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Bears of Joseon part 2: Behind bars

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The palace area is seen in the winter of 1883/84 in this picture taken by Percival Lowell. There are several reports of tigers and leopards hunting the deer that roamed the palace grounds. Robert Neff Collection

By Robert Neff

In the past, wild animals, including bears, were occasionally raised for entertainment and sport within the Korean palace grounds. In 1394, King Taejo received a small bear cub and raised it in the palace garden ― whether it lived a long and happy life is unknown but surely it fared better than the bears brought to the palace under King (later demoted to Prince) Yeonsangun in the early 1500s. He was infamous for his "maddening debauchery" and willingness to kill both people and animals. He had tigers, leopards, bears, deer, boars and other wildlife brought live to the palace where they were placed in cages or, if they were somewhat docile, allowed to roam free. Then, whenever the craving to kill something was upon him, he was able to go out onto the palace grounds and hunt comfortably.

Not all those who kept wild animals in their homes were Korean. In the early 1900s, William Franklin Sands, an American adviser to the Joseon government, had a number of wild beasts that he tamed and kept as pets. In his book he wrote:

"To me its [his house] attraction lay in the park I planted around it, into which I turned all the fawns and bear cubs, young cranes, goldfish and other helpless things brought me from the country. They all prospered and lived quite happily together and increased more or less like guinea-pigs, to the discomfort of those who objected to be chased by ambitious young bucks and who did not like bears. A bear is a one-master animal. Mine obeyed me but were not nice with other people. Since there were some misguided people in town who did not like me, I did not encourage my bears to be polite to strangers."

Randy deer and overly affectionate bears may have protected his residence from unwanted visitors but they were not enough to protect Sands from the vortex of Korean politics and he soon made his exit from the Land of the Morning Calm.

The palace is seen in the winter of 1883/84 in this picture taken by Percival Lowell. The heavily treed ponds and out-of-the-way niches of the palace grounds probably provided hiding places for more than just deer. Robert Neff Collection

Western gold miners at the various gold mining concessions in northern Korea also purchased small bears to raise as pets. There are a few pictures of small bears tied with rope to trees or poles but one can only wonder what became of these small bruins once they became large powerful brutes with the real potential of biting the hand that fed them.

In 1880, the Italian warship Vettor Pisani made short visits to Fusan (modern Busan) and Wonsan. The ship's arrival at these two ports elicited a great deal of excitement among the Korean population ― especially at Wonsan where the people were seemingly offended by the sight of a group of Italians swimming bare (or near-naked) in the sea and resulted in the ship's captain receiving a rebuke by the local magistrate because the Westerners' indecent display "had prevented the villagers from leaving their houses" for several days.

There was another type of bare sailor aboard the ship: a large pet bear (a gift from an official in Vladivostok) that the captain was fond of displaying to his guests, but it is unclear if he showed the bear to the Wonsan magistrate and his delegation.

Apparently the Italian crew enjoyed the company of the pet bear but the captain (and quartermaster) did not appreciate its appetite and the large amount of food it consumed. Even Sands noted in his journal the amount of money he spent on honey for his bears.

Bears were also found on other naval vessels. In 1893, a small Korean bear was "locked up in the Fourth Precinct police station" in New York after arriving in that city as a gift from the commander of an American warship. When news of the prisoner's arrest was made, the local newspaper jokingly noted that he had yet to be "arraigned before any justice, and [his] friends [had] not been informed of his arrest" nor were there any charges made against him ― save, perhaps, that he was cute. The prisoner, nicknamed Bruno, was "about 14 inches in height" and was able to quickly adapt to his new surroundings and "made himself very much at home." The captain of the precinct noted that Bruno's presence has "a good effect upon the drunks in the cells."

According to a 1917 guide: The New York Zoological Park's "bear collection is a large one, including, in the main cages, the American black bear, the grizzly bear, the Syrian bear, the hairy-eared bear, the great Yesso bear of Japan, several species of Alaskan brown bear and the Kodiak bear." There were also "two fine polar bears" but no mention of Tommy and the other Korean bear. Image and quote from "Guide to the Nature Treasures of New York City," 1917.

Bruno was not the only Korean bear in New York. At the New York Zoological Garden in the Bronx, Tommy, a large Korean bear, reigned over his enclosure of smaller bears and was in the habit of eating "the lion's share of the daily dole of fish heads and raw meat that was thrown into the cage." His reign came to an end in August 1901 when two new bears ― a large brown bear named Big Bill, and a Chinese bear named Chinaman ― arrived.

Trouble began almost immediately. According to one newspaper account:

"When ‘Tommy,' as usual, attempted to appropriate the largest portion of the ‘Chinaman's' dinner there were objections, and an encounter that made the fur fly took place, ‘Big Bill' jumped into the ring for the second round, and used his claws and teeth with such effect that ‘Tommy' turned tail and sprinted for the tree, where he sought refuge in its highest crotch. Neither threats nor tempting food could induce ‘Tommy' to leave his perch, his sole occupation being to watch ‘Big Bill,' who had taught him a very effective lesson."

For three days Tommy clung to his perch and finally the zookeeper was forced to climb the tree and lasso the scared bear and drag him from the tree. As soon as the rope was removed, Tommy climbed the bars of his cage and refused to come down until Big Bill and Chinaman were removed to cages nearby.

Another account of the incident seems more benign and leaves out much of the drama:

"There [are] two black Korean bears, one of which [is] very timid, so timid that a few days ago it climbed and tree and was with difficulty brought down. The main cause of the Koreans' timidity, the keepers say, is that the cages adjoining are occupied by grizzly and cinnamon bears who keep up a growl all night long and frighten the Koreans very much. Indeed, so intense is their fright that they scarcely eat."

What became of Bruno, the prisoner, is unknown. Was he ever brought before a judge and sentenced for the crime of being cute? Perhaps we will never know, but we can safely assume he lived the rest of his life behind bars.

I would like to thank Diane Nars for her invaluable assistance.

Robert Neff has authored and co-authored several books, including Letters from Joseon, Korea Through Western Eyes and Brief Encounters.


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