Friday, May 21, 2010

Butch the Koolau Bear

Contributed by Norm Roberts on 12/3/1997

While on the Ka'a'wa Valley Hike last August, there came a point at which the grazing cattle turned as one and stared menacingly at us as we passed nearby. One of the hikers expressed relief that there were no large, wild animals in Hawaii. What old timer could resist a straight line like that! "But there have been," I said. "There used to be a black bear that roamed both sides of the Koolaus from Maunawili to Pupukea and back to Moanalua."

My statement was greeted with expressions of polite, sheer, and stark disbelief. "Isn't that just a legend?" I was asked.

"It probably is now," I replied.

"Is he still around?" asked another hiker.

"Probably not. Bears live 20 to 25 years, and he was last seen in 1970."

"Did they ever find his body?" asked a particularly skeptical hiker.

"No," I replied, "but there are lots of reports of sightings and bear signs, most by reliable observers."

The subject dropped because by this time we were starting up "that hill."

For some time, I've been attempting to locate as much information as is easily available about Butch and his adventures. There ought to be a story there. Maybe there already is. I think I have seen a children's book about a little lost bear in Hawaii. It would probably have come out twenty or more years ago after a feature article on Butch appeared in the Advertiser.

The bear facts are as follows:

Sometime around the Ides of March and St. Patrick's day in 1956, Butch, an eighteen month old American Black Bear cub pulled up his stake and escaped from Al "Whitey" Jensen's animal farm in Heeia Kea, near Kaneohe.

Jensen boarded animals used for entertainment and other commercial purposes, and there were usually a variety of exotic (to Hawaii) trained animals at his farm. He had recently acquired two bear cubs, Butch and Sis. He and his trainer Jim Woods had been working with the cubs. Butch, apparently, learned fast. Both Jensen and Woods commented on the bear's intelligence.
The bears were secured by a chain attached to a stake and to a chain collar around their necks. These collars had an extra link, secured by a master snap link, to allow for expansion as the animals grew larger. Butch and Sis got on very well according to Trainer Jim Woods.
But something happened, and one night Butch broke loose from his stake and took off into the bush, trailing his chain from his collar.

Apparently Jensen was not terribly concerned. He expected Butch to come back to a regular food supply, female companionship, and regular grooming. No animal trailing a six foot or longer chain could get very far. The chain was bound to snag on a root or get caught in the rocks. The bear's freedom wouldn't last very long.

According to the newspaper reports, Butch did not stray very far from Jensen's farm. He came around at night looking for something to eat, cleverly eluding all the ingenious traps Jensen and Woods had set to catch him. There were signs that he had visited Sis on several occasions. The female bear evidently wasn't interested in a life in the wild because she made no attempt to escape to join Butch.

The bear had been free for six months before the story got reported in the papers. Then for the next year there appeared regular accounts of Butch's activities and his owner's attempts to recapture him. These articles are written in a whimsical style, poking good natured fun at the humans and expressing admiration for Butch.

At one time there were 150 men from Schofield, the Army's Search and Rescue Force, and two helicopters searching the area for Butch. According to the newspaper accounts M/Sgt Allen C. Wheeler and his men ran across the bear several times, but Butch always eluded them. Sgt. Wheeler said, "He's too slippery for us. There are too many places to hide. The area is thick. We could pass right by him and never know it."

At this time there were large numbers of wild dogs all over Oahu. According to Sgt Wheeler, they would hear the dogs barking, go to the location, and there would be Butch.

None of the newspaper articles make any mention of anybody seeing Butch's collar or the chain attatched to it. This fact makes me think that Butch must have got the chain caught early on, and by clawing at the snap link, eventually got it open, expanding the collar, which he then slipped out of.

During the fall of 1956 Jensen and Woods hit upon the bright idea of staking Sis out in the area where Butch was roaming. They figured Butch would come to Sis and they'd trap him. It didn't work. Butch was too intelligent to be taken in by a chained female.

About this time Woods reported that as Butch grew, the chain collar would gradually cause his death. The chain would get tight, rub the neck raw which would then get infected and the infection would kill him. Other experts thought that the tight collar would eventually strangle the bear.

By December 1956 the papers reported that Butch had not been seen for five weeks. There was speculation that he was already dead because of the tight collar. By January 1957 the search for Butch ceased. Bob Krauss reported in his column the difficulties the search teams encountered.

Quoting Sgt Wheeler, he wrote, "We have too much help. Pig hunters and their dogs just chase him into another area and we have to start all over again. It's a real jungle there, swamp, high grass, trees, bamboo, guavas." Jensen stated that volunteer civillian hikers had come out scared. "We need experienced people or someone will get lost."

A member of the Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Club was quoted as saying that the area was spooky and easy to get lost in. I'm not familiar with the area, but I'm not at all surprised that the bear easily eluded the searchers, many of whom were probably reluctant and others just plain ignorant.

None of the accounts reveal what the searchers expected to do when they finally cornered the bear. Jensen and Woods probably had a plan. In an interview Jensen indicated that Butch knew them and once he was cornered, they could get him.

Krauss's column was the only article that expressed a decided lack of sympathy for Butch. Wrote Krauss, who admitted he was no animal lover, "I'm wondering if it might not be time to quit chuckling over Butch as a symbol of a revolt against civilization. Maybe it would be kinder to shoot him and get it over with. Up to now chasing Butch has been described as a sort of combination Snipe hunt and a Sunday school picnic; I'm afraid it's just the opposite. The area in which he operates is jungle: guava, grass 12 feet high, lantana, swamp, nearly impenetrable bamboo forest. You're lucky to come back out at all, much less with Butch."

But before you can shoot a bear, you have to see him; and you have to see him long enough to get him in your rifle sights and pull the trigger. And you want to be sure you can get off a second shot just in case the first one doesn't get him. I don't think anybody caught more than a glimpse of Butch's back or tail as he slipped into thicker growth. In my experience bears are not seen unless they want to be seen. And if the Search and Rescue people, whose business it is to find what they go looking for, couldn't get close to him, who could?

March 9, 1957, the Advertiser reported that residents of Palolo had heard bear-like growls, and dogs gave chase to an animal that had attacked a garbage can. Mrs Jean Sasaki of a Palolo Ave. address said dogs chased the animal to the crest of the hill on the Ewa side of Palolo Valley. No one actually saw the animal, but Mrs. Sasaki said it did not sound like a dog or a pig. She reported that for a week the animal had been in the area, but this was the first time it had come so far down the valley.

On May 15, 1957, William M. Shields of a Kailua address reported that at 10 a.m. he saw Butch on the Maunawili side of the Kailua cut off road, a quarter mile on the Kailua side of the junction with Pali Road. I'm not sure just where this location might be. I didn't arrive until 1958 and didn't get around much until later. Maybe an older timer than I can tell where Shields saw Butch, perched on a bluff above Kailua cut off, watching the cars go by.
The area is described as brush land with guava trees, and Norfalk pine, not as dense as the area he had previously roamed. Evidently Butch was on the move.

Butch was supplementing his diet of guavas, roots, grubs, and whatnot with raiding the Kaneohe dump and an occasional garbage can. When interviewed about this time Owner Jensen said, "If he's been eating well, he could be 125 pounds by now. Any other bear would have been sleeping in somebody's bedroom by now, but not this one. He's shy, extremely clever, and capable of taking care of himself." He added that Butch was worth $2000 because of his training. "It's too bad," Jensen said, "He's a terrific animal. It's too bad."

There are no more newspaper reports of Butch until December 12, 1960. Marine Gunnery Sergeant Gus P. Lass, Jr. said that three weeks previously he and 40 companions saw a black bear in the Koolau mountains. "He was walking along a stream, minding his own business, and eating guavas. 500 yards away. Four feet high, walking on all fours. In good health."

It's the 500 yards bit that bothers me here. That's over a third of a mile. I know marine gunnery sergeants are pretty capable people, but to identify a bear at that distance and estimate his height with any accuracy is pushing the envelope. No mention is made of binoculars, but with the unaided eye, not even Daniel Boone nor my Uncle Charlie could make a positive identification.

Besides, I don't think there are many places where you can get that field of vision. The next day's follow up article presents some different facts. This time it's ten marines and the distance is 2000 feet. The animal is described as about the size of a large dog. Frankly, it's getting difficult to tell what the marines saw or thought they saw. Or did the reporter scramble his notes. Or did anybody care anymore about the facts?

Harry Whitten, long time Star Bulletin reporter on nature and the environment wrote up an interview with Al Jensen as a followup. Jensen said, "If he's alive and behaving himself, as he seems to have, I'd favor leaving him alone to become a legend. Won't do any harm if you leave him alone. Wild bears aren't dangerous. It's the tame ones that are dangerous. A wild bear won't come to you; he'll always try to get away. He may live to 20, 25 years if left alone."

At this time Jensen still had Sis, the female bear. He speculated that while bears wander around a lot, they are apt to stay in one area if there is food and water. Jensen said he wouldn't try to catch Butch unless there were more sightings to pinpoint the area. "If we couldn't catch him in '56, it won't be any easier now."

And so Butch became a legend in his own time. There are no more news stories about him for ten years, but during this period sightings were frequently reported to the police and the newspapers. A hunter reported finding bear tracks in Waimalu Valley which he photographed. A hiker reported seeing a bear above Aiea. This same hiker reported seeing Butch on the Pupukea Summit trail.

Honolulu Zoo Director Paul Breeze [1960] speculated that Butch was probably dead, if not from the collar, then probably pig hunters had dispatched and eaten him and kept quiet about it. "I like the idea of a bear in the woods." Breeze said in an interview. "In fact, I tell that to people. But it really isn't very likely any more."

And then in November, 1970, James Malcolm, from Schofield, while hiking the Waimano Trail with the Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Club, said he saw a bear about thirty feet down the trail from him. Malcolm came from New Hampshire and could be expected to know a bear when he saw one. He said the bear would have been five and a half feet tall if he had stood up. They looked at each other briefly whereupon the bear went up the mountain, as they are supposed to do, according to the nursery song. Malcolm hurried along the trail to catch up with the other hikers.

When I read the account in the Star Bulletin that evening, I announced to my boys (aged ten and eight at that time) that come Saturday, we would go looking for bear tracks. Neither seemed very excited about it. [When I asked number one son the other day if he remembered the hunt, he said, "No." So much for corroboration, but I remember quite distinctly.]

We started out about seven in the morning and hiked the Waimano Trail from the entrance. At the point described by Malcolm in the newspaper article I found where something had gone up the hill, but there was nothing that I could call a bear track in evidence. Nor did I really expect to find any. We hiked on to the dam where we had a swim, cooked our lunch, relaxed, had another swim, and then hiked out.

After a period of heavy rain the following spring [1971], we hiked to the dam one Saturday morning. It took us about three hours to get there. In those days before the dam washed out, there was a little sand beach at the far end of the pond, and it was here on that day, I found what I am pretty certain were bear tracks.

Beyond the sand beach in the campsite area I discovered a rotting log that had been torn apart. Some distance beyond was a kukui tree that had some pretty convincing claw marks. While I admit that an enterprising Boy Scout could have set the scene with a plaster cast and wire "claws," I like to think that Butch had passed that way. My sons were more interested in swimming than bear track hunting so instead of looking for more tracks, we hiked back home.
The last newspaper article about Butch appeared in the Advertiser on July 2, 1975. It is essentially a summary article based on previously published articles. There had been no reports of Butch since Malcolm's in 1970. It was about ninteen and a half years since Butch had escaped. He had been eighteen months old at the time. If he was still alive, he was a lonely old bear. In all probability he had been long dead.

Zoo Director Jack Throp [1975] speculated that a number of reported sightings had probably been wild pigs. If you only heard something moving through the brush or merely caught a glimpse of something black disappearing into a thicket, you couldn't really be sure what you'd seen or heard. And even a mongooses can make a lot of noise when they don't think there's anything around to bother them.

This account is mostly based on old newspaper reports which give the outline of the story with the names and dates. There are probably more details to be found in police blotters and officer's reports. There are most likely permit applications on file wherever the official city/county records are kept, and the state archives would have some information.

It would be nice to interview people who lived in Heeia Kea at the time, the people who engaged in the searches, and people who have claimed to have sighted Butch over the years. There must be a huge fund of oral tradition here if you could find people who would talk. There's the real problem; most people don't talk. They don't want the noteriety; they don't want to be contradicted; they no like make "A."

The psychologists tell us we see what we want to see. A bear in the Koolaus? Nonsense! It's just a legend, right?

Yeah, right.