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I was never so shocked as I was last week, when Riley asked if I wanted to go along to Visalia. He wanted to go to the livestock auction down south since he’d heard they often sell at higher bidding than the auction in Fresno. Riley had two yearling dairy heifers he wanted to sell.
Jared and I were very ready to go on this little trip. So I packed the baby up, and Riley and I took the train from Fresno to Visalia. I have to say I had a twinge of unhappy memories when the train made a quick whistle-stop in Livingston Flats. I had not been south of Fresno for many years. Thankfully, it was a short stop.
The livestock auction was a huge success in Riley’s mind, and I even got into the spirit of things and had brought along Long John Silver, a horrid rooster (but a beautiful one) that had shown up on Memory Creek a few weeks before. I was tempted to butcher and eat him, but I figured he’d be a tough old bird. I might get enough from the auction to buy some grain. And I did! He crowed right on time and with such a fierce sound that a heavy-set farmer bought him. Later, however, I deeply regretted my selling Long John. I worried that instead of being the chief rooster in a barnyard full of hens that he might end up in a cockfight. (He looked mean enough.) But I reckon I need to hope for the best.
Anyway, we stayed over Saturday night at the Visalia Hotel and decided to attend Sunday services in the morning, since the train didn’t depart until mid-afternoon. It was a very nice service–much hymn singing, and the preacher spoke powerfully from the Scriptures. “Very uplifting,” Riley commented when we ate the noon meal afterward. I agreed.
But what followed next made me want to scurry out of Visalia as fast as I could . . . back to Fresno. I can’t say for sure that nothing like what we observed ever happened in Fresno. If it did, my family never allowed me to be exposed. And it might have taken place on the edge of town, like cock-fighting in the back alleys. But I would like to think that the city of Fresno is above such things. I hope I never learn differently. But below is the sad tale of what I learned that Sunday afternoon.
When Riley and I took Jared on an innocent stroll down a pleasant Visalia street while waiting for the train, we happened upon an unusual-looking arena. It was built of split-board fencing, along with heavy logs and adobe to support it. A raised platform was also there, where dozens of women and children stood to watch whatever was going on in the “pit.” The men sat on horseback both outside and inside the enclosure.
“What in the world is that?” I asked Riley.
He looked uncomfortable. “You don’t want to know. Come on, let’s keep walking.”
Clearly, Riley–growing up all over the West as a child and young man–knew something I didn’t. He took Jared from me and tugged on my sleeve. “Come on, darling. Let’s go.”
I kept walking, but I couldn’t help turning and peering over my shoulder. A loud roar stopped me cold, and I got a sudden, good view of what was going on inside the arena. A huge grizzly bear was tied to a post by a short rope and held in place by a collar around his neck. He was free to use his teeth and claws. Some men were baiting the bear with small, yapping dogs to keep him in an angry and outraged mood. Whatever for?
“What are they doing to that bear?” I asked, furious. I would shoot a grizzly bear without blinking–the same way I shot the cougar over a year ago–if somebody I loved was in the dangerous bear’s sights, but this? I had seen a dancing black bear at a circus once, but this was not a circus. This was something very different . . . and disturbing.
Riley stopped too. He sighed. “I suppose you might as well know. It’s a bear and bull fight.”
I wrinkled my forehead. “A what?” I had heard of cockfights–pitting two mean roosters against each other and betting on which one would win. I wasn’t completely naive. But animals this large and ferocious? What if one or the other–or both–got loose? No wonder the women and children watched from a safe height.
Everything happened incredibly fast after that. The fighting bull was led into the ring by brave vaqueros. The men were decked out in their Sunday best, and the crowd cheered them like heros. Then they let loose of the bull and got out of the way. The bear and the bull looked at each other like two gladiators from Roman times. The crowd cheered and hollered louder–even the women and children in the stands above. They were yelling to release the beasts so they could fight.
What struck me like lightning was seeing that the people in this crowd were not the town’s low-class riffraff. No indeed! I recognized some of the faces that had greeted me at services this morning. Why! This looked to be some kind of Sunday afternoon entertainment for even the church-going crowds. I saw a glimpse of the song leader and nearly choked on my surprise. It was only later that I learned this was a common “after Sunday services” attraction in many California towns. Hmmm . . . go to church in the morning, pray, sing hymns to God, and then in the afternoon watch this kind of attraction?
This was too much for me. My stomach started feeling queasy, but I couldn’t turn away. Riley stayed by my side, and we watched to see what would happen next. Some men tied a long length of strong rope to the bear’s hind leg. The other end was tied to the bull’s front hoof. Then they took the collar off the bear. They did it so fast, the bear hardly had time to swipe at his guards. The officiator of the event–another older man we’d seen at church–then climbed up on the platform, stood in front of the women and children, and shot a pistol into the air.
I didn’t need the platform to see what was going on. The bear hung back at first, rising high on his hind legs.”The bear has the advantage,” Riley whispered in my ear. “The bull can only lunge and use his horns, while the bear can advance and grab the bull by the head and sink its teeth into the bull’s neck.”
I gaped at Riley. It sounded like he’d seen this kind of thing before. He nodded and gently pulled me away. “I’ll tell you about it. It’s not something you would like to see. Trust me.”
I did trust Riley, so we hurried away. “I was a spectator at some of these events,” Riley said. “The soldiers at the forts loved this past time. They were good at hunting and lassoing the grizzlies up in the mountains, and the Mexican vaqueros provided the fierce bulls. If the bear began to win too fast, the vaqueros would jump in and break up the fight to prolong the drama. I was there one time when a bear killed three bulls, one right after the other.” He shuddered.
My hands were shaking badly. I needed something to hug, so I took my sleeping baby and held him tightly to my chest. Poor bear! Poor bull! But I held back my tears. This was, after all, the untamed West, even in 1888. I told Riley so.
He shrugged. “I’ve heard that this entertainment was brought to the New World by the Spanish Conquistadors. Before they arrived, over 10,000 majestic grizzly bears roamed the Sierra.” Riley sighed. “There are not that many left, I’m afraid.”
But there was more. Riley seemed to know way too much about this “sport.” “It’s not the Wild West, Andi. The Romans did the same thing in their amphitheaters. Remember? They also used those who followed Christ as sport too, not just the bears and bulls.”
I was struck dumb.
“Even the big, sophisticated city of London built ‘bear gardens’ to host the same event, back during the Dark Ages,” Riley finished.
“Dark Ages indeed!” I muttered. “You’d think we would have learned better by now.”
Riley shrugged. What could he say? Clearly, not even the Christians had learned better. By the time we boarded the train that afternoon, I was numb. From the distance, I could still hear the crowd yelling and bellow in excitement. Riley’s story made me sick, but I was grateful he had pulled me away and explained in his gentle but matter-of-fact way. It was much better than seeing it with my eyes.
NOTE: The California grizzly bear that once roamed in great numbers in the Sierra Nevada and was featured on the flag of California is now extinct. Gone forever. The last hunted California grizzly was shot in Tulare County in August 1922. Two years later in 1924 what was thought to be a grizzly was spotted in Sequoia National Park for the last time. After that, the California grizzly bear was never seen again.