Alaska Life

In today’s Fat Bear Week matchups, the story of a mother’s loss and surprising embrace of an abandoned cub

Well it’s a beautiful day in Fat Bear America. Let’s play some fat bracket!

Yesterday we watched 151 Walker walk across the winner’s line, and he was certainly swaying what his mama gave him. Beach babe 901 took out actual babe 909 Yearling and it was very matter-of-fact; also, I’m pretty sure I saw her yawn as it happened.

Two new heavyweights enter the bracket today, and they’re two of the biggest living legends of Brooks River.

[Fat Bear Week is on: Here’s a guide to Katmai’s bulky bruins and how to vote for your favorite]

Match 5: 164 Bucky vs 435 Holly

164 Bucky is a smooth schmoozer but in all honesty, a fake-it-till-you-make-it kind of bear has no business in this match. Sure he’s got that charming, Fresh Prince of Bel Air vibe, but my lady 435 Holly here is an actual queen.

Not only is she one of the oldest bears at Katmai and a former Fat Bear Champion (2019), she is one of the most prolific and experienced mothers at Brooks River. She has given birth to five litters now, and seven bears call her Mom. In 2009, however, she had a one-cub litter and that cub was killed in front of her by an adult male bear.


The natural world is full of beauty, and it is also dangerous, selfish and cruel. Bringing a child into a place you could lose them is one of the scariest and bravest things a mother can do.

In Holly’s entire reproductive history she follows the same pattern, which is that she has another litter almost immediately after she emancipates her cub(s). Except in 2009, when her cub was killed. After that incident, Holly did not have a cub in 2010, or even in 2011, 2012, or 2013. I assume it is seen as a random blip in Holly’s otherwise liberal reproductive rhythm. There is no scientific reason for Holly to have taken such a substantial (for her) break from mothering.

She eventually gave birth in 2014. That same year, a different mother, 402, abandoned her yearling (a 1.5-year-old cub). The yearling was seen crying alone in a tree for over 10 hours. Although he was under the age when bears are normally emancipated, the park assigned him a number, since his independence would now classify him as a subadult. This is why they call him 503 Cubadult. About a month later, 503 Cubadult was seen spending time with 435 Holly and her ½ year old cub (719 Princess). Not long after, he was seen nuzzling and sharing fish with the family, playing with Princess, and nursing from Holly. Holly had adopted him.

Adoptions in the bear species are extraordinarily rare, and there has never been a documented case of it before or since at Brooks River. Bears are sort of rugged cowboy-like animals, and they mostly work alone. There’s a theory that a bear might, just possibly, potentially, probably not, but OK maybe, adopt another bear’s cub if they were extended family, since the survival of, say, a nephew, might still pass on their genes. But there is no known genetic kinship between 435 Holly and 503 Cubadult. There is no scientific reason for their blended family to exist.

So, yes, Holly is fat. She emancipated her cub (335 Jolly) earlier this spring, and with no kids in the house she has been single and thriving. Instead of energy being used around the clock to raise offspring, protect them, and share all her food with them, she is relishing every bite and every minute — and it shows. But Holly is more than a bear who is heavy; she is a bear who knows heavy. She has witnessed the traumatic loss of her child, and she sat with that loss for five years. Anyone who knows grief knows you don’t need a tree to feel stuck somewhere for hours. Anyone who knows grief knows what it’s like to cry someone’s name and never have them return. Why did 435 Holly adopt 503 Cubadult? Everyone asks; no one knows. They were not related. And yet, they could relate.

Match 6: 747 Bear Force One vs 32 Chunk

Thank goodness everyone did the right thing and voted for 747 Bear Force One over 856 (no Nickname because he’s not our friend). We have already established that 747 is an actual jumbo jet shaped like a bear and so there is not a lot of wobble room for a hunk like Chunk to compete if we’re literally weighing our options.

But 32 Chunk is a good example of how you can’t judge a bear by its cover. While Chunk doesn’t have any mode of transportation nicknames, he is best known for basically being born chonky. Being blessed with a big backside, and front side, and well, really, every side, Chunk is one of the largest, strongest, and most dominant bears at Brooks River. And yet, he’s not fully committed to the role. Unlike a boss bear, Chunk is sometimes seen scavenging leftover salmon. And also unlike a boss bear, Chunk sometimes plays with other bears.

He has a lot of scars but he doesn’t talk about them. The bear cams do not show Chunk running an underwater fight club but also, they do not not show it either. Chunk has a very anti-establishment personality and he is also at the top of the echelon. Is there more to life than how high up you rank? Why are some bears born fat and some bears have to work at it? Who is he, really? These are not just questions we can ask, but probably questions Chunk asks himself. Bear cam viewer and Katmai National Park volunteer “Stacey” once wrote about Chunk’s “perpetual worried look.” Perhaps it’s his narrow eyes and his strong brow bone. Or, perhaps it’s just the existential crisis of a big bear trying to be in touch with his beast side and his sweet side.

Does the depth of 32 Chunk’s complexity outweigh 747′s basic bulk? You decide.

Voting is open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. AKDT at