There was no mistaking the fuzzy, furry head and pointed nose. And the open-mouthed breathing clearly communicated one thing: the bear cub was in trouble.
I was driving down the main drag through town in my veterinary truck, both kids strapped in their carseats in the back seat. We were just coming from a work call on a Sunday, both kids had been perfectly behaved and as helpful on the call as 5- and 2-year olds could possibly be. I had been feeling pretty good about the day until this moment.
The cub was half in the road and the road was a busy one. I turned around as quickly as I could, planning to block traffic with my vehicle so that he wouldn’t be struck, presumably for the second time. By the time I returned to the scene two other cars had stopped and one had called the police. The driver of the second vehicle was a woman who was blocking traffic with her body, fighting back tears. The cub had a green tag in both ears: #740. He also had a badly broken and bleeding leg and he was in distress. In less than a minute, two police officers were on the scene and they had contacted the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife. I introduced myself to one of the officers at the scene and explained that I was a veterinarian. The police officer promptly called the officer from the Department of Parks and Wildlife (who was on his way to the cub), explained that a veterinarian was present and asked if he wanted me to step in. The answer was no. No one present at the scene was permitted to touch the bear.
As a veterinarian, I have taken an oath to end animal suffering but I was not permitted to do so in this moment. This was not my call to make. The Wildlife officer was on his way. He knew the situation and was prepared to euthanize the cub. I respect that they have their protocol, and they certainly know a lot more about bears than I do, so I am not in any way criticizing their decision. But in that moment, I felt completely helpless.
From the cover of a scrub oak on a large hill on the side of the road, mama bear watched us all quietly, knowing that her cub was lost and that this was not a fight worth fighting. She didn’t leave the scene, she didn’t offer any signs of aggression towards the humans who had stopped to help her baby. She too stood and watched on, helpless.
Then I heard the sobs coming from my own vehicle. My son, 5 years old, had wanted to see a bear since we had moved to Colorado just over a year ago. He was the only member of our family who had yet to see one, until today. And what he saw was a horrible sight.
I went quickly back to the truck, where he was unfastening the straps of his carseat. “Buddy, “ I said, “you need to stay in the car. It’s too dangerous to get out on the busy road.”
Through big, body-shaking sobs he replied, “I’m gonna get out and help that bear!”
“You can’t, honey,” I said as gently as I could, “there’s nothing we can do.”
After finally persuading him to buckle his straps, I returned to the police officer and asked once more if there was anything I could do. There was not. The Wildlife officer would be there in just a few minutes. So I followed the sounds of the sobs back to my truck and drove away.
“Will he be ok, Mom?” The question came from the back seat, the voice held a hint of hope. My heart sank. I wish that I could have said yes, but I’m a terrible liar. And the truth is that sometimes horribly sad things happen in life. And sometimes we feel helpless in those moments. Is 5 years old too young to learn that lesson? I don’t know.
“No, buddy,” I said, holding back tears of my own, “He isn’t going to make it, but soon he won’t be in pain any longer.”
Big, crocodile tears flooded his face and he sobbed for most of the drive home. He was so terribly sad for the cub, he was angry with the driver who presumably struck the cub, and he couldn’t comprehend the innate injustice we all feel when baby things die. And I was helpless to shield him from those really painful feelings. I pulled off to the side of the road, held his hand while he cried, and tried to simply hold the space for him to process his big, yucky feelings. His sister, a little too young to understand what all the fuss was about, pleaded with him to stop because he was hurting her ears – the sobbing was that loud.
And eventually he stopped. And eventually I found a way to be thankful for all of the people who cared enough to try and help a helpless animal. And eventually I came to terms with the fact that sometimes being helpless is an inevitable emotional state in which we find ourselves. We can’t stop the pain our loved ones feel, we can’t wave our magic wand and end all the suffering, we can’t banish the terrible feelings that find a way of creeping in. Helplessness might just be one of the most terrible feelings, probably because it all too often takes us by the hand and leads us to commiserate with its close cousin despair. It’s a slippery slope it seems. And sometimes the only way to avoid a slide down that slope is to come to terms with the fact that we did the best we could do to provide comfort in an awful moment. Sometimes the rest is simply out of our hands.