Bruin up Halloween trouble

Say what you will about the commercialism of Christmas, but Halloween is the big phony masquerading as a holiday. Think about what a holiday really means. It’s a sacred time for celebrating togetherness, or giving thanks, or showing love in the form of chocolate and teddy bears.

Not Halloween. Tonight is a “come as you aren’t” night: an anti-holiday all about shenanigans and reckless behavior and gimme, gimme, gimme. Tonight, more than any night, is about being strangers. The best costume is one where even your friends don’t recognize you, or better yet, genuinely believe you are someone else. We can be anyone, repercussion-free. It’s like identity theft with candy!

The whole ordeal doesn’t tax our higher thinking with abstract concepts like “morals” and “peace on earth.” Instead, Halloween speaks the language of our reptilian brain: adrenaline, food, and sex. We scare ourselves silly. We threaten our neighbors with vandalism unless they hand over their best candy, or (once we reach a certain age) attempt to copulate with the sexy nurse/pirate/ninja/mechanic who would normally ignore us, except even on Halloween it’s really, really difficult to brush off the person in the movie-quality Darth Vader outfit.

Maybe part of the reason Halloween is a fraud of a holiday is because it’s pretty much the night of many faces. We have no revered saint or secular hero for this pagan romp. We have lots of emblems – jack-o’-lanterns, ghosts, bats, witches and the like. But I propose a new stand-alone totem for the occasion, a creature all about massive amounts of food and terror, a monster that will really cause me to soil myself: the bear.

Not cutesy, T-shirt-wearing and honey-pot-pilfering bears, either. I’m talking the musky, rippled, sprints-faster-than-a-horse, chows-20,000-calories-a-day beast of the forest.

I have a sense that many of you are by now snickering at my “irrational” respect for the awesome power of bears. Garbage bins and apple trees have more to fear from our ursine residents than trick-or-treaters do, you mutter. But those of you laughing haven’t listened to Anne Bryant, the executive director of the Bear League in Tahoe, Calif.

Bryant talked to NPR just this weekend about bears breaking into cars. The bears aren’t tearing through convertible tops or snaking clothes hangers through doors. No, the bears open the cars using the door handles. How, you ask? They have learned by WATCHING US.

"Bears are evolving faster than humans are,” Bryant said, “and they’re taking over.”

Those words bear repeating, because they were spoken by a genuine bear expert: BEARS ARE TAKING OVER.

I’m a city boy by birth. Wildlife, in my view, is a dog running around without a leash. I didn’t grow up knowing nature, let alone being comfortable with it. I’m the guy who screeches when a grasshopper collides with my face. So I considered myself lucky when my first-ever Durango bear encounter ended with one of us dashing into the safety of the woods, and the other riding casually away on my bicycle.

Which of those was me doesn’t matter. I survived.

People keep telling me that bears really are interested in leaving me alone, that so long as I don’t threaten them they won’t threaten me. All I know is that surviving an encounter with a startled bear made me feel pretty badass. No one could take that away from me.

No one, that is, until one little offhand remark from a longtime resident of bear country eroded what little confidence I had earned:

“Give the bear your candy.”

What? Like, leave the bowl of Skittles outside on Halloween night?

“No. If a bear comes sniffing after your candy while you’re trick-or-treating, drop the bag and leave it.”

OK, I’d dealt with the threat of bag-snatchers growing up. But even the ones who were big and hairy for their age wouldn’t actually eat me just to get to my candy. Bears are freaky anyway, yet if one charged at me on a dark, spooky eve, I would promptly put the “wee” back in Halloween.

But the bears are not stopping at cars and Halloween candy. Oh no. They are going after the creamy and/or chunky core of all that America stands for. According to Bryant, “They have learned how to open peanut butter jars. Whereas 10 years ago they’d smash them to get the peanut butter inside, now they simply turn the lid off.”

Bears are infiltrating our lives where communism and "American Idol" both failed. I know actual human beings who can’t unscrew a peanut butter lid. And most of them even have thumbs! Uncapping peanut butter jars is one of the hallmarks of evolved intelligence, along with stealing bicycles and dumpster diving.

There’s one thing in common with all those activities, other than how terrifyingly quickly bears learn them. Humans have taught bears to do them. (Or perhaps the other way around. That’s a prospect too horrifying for this writer to consider.)

Carelessness in opening car doors and Jif jars in full view of peeping bruins has brought about the evolution of genius bears. They are our Frankenstein’s monsters. Heaven help us when they learn to speak French and open the Welch’s grape jelly.

Humans are the devices of our own undoing. That’s why even on Halloween, the night of living irresponsibly, we have to recognize our duties to the natural world. While we’re cavorting about with our reptile brains, we should still consider the repercussions of our actions. What happens to our discarded candy wrappers? Are any bears watching you unwrap that Mars bar?

Failure to consider the consequences means we’ll end up with real monsters – and this time, human carelessness is the slasher in the house. So keep monsters at bay this Halloween. Make certain your toilet paper is biodegradable when you go T-Ping, and ensure that your egging missiles are free-range and hormone-free. And if you truly want to scare some folks tonight, dress up as our cousin in evolution: the bear. The musky scent might keep you from winning the sexy nurse/pirate/ninja/mechanic, but you’ll definitely score some free bags of candy.

– Zach Hively