she doesn’t want to lose her front-row seat next to the show ring, the center of the action at Clark’s Trading Post. Victoria is still an able bear, just not as young as the show’s current stars. Maureen says she still wants to go in. Every show she says she can feel it. The view from the pen is as close to it as Victoria will get, a rectangular view on the world where she can watch two bear shows and two circus shows daily. If she is at the habitat, Maureen says, Victoria cannot see the show. Victoria, she says over and over and over, wants to go into the show.

“It’s mommy, baby,” Maureen says softly as she pulls open a large gate and steps into the untouched snow around Victoria’s den. “Hey, pumpkin pie.” She kneels down on the deck outside the giant doghouse, and sticks her head inside. Then she crawls in.

Victoria recognizes Maureen’s arrival, but doesn’t fully commit to being awake. She lets Maureen rub her fur, and Maureen tells her that it’s her birthday.

Bears do not eat while they are hibernating, so Maureen reaches her hand outside and makes Victoria a birthday snowball, a present that gets her to turn her body in the small space and gently lick it from Maureen’s hand. If it were summer, she would have fed her some black raspberry ice cream with a long metal spoon. Ice cream is the only treat they use to train the bears, the only weapon in the ring.

They spend a few minutes together, Maureen nuzzling deep into the bear’s musty coat, and as she zips up her coat to say goodbye, the bear takes her gloves in her mouth and hides them behind her body, in the hay, to keep Maureen from leaving.

A seat on the sidelines

By St. Patrick’s Day, the other bears have been awake for a week already. The younger ones are climbing trees, wrestling, eating. But there has been no sign of Victoria outside her den. For Maureen, spring does not begin until Victoria wakes up, and on March 18, someone sees her stirring outside her den. “Victoria is awake,” Maureen shouts into the phone.

The next morning, Maureen goes to see her baby bear, and finds her walking about slowly outside her enclosure, which is still half full of snow and ice.

In Victoria’s left eye is a big hunk of gunk, a souvenir from her three-and-a-half-month nap. She has lost weight and she is weak, but she perks up as Maureen approaches the enclosure and opens the gate to go in. Victoria greets her, then starts pacing back and forth and grunting and making clicking sounds. Maureen says this is her worried noise, and she says it is because of the change to her view. During the winter, they have been doing some construction on a drainage system just outside her pen, and there is a big ugly pile of dirt blocking her view of part of the show ring.

The idea that the bear still wants to go into the show, and the idea that she is sitting right outside the ring every second of every day watching other bears be in the show, stresses Maureen. She brings it up constantly. And it usually ends with her crying about her father.

After Victoria was retired, Maureen’s father sat next to the bear to watch each show. Murray Sr. had been retired, too, by a stroke. The proud showman for decades, he was a real frontiersman who came home from the war with his brother and took over the amusement park from their parents and built it into what it is today. The brothers got some bear cubs to act as a “stopper” to draw traffic, but Murray was a natural showman and he taught the bears to perform with him. They created little gags and stunts, but the big trick was always that there was a human in a ring with a bear, armed only with an ice cream cone and a spoon.

When Victoria went to the bench, the two of them would sit there, aged stars, a man and his show bear, and watch Pemi and Echo, the younger bears, do the tricks he used to do with Victoria. And he would say, over and over, “Victoria wants to go in. She wants to be a part of the show, too.” Maureen always knew he was talking about himself.

When Murray Sr. died, a couple of years ago, Victoria was left to watch the shows by herself. Each time Maureen looked at her, she would feel pain. So much of Maureen’s existence was tied up in this one small space, this small ring. She never had children of her own. Victoria was her baby. And now her father was gone, and her baby had aged past her.

A surprise for a bear

All during the spring, Maureen has been working on a plan. Winter comes in stages for Maureen. The first stretch is depressing. The bears go to sleep and she feels unneeded. She will travel a little bit as the winter goes on, do the things she cannot do when the bears are awake and need her. But her mind never really leaves the bears. This winter, she gave a lot of thought to how she might be buried with Victoria. And she thought about helping Victoria live out her years as a starlet.

With spring, she began working on a surprise to make that happen for Victoria, but it wasn’t ready until the last possible minute, the morning of the first bear show of the season, on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. It’s always crazy right before the season opens — there is a huge extended Clark family running the entire park — and while the surprise is being installed in her enclosure, Victoria has spent the better part of the week in the deluxe retirement home behind Maureen’s cabin, pacing, upset. When Maureen brings the bear back to her pen to see the surprise, Victoria has made herself lame from all the pacing.

In the pen is a wooden ramp leading to a raised platform above her den. The platform is oriented to a walkway that runs along the back of the bleachers, and together they create a stage and a natural theater for people to stop and meet Victoria after the show. The crowds may not come to see an old bear struggle through tricks, she thought, but they might watch an old bear lay happily in the sun.

When Victoria arrives, though, she is stressed and tired from the pacing and worrying. Maureen coaxes her up onto the new platform with some black-raspberry ice cream, but she is dragging her left leg. Maureen leaves her alone in her enclosure and dashes off to get ready for the show. The train is coming back. Murray, Maureen’s brother, puts on his safari hat and his microphone. He is the showman, the heir to his father. Maureen is still the bear helper. Next door to Victoria, Pemi and Echo get rowdy as they wait for Maureen. The Trading Post has sprung to life and there is music and smells everywhere. They splash aggressively in their pool, throw toys around, stand up and growl at each other as they get ready to go into the ring. Victoria goes to her favorite corner and falls asleep.

Maybe a role in the show

Right away, as the season begins, Pemi looks tired. He is the big nine-year-old male, and Maureen and her brother don’t know what is wrong with him. The vet thinks he might have Lyme disease. Later they think he has arthritis. After the first weekend, they take him out of the show. Which means Victoria might have to go in.

The skit they plan is going to be a simple camping scene. Victoria will steal a marshmallow, and show why you don’t take food into your tent. None of her old big numbers, like walking on a giant globe or swinging on the giant chair, where she would always tap her arms on the side of the chain as it swung, and the crowd would go wild. “You can’t teach that to a bear. That’s in them,” Maureen says. They work on the camping bit for a while. Victoria loves going into the ring to practice, Maureen says. Crowds gather to watch. And the rest of the time, she basks in the sun on her new perch and stretches and plays for the people on the balcony above. She is happy, Maureen says; they are both happy. But she does not go into the show. Echo is able to carry Pemi’s load in the show, and the cub, Tula, steps up in her first full season.

After Columbus Day, when the season is over at the Trading Post, the other show bears are moved across the road, to winter habitats. Victoria just stays in her spot, looking out at that one rectangle of life in front of her: the show ring and the stands around it.

By mid-December, the Trading Post has grown winter quiet, but Victoria is still awake. Maureen has been whispering around most of the other bears for a week already because they have gone to sleep. She goes to see Victoria with what she hopes will be her last meal before hibernation: an apple, some grapes, and dog chow, in a metal bowl. “Good night, baby,” she says, and locks her gate.

At some point after that, Victoria goes into her den, curls up on the hay, and goes to sleep.

The world has since grown cold, that sharp White Mountain cold. Hibernation is a rather ingenious solution to winter, one that bears have always seemed comfortable doing. Victoria’s heartbeat will drop to about eight beats per minute, and she will slowly burn through her own reserves, 46 pounds, until the spring thaw. Bears skip winter. Just take it off the calendar. But Maureen lives through it, and soon enough she will have Victoria’s birthday to look forward to. That’s when she will again crawl into a bear’s den for the part in the Maureen and Victoria story that is too strange even for a children’s book. She will wake a hibernating bear.

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