- Associated Press - Thursday, November 26, 2015

CODY, Wyo. (AP) - Wahb the grizzly bear has been famous in fiction for more than a century, but a combination analysis and report on its relevancy to today’s world earned two Buffalo Bill Center of the West officials an unexpected prize for their partnership.

Jeremy Johnston, museum curator, and Charles Preston, senior curator of Natural Science at the Center’s Draper Museum of Natural History, collaborated on an unusual endeavor to win the National Outdoor Book Award.

Taking Ernest Thompson Seton’s fictional work, “Wahb: The Biography of A Grizzly,” published in 1900, and applying modern-day viewpoints and scientific perspective, they studied the grizzly bear character’s behavior and Seton’s approach.

While praising the quality of the writing and not disparaging the enduring popularity of the story, they brought science to Wahb’s actions and provided pointed supplemental observations to advise readers what to believe and not to believe.

Johnston wrote an in-depth introduction to the story and Preston wrote an in-depth afterward. Sandwiched in the middle is the story which Seton wrote.

Born in Scotland, growing up near Toronto, and ultimately finding success as a writer, artist and naturalist in New York City, Seton wrote several outdoorsy books that featured animals. In the case of Wahb, and other animal life, he insisted that they were factual reports of the way they lived.

Seton never wavered from that description, even in the face of some critical articles written by naturalist luminary John Burroughs and even Teddy Roosevelt. They were skeptics of some bear activity ascribed to Wahb.

Johnston and Preston decided to fit it into what is now known from studies of the Yellowstone grizzly bear.

Wahb’s range is the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, including Meeteetse, the Greybull River and the Park.

Some issues stood out that indicated Seton made some reaches as he unfolded his plot.

Wahb was part of an unusual litter of four cubs. Early in his life, however, the bears are shot at by a well-known hunter, a real-life hunter who it was reported genuinely shot four bears in one day. Wahb’s mother and siblings were all killed and he was wounded in the foot.

The story follows Wahb’s struggles to learn how to survive with no adult supervision and his fears in the forest when he runs across wildlife bigger and stronger than he, from black bears to badgers, when he is young.

Of course, ultimately Wahb outgrows them all and becomes the bully of the block. No one messed with Wahb once he gained his full size and strength.

From the time he is a cub Wahb learns to associate human smell with death and danger and he never forgets how his family was decimated.

It really is a poignant story. Seton doesn’t allow Wahb much fun or much joy in life, especially as a cub and later, in old age when infirmities overtake him. To a great degree the simple story seems to be for children, but it is fairly gloomy for kids of a certain age.

An aching and aging Wahb finds comfort in some hot springs, as if treating arthritis. Johnston and Preston found no evidence of mammals taking advantage of Yellowstone sulphur springs or geysers for such soothing relaxation.

Also, they look askance at Wahb’s deep-seated hatred of humans, carrying a grudge for a lifetime.

Johnston said Wahb was imbued with too many human emotions. “He’s bipolar. Wahb had to have had at least nine lives,” he said.

Similarly, in his afterword, Preston refers to “blatant anthropomorphism and misleading bear behavior characterizations…(but) Seton imparted a good deal of insightful natural history information into the environment surrounding Wahb and succeeded in bringing the reader into the grizzly bear’s world.”

Johnston and Preston did not demolish Seton’s work. They did highlight specific instances where fiction rules over fact and said it is important for the reader to know the difference. One reason, as Preston noted, is the continuing saga of the Yellowstone grizzly, right up till the present, where it is listed as threatened on the Endangered Species List, but could be delisted.

Preston did reference the number of grizzlies in the region, the challenges for those bears finding their preferred dinner menus, but also stated the obvious and significant changes in the way grizzlies are viewed in the Yellowstone area and throughout the United States these days as compared to Seton’s time.

In 1900 and beyond, grizzly bears were seen as a hated enemy of man, and many desired to wipe them out. In 2015, nature lovers wish to see them thrive. The status of the Yellowstone grizzly is under so much scrutiny, Preston said, it is important for all bear portrayals to be accurate - even if they were written 100-plus years ago.

Both Preston and Johnston were pleased that their work was rewarded and seen as important.

“I was really quite surprised and really honored the book is getting recognized,” Johnston said. “The award is really his, Seton’s, because it is so well-written. And Chuck made it relevant to a new audience.”

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