Bears Versus BullsA California Competition

The beaches and arroyos swarmed with them. Their ambling paths wove through the region?s densest chaparral and underbrush. They congregated in great numbers in places that reveal their presence to this day?Big Bear, Los Osos, Grizzly Bear Flats. It is thought that upwards of 150,000 grizzly bears once roamed the oak-dotted hills of California. Settlers reported that it was not uncommon to come across thirty or forty bears in a single day.
With a full-grown adult weighing between 300 to 1500 pounds, grizzlies were the undisputed lords of the land. The Indians lived in constant fear of these great beasts who they believed were sent from the spirit world to punish the unfaithful. Residing comfortably at the top of the food chain, grizzlies had little to fear from the Indians? wood and stone weapons. It was not until the arrival of the Spanish with their firearms and herds of cattle that the bears? reign ebbed.

Visionary vaqueros soon saw fit to eliminate chance from such encounters. The daring horsemen would lasso a grizzly with leather riatas, often one on each leg, and tugging with all their might, drag it into the makeshift arena where the bear would be introduced to an equally enraged bull. ?[The bull and the bear] stood motionless, as if lost in wonder and indignant astonishment at this strange encounter. Neither turned from the other his blazing eyes.? recalled a witness to such an impromptu contest near Monterey. ?Gathering their full strength, the terrific rush was made. The bear, with one enormous bound, dashed his teeth into his back to break the spine; the bull fell, but whirled his huge horn deep into the side of his antagonist. There they lay, grappled and gored, in their convulsive struggles and death-throes. We spurred up, and with our pistols and rifles closed the tragedy.?
Omnivores by nature, grizzlies had for centuries survived on plants, insects, rodents, and whatever carrion they came across?from elk and deer to whale carcasses that washed up on the beaches. But the tasty Spanish cattle proved irresistible. Clever hunters all, grizzlies were known to trick their victims by rolling on their backs playfully. Curious bulls and cows would circle around. When one got close enough the bear would suddenly leap up and grab it buy the snout with it?s 3-inch claws. Sometimes a particularly agile bear would conspire with his ?teammates? in a most unorthodox game, as reported by an Ojai resident who witnessed a furry gymnast emerging from the treeline. ?The rolling bear was all doubled up and bounding along like a football towards the cattle, which instead of fleeing, pricked up their ears and watched the strange spectacle.? Meanwhile, the bear?s accessories dashed into the open, catching the unwitting spectators by surprise.
While these rural battles were held solely for the entertainment of the vaqueros, the sport soon gained popularity in the towns. Monterey built a special stone and adobe arena just for such purposes. Ladies beheld the spectacle from the safety of overhanging balconies. In Santa Barbara, ?horsemen stood guard to keep the grizzly from clambering over the fence and venting its rage on the women and children.? The fights were usually held on Sundays and holidays just after church and were often accompanied by a great procession and much fanfare, befitting the Spaniards? ?emotional association of religion, violence, and blood.?
The bulls used for fighting were not the modern-day domestic type. ?Sharp of horn? and ?quick of foot,? these Spanish bulls possessed notoriously bad tempers and ?a charge like that of a catapult.? Attached at the leg by a leather cord about twenty yards long and penned in at close range, the two wild beasts had no choice but to face off. The fights were, as can be imagined, quite gory and certainly sated the bloodlust in even the most masochistic of audiences. Although matches were reported to have lasted up to two hours, things generally ended quickly, especially when the bear grabbed hold of the bull?s Achilles? heel?its tongue. One attendee recalled the horror of a fight?s final moments as the bear, ?its entrails dragging, ripped off the tongue, the ears, and much of the lower jaw of the bull.? If a bull triumphed, his victory usually came early in the tournament if he got lucky enough to ?plunge his long, curving horns in to the bear?s body, toss his adversary high into the air, and then gore him to death as the bear lay prostrate on the ground.? More often than not, however, both animals succumbed to their wounds.
Onlookers too were at risk of injury. Bears or bulls, finding themselves free from their opponents when their restraints were somehow severed in battle, often ?forgot their differences? and fled, smashing and swiping their way through the audience in a desperate bid for freedom. A particularly determined bear ran pell-mell through the streets of San Francisco before clambering up the belltower of the Mission Dolores. So ensconced, the incensed bear held capturers at bay for several hours and alarmed the town with repeated clanging of the bell.
There were numerous variations in the contest. Denizens of Big Sur trapped a mountain lion and set it loose on a bear. The big cat won. Monterrey, Mexico reportedly hosted an exotic pas de deaux between a Los Angeles grizzly named Samson and ?man-eating? African lion named Parnell. This time the king of the jungle was no match for West Coast fury. Samson incidentally was one of the more famous grizzlies on record. A veteran of numerous battles, he belonged to none other than John ?Grizzly? Adams, a trapper who collected wild animals and traveled the country displaying them to the public. In another fight in Mexico Samson was witnessed to ?dig a hole large enough to hold an elephant, take a bull in his paws as if he were an infant, carry him to the pit, hurl him into it head foremost, slap him on the side with his tremendous paws until his breath was half knocked out of his body, and then hold him down with one paw while he deliberately buried him alive by raking the earth down upon him with the other.? Unfortunately Adams was to face an equally gruesome demise. During a roughhousing session one of his grizzlies ripped open his face and dug a one-inch hole in his skull, exposing his brain. The wound never healed and Adams covered it with a knit hat. On his way to New York to show off his animal menagerie, his pet monkey became irritated by sea travel and jumping up on his head, picked at the open wound. Adams died a few weeks later from infection.
With the arrival of the gold rush, Americans soon outnumbered Spaniards in California, and in turn, Yankee ingenuity made its mark on the sport. While the Spanish viewed grizzlies as noble beasts, worthy of honor and respect, the Americans pushed the fights into more spectacular scenarios, even pressing smaller and less vicious black bears into service. Bears were humiliated by being pitted against packs of dogs or hordes of rats ?which tormented the grizzly to distraction by swarming over him and crawling under his fur.? In Bakersfield a man rode a wild bull as it charged a bear. The impact tossed him loose and he crept away to collect a $50 bet. Nevada City residents had the grand idea of pitting a grizzly against a ?champion fighting jackass,? opening the gates to dozens of bear versus donkey matches throughout the state. ?If the bear was a real grizzly, he always won,? wrote one reporter, ?But the burro would worry him desperately for a long time. The bear would suffer tremendous jolts on the jaw from the burro?s heels, that would send him staggering back time and again.? Then the burro would latch on with its teeth until in its fury ?the angry bear bit the donkey?s leg off or bit his head off.?
As the state became more civilized, bear and bull fights were outlawed. ?The pleasure a set of civilized beings can find in witnessing the forced conflict of animals,? wrote a reporter for a Bay Area newspaper, ?Is of the base sort which the savage feels when he dances round the stake of his victim.? And though scattered battles occurred through the end of the century, the grizzlies population was rapidly declining. The last grizzly in California was killed in 1908 near Trabuco Canyon in (of all places) Orange County, although sitings occurred in remoter areas of the Sierra Nevada up into the early 1920s. Though the spirit of the bear and bull fights lives on in Wall Street terminolgy thanks to aficionado and publisher Horace Greeley, the only grizzlies seen in California these days are on the state flag.