From the Sabertooth to the Grizzly

How Grizzly Bears Saved Doug Peacock's Life

January 25, 2015

Doug Peacock is a legend in wilderness circles. A friend of Edward Abbey - in fact, the model for Abbey's character Hayduke in "The Monkey Wrench Gang" - Peacock was a Vietnam vet so traumatized by the war that he escaped into the wilderness once he returned to America. Camping out in Yellowstone, he had his first brush with a grizzly and - he tells Steve Paulson - it saved his life.

Over the decades, Peacock found solace living near grizzlies and he's devoted the last 40 years to protecting their habitat. In fact, grizzlies have become so embedded in his psyche that he even dreams about them. A natural history buff, Peacock has also puzzled over one of the great mysteries of extinction: Why did the huge mammals that once roamed North America - the mammoth, the sabertooth tiger, the giant short-faced bear - disappear? Did our human ancestors hunt them into extinction?



The giant short-faced bear

This is an animal that weighed well over a ton. Standing up, it would’ve been a 15 foot bear, twice as big as grizzlies today. And it was a pure carnivore. That basically precluded humans hunting big game. Anybody coming out of the Arctic 30 or 15-thousand years ago would’ve been a big game hunter, but as they went south and especially as they ran into the short-faced bear, they couldn’t secure a kill.

Transforming the psychic landscape

Living alongside a top predator transforms the psychic landscape like nothing else can. You take your Kelty pack and hike in the High Sierras and you’re top dog. You walk down the trail, thinking about your girlfriend or your portfolio. But you add a grizzly bear to that equation and you’re in grizzly country, all of a sudden you’re not at the top of the food chain. You necessarily start looking around. You smell better and hear better.

“Those bears got my attention”

Grizzlies saved my life when I came back from Vietnam because what I needed after two tours as a Green Beret medic was to get out of myself. The last thing I needed was self-indulgence. And when you’re entering grizzly country, with an animal that - if it chooses, could kill and eat you any time it wants to - self-indulgence is utterly impossible.

Enforced Humility
I’m a critic of our society. That’s what I think a writer has to be. I inherited that from my old friend and mentor Edward Abbey. You know, the easiest exit from culture is wilderness. You go up in wilderness and after 3 or 4 days something happens. You’re free of culture. You’re able to look back at your own kind and your own ways with an objective mind that’s free of judgment.

You add a grizzly bear to that occasion and that’s what allowed me to re-gather the elements of my own humanity. Those grizzly bears saved my life. I wouldn’t have had children if I hadn’t been able to watch the great grizzly. The great lessons of grizzly bears are actually lessons of tolerance, lessons of restraint, and above all, enforced humility.