Hugh Reed steps into a huge, log-roofed pen in the middle of this Wheeler County town north of the Bridge Creek Wilderness. The pen has a distinctly bearish aroma.
“Come on, sleepyhead,” Reed, 62, calls softly, approaching a shelter of logs inside. “Come on, Henry.”
Grumbling, a 300-pound bear stumbles out of the shelter and drowsily shakes his furry head. Fixing bleary little eyes on Reed, the bruin rears up and makes a grab for him. Muscles straining, bear and man wrestle.
The 20-month-old bear is powerful, and the bearded Reed, at 6 feet 2 and 250 pounds, needs all his strength to hold his own. Then the bear cheats and seizes Reed’s thick forearm in his mouth.
“Henry, don’t bite,” Reed says. “Henry, I’m gonna deck you if you don’t stop.”
Henry was declawed as a cub but still possesses an awesome array of teeth. Reed pushes the bear away, and Henry drops to the floor, growling in disappointment that the roughhousing has ended.
“As long as you want to play, he’ll play harder and harder,” Reed says. “I’ve got scars all over from playing with him. I’m a mass of scars anyway from bullet holes and everything else, but I got some bear scars too.”
Reed worked as a sparring partner for heavyweight boxers in California, and taught martial arts before coming here 27 years ago. That strenuous background serves him well when wrestling with Henry, as does his ability to bench press more than 400 pounds and lift the rear end of a pickup.
Reed’s biggest problem is that he’s not getting any younger, while Henry could double in size over the next few years, he says. The bear’s father weighed 600 pounds at maturity, Reed says.
Henry was born in captivity in Iowa and falls on the sunny side of an Oregon administrative rule that forbids keeping animals born in the wild without a permit. A now defunct boys’ home in Sisters brought the bear to Oregon and raised it from a cub as part of a therapy program for children. The organization folded in March. With nowhere for the year-old bruin to go, the home’s administrators recruited Wheeler County Undersheriff Bob Hudspeth to destroy the animal.
Instead, Hudspeth offered Reed the chance to give Henry a home.
“I wasn’t even thinking of a bear at all,” says Reed, who briefly mulled over the idea, then agreed to adopt Henry.
Reed and his wife, Skeeter, 40, operate the Little Pine Cafe in Mitchell’s three-block-long downtown. They also own a nearby ranch just beyond the nearest electrical lines, a construction company, and a row of gas and diesel pumps.
Henry’s 600-square-foot, 15-foot-tall pen is across Main Street from the cafe.
The bear eats about five gallons of food daily, including all the cafe’s leftover breakfast pancakes, all the apples Reed and Skeeter can scare up and a lot of commercial dog food.
“He loves watermelon,” said Reed. “He won’t eat a banana and he won’t eat a potato and he don’t like pears. He likes fattening food.”
Some residents of Mitchell, population 200, briefly objected to having a bear in the middle of town. They telephoned the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and other state agencies, and Reed spent a lot of time talking to bemused state officials.
“My wife was definitely against it--something about caging up a wild animal,” says businessman Dan Cannon, 57, who likes Henry. “Hugh was born 100 years too late. That bear is a lot of work, and he’s always in there keeping the cage clean.”
Mayor Kyle Sweet, 67, doesn’t mind a bear for one of his constituents but draws the line at the energetic fraternizing Reed and Henry engage in. “I don’t think I want to play with a bear,” he says. “He can just stay in his cage.”
Shopkeeper Christy Hudspeth, 51, thinks Henry is one of her better neighbors.
“He is very loved and well taken care of,” says Hudspeth, who operates a rustic, 121-year-old general store called the Wheeler County Trading Co. “Henry is not lonesome. Hugh is out there four or five times a day and plays with him.”
Henry is a curious mixture of tough guy and wuss. One day, happily tossing a 100-pound log around the cage as if it were kindling, the bear dropped the log on his toe. Henry bawled and ran into his shelter, Reed says.
A bear-friendly town, Mitchell is nestled in a grove of cottonwoods in a river gulch along U.S. 26, about 47 miles from Prineville, 70 miles from John Day and 90 miles from Bend. This is exactly the sort of place one might expect to find a bear caged downtown.
Officially, Mitchell was named in honor of John Hipple Mitchell, a frontier-era U.S. senator from Oregon. But locals insist the town took its name from a horse-drawn Mitchell wagon loaded with wooden casks of whiskey. Bound for John Day during the gold rush, the wagon broke down here, and its owner transformed it into a makeshift saloon with the word “Mitchell” on its side. The town grew around it.
Over the years, Mitchell has been beset by one calamity after another, including an 1899 fire that wiped out half the town. A disastrous flash flood five years later sent a 30-foot wall of yellow-brown water through the downtown, killing two citizens and wrecking 28 buildings, says Cannon, whose grandfather came here in 1872. He is the town’s unofficial historian.
Cannon witnessed another devastating flash flood in 1956 and predicts, “It’ll happen again. It makes you a little nervous, but it’s no worse than living in Kansas where they have tornadoes.”
Reed lived for a time in a treehouse outside Mitchell after coming here in the early 1970s. He has seen summertime temperatures nudge 100 degrees and watched the mercury plummet to 27 below in winter.
This, says Reed, is a perfect place for a bear.
“He’s got a good home and a log house and all he wants to eat,” said Reed. “And he’s got his own pet human. Not every animal has his own pet human.”