TAHOE CITY – The little dude, parents in tow, came clomping up the stairs to the second floor of the Gatekeeper's Museum to see the new exhibit "Ursus Among Us," all about bears in the Lake Tahoe region.
He reached the top, turned left, then let out a startled scream that turned heads.
"Bear!" he said, pointing.
True, that. Only it was a stuffed and mounted specimen, about 400 pounds of hirsute black bear frozen in mid-stride, a rubber trout in his mouth.
Still, if only for an instant, young Chris Biller of Concord was a little scared at the sight. But he soon became drawn to the bear, fascinated by the hulking torso, the baseball-mitt-size paws, the scar on his snout from (presumably) previous wildlife encounters.
"We saw a real live bear at our camp (this morning)," the boy said.
Asked his dad, also named Chris: "Was it harmful or harmless?"
"Harmless. It licked its lips at me."
"It was at our cabin in South Lake, 20 yards away in a tree, just chilling out," dad explained. "No one was alarmed."
"Yeah, but I saw it first," young Chris said.
Our relationship with the 30,000 or so black bears native to California can be a lot like that experienced by this chatty youngster.
Humans are at once smitten with the bears' furry presence and expressive eyes (Everyone say, "Awww ..."), wary of the physical prowess they can exhibit and – though young Chris hadn't shown this emotion – irritated by the big lugs when they invade our space to forage for food and garbage.
As the exhibit so succinctly captures in a sign hanging from the ceiling: "Bears and People: It's Complicated."
A year in the planning, "Ursus Among Us" aims to inform, not advocate. It alludes to all sides in the issue – residents angered by bears on their property, hunters seeking an increase in prescribed hunting, animal rights groups seeking full protection. Though stopping short of offering recommendations, the exhibit comes off as pro-bear in the respect that it doesn't want to see needless killing.
"It is a contentious issue and that was one of our big challenges," said Marguerite Sprague, the museum's executive director. "We took a kind of Lincolnesque approach to our advisers. We consulted with all sides."
Indeed. Pro-bear advocate Ann Bryant of the Tahoe BEAR League was involved with the exhibit, as were officials from the state Department of Fish and Game, which has proposed expanded bear hunting. Tahoe State Park Superintendent Brian Barton also was consulted.
"We have to be dispassionate and nonpartisan," Sprague said. "Because, if you're a hunter and come in to the museum, and somebody says hunting's bad, you're no longer listening. Our main goal is that people receive this information and come to their own conclusions.
"One of the beauties of our country is that we have a range of opinions. But imperative to that is that we hold our opinions in such a way we can coexist. If we can coexist with differences in opinion, our chances of coexisting with the bears will go way up."
The exhibit is separated into two sections: first, a just-the-facts history of bears in California, from the Ice Age giant short-faced bear through the grizzly (extinct by 1922) to the current Ursus Americanus; their breeding, nurturing, feeding habits, behavior in the wild and; second, their interaction with humans, from the Washoe Indian tribe to present-day Tahoe second-home sophisticates.
Both sections are worth extended perusal, especially the metal artwork by Lauren O'Malley.
At the "Up Close and Personal" side, you'll learn that bears don't growl ("That's just what you see on TV," Sprague said); rather, they huff, hiss and sometimes make a half-bark, half-moan like a Labrador. You'll also see a video proving that bears do, indeed, eat anything and everything, including savory ant pupae. You'll see a mama bear feeding a cub, complete with audio from the sated cub that could easily be mistaken for a human baby's coo.
At the "It's Complicated" side, you'll see iron bear traps that fly 4 feet skyward when sprung and vintage rifles that settlers used to slay bears. You'll also learn how the Washoe, in Sprague's words, "coexisted with grizzlies and black bears for centuries, not just decades."
Farther along, the museum has reserved space for the two sides – the BEAR League and the Department of Fish and Game – to make their cases for bear protection or bear management. One video shows a research program (since defunded) in which garbage-loving bears are "hazed" with rubber bullets, paint-ball pellets and loud noises to intended to scare them back deep into the wilderness.
Recognizing, however, that black bears are in no danger of becoming extinct any time soon, Sprague wanted to emphasize what people can do to curb unfortunate encounters – namely, not leaving out food or garbage to tempt them.
"As human beings we respect property rights very much, and there's a huge frustration on the part of human beings that these guys don't. I hear it in the undertone of comments here.
"But I tell people, instead of thinking about bears as animals who should respect your home and car, instead imagine you are living in a forest with several hundred starving people in it. Wouldn't you view how you left things in your car and home differently then? But the more I've watched bears and their physicality, we need to alter that. We're actually living surrounded by several hundred starving toddlers."
To which we can only say, "Awww."
130 West Lake Blvd., Tahoe City
Exhibit: "Ursus Among Us," through October 2014.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (closed Tuesdays)