Henry the Bear
(Note: The Roadside America Team visited in 2009. Since 2010, Henry the Bear has not been accessible to the public.)
We pull into the gas station in Mitchell, Oregon, the only one within 30 miles. Next to the pump island and an office shack, a two-story metal cage catches our attention. This is the home of Henry the Bear. And he's groaning like a Wookiee.
"No, I'm not gonna give you no cookie," shouts Hugh Reed, the gas station's brawny owner, over Henry's plaintive yowls. Hugh walks into Henry's spacious cage, takes out a knife, and cuts up an apple to feed Henry by hand. Passers-by stare in wonder. A woman cries, "Oh, look at him!" A teenage boy cautions, "There's a label on that apple!"
"He'll eat it," says Hugh, casually. "You'll find it in his poop in the morning."
Henry has lived at the Little Pine Truck Stop since 2000, the year Hugh rescued the then-one-year-old black bear from a local Boy's Club. Hugh says the club could no longer keep the young bear and planned to have him shot.
"I've hunted bear all my life," Hugh said. "But I've never been friends with a bear before."
At 800 pounds, Henry makes a formidable friend. "He's big as a lot of your Grizzlies," said Hugh -- and he eats over 40 pounds of carrots, apples, and dog food a day. Hugh is responsible for feeding him, and for keeping Henry's cage clean, and for making sure that Henry gets his daily share of exercise and fun. "Picture a baby hanging on your tit all day," said Hugh. "That's what it's kinda like." Except that this baby will never grow up, and if he throws a tantrum he could rip off your head.
Furry gas station mascots have always been popular, from the beloved Honey the Money Dog in South Carolina to the besieged Tony the Tiger in Louisiana. But we've never seen anything like the carnivore/potential prey interaction at the Little Pine Truck Stop.
When Henry was younger, Hugh would invite tourists into Henry's cage to feed him by holding apple slices between their teeth. Not any more. "He's getting a little nervous about things," Hugh said. "He's changing a little bit." Hugh now restricts visitors to occasional stand-in-the-cage-doorway-and-get-out-if-I-tell-you-to photo shoots, and only if his Bear Sense tells him that Henry would be cool with it. "He's not mean," said Hugh. "But he's a bear."
Hugh calls Henry "the Cookie Monster," and held out a beefy arm to show us scars from Henry's teeth. A girls' basketball team stopped by one day and had Hugh feed Henry two packages of cookies. "I didn't think it'd hurt him," Hugh said. "He loves them cookies." But when the treats stopped, Henry got mad. "It was my fault. I gave him a hell of a sugar high," Hugh recalled. "We got into a real battle. I was basically just trying to keep him from eating me."
Cookie ODs are just one of the bad things that Henry has learned from humans. He's also learned to lean against the cage wire and high-five visitors (Hugh wants to erect a second barrier to prevent it), and to head-butt them through the wire as well. One young man, warned by Hugh, insisted on challenging Henry -- and lost, of course. Knocked to the ground, he good-naturedly stood in front of the cage so that his friends could take souvenir pictures of his bleeding head.
Speaking of souvenirs, there aren't any of Henry. Hugh and his wife Skeeter once snapped Polaroids of tourists with the bear, but then they were told by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife that they needed a $30 permit to exploit Henry. Instead, Hugh and Skeeter put away the camera and have had nothing further to do with it.
Hugh's prudent restrictions on bear access should prevent the unfortunate day that Henry innocently mistakes someone's face for a delicious cookie. But it also means that Henry is most entertaining when Hugh is around, and Hugh is a busy guy. He often has to be somewhere else. It's best to see Henry early in the morning, when Hugh cleans out the overnight poop and feeds Henry his breakfast.
Hugh told us that he hopes to eventually turn Henry into a "traveling bear," meaning that Henry would live out at Hugh's ranch and travel to the gas station in a horse trailer. That would free up some much-needed time for Hugh, who is now in his seventies. "But I have to get him to come out of there," Hugh said, looking into Henry's cage and not sounding completely convinced. "You don't go shoving Henry around. You have to try to outsmart him. And sometimes he don't outsmart."