The more removed our daily lives get from nature, the less we understand about the wild creatures who live around us. Fear grows in darkness outside our kitchen windows, extending the ancient archetype of the Big Bad Wolf to other species. In Grafton, New Hampshire, black bears have started killing domestic animals, invading personal space, even smacking one woman, creating a psychic and territorial battle between residents and the otherwise shy Ursus americanus.

For The Atavist, Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling traces the origins of this tiny town’s highly independent nature and its tense relationship with wildlife. He looks at competing theories of ursine behavior, and misperceptions about black bears versus the biological reality. What he found wasn’t a simple bear problem, but “a parable of liberty, disinformation, and fear. A parable, really, of America.” Exhibit A: the so-called cat massacre.

Andrew Timmins told me that he’d never received a bear complaint involving a cat, from Grafton or anywhere else. Plus, the idea that wild bears could acquire a taste for felines seemed dubious to him. When a Grafton resident told me about a bear that drained his biodiesel supply—a five-gallon container of two-year-old French-fry grease—I was reminded that bears will devour even the most loathsome fare, so long as it adds to their winter stores of fat. They’re after calories, not cuisine. Despite local perception, the cats of Bungtown probably weren’t the bears’ preferred target; they were just there.

Perception, though, matters a great deal when people craft stories about how they overcome obstacles and cope with conflict. Once the seed of the purported bear hazard was planted, stories nourished it. Often the light of reality was refracted such that it transformed an animal into a totemic version of itself: bandit or strongman, noble savage or mythic monster, bumbling idiot or cunning predator.

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