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A Grizzly Tale

WEB-EXCLUSIVE: Step back into a wilder time in California history with the Bear In Mind: The Story of the California Grizzly exhibit at the Old Orange County Courthouse.

Courtesy of Old Orange County Courthouse

Bear In Mind:
The Story of the California Grizzly

Through October 8, 2010
Old Orange County Courthouse
211 W. Santa Ana Blvd., Santa Ana
Free admission
714.973.6610 :: ocparks.com/oldcourthouse

The grizzly bear once roamed freely in Southern California. An estimated 10,000 grizzlies once lived here, making it “perhaps the densest population of brown bears on the continent,” according to Orange County Parks. Unfortunately, because of human settlement, the resulting loss of habitat and hunting, the grizzly went extinct around these parts.  

All that remains of the California grizzly today are fables and its image on our state flag. As a way to celebrate and educate about the grizzly, the California Exhibition Resources Alliance (CERA), The Bancroft Library at University of California, Berkeley and Heyday Books produced Bear In Mind: The Story of the California Grizzly, which opened June 2010 at the Old Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana to delve into the history of this iconic image.

As you walk into the Bear In Mind exhibit, a four-foot grizzly bear stands at the back center of the room, staring back at you. His mouth is open, revealing sharp, ferocious teeth, but his eyes tell a different story: a sad one.

In 1769, the first grizzly bear died of a gunshot wound and a change began taking place in Southern California. While the California grizzly bear once thrived, it was hunted until the point of extinction in less than 75 years. The last known California grizzly bear was spotted in Sequoia National Park in 1924.

Native Southern Californians will tell you that everyone has a bear story. Susan Snyder, the author of Bear in Mind: The California Grizzly, which inspired the exhibit, was on a camping trip in Canada with her husband 10 years ago when a bear approached as her husband stood huddled over the campfire cooking a pot of pinto beans. They dropped the pot of beans into the fire and attempted to scare the bear off. Once the bear retreated, Snyder salvaged their food from the fire and continued to cook the beans. “I wasn’t afraid when I saw the bear, I was too fascinated,” she says.  

The exhibit is filled with pieces of art depicting the importance of the grizzly. The bear served as a source of entertainment, a symbolic image for the state and the subject of folklore. He appears on fruit crate labels for grapes and advertises festivals in San Francisco in the early 1900s. There are posters with large black text announcing “Grizzly Versus a Panther!” and “Grizzly Fights Three Bulls!” Photos of grizzlies performing for carnivals and in parks line the walls, while books about the grizzly, such as True Bear Stories by Joaquin Miller and A Boys’ Book of Bear Stories (Not for Boys) by Jim Sleeper are proudly arranged in display cases. Grizzly bear bones, fossils and casts are scattered throughout the exhibit.

Here, the California grizzly isn’t extinct – he is alive and well.


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