A New Story For You: Grizzly Bear Conflict Manager

Artwork adapted from a public domain National Park Service photo by Jim Peaco.

Whenever I go on book tour, I like to write up a short story to read at the events; a thank you, as it were, to the people who show up, who get to hear me read something no one else has gotten to yet. The stories are usually short, usually funny, and hopefully enjoyable for the crowd. Occasionally one of them goes on to greater fame — the Emmy-winning Love Death & Robots episode “Automated Customer Service” is based on one of these tour stories — but even when they don’t, they’re still fun to have written and fun to perform on the road.

This year, the short story I wrote (which I performed first on the 2022 edition of the JoCo Cruise) is called “Grizzly Bear Conflict Manager,” and it comes with a backstory, which is, there’s an actual job with the US National Park Service called a Grizzly Bear Conflict Manager. This job was pointed out to me by a friend who works with the park service; they were going to go into detail about the job actually entailed, but I stopped them before they could do so. “No, no,” I said. “I want to write a story about this job, and I do not want it sullied by mere facts.”

Thus, this story is a fanciful interpretation of what I imagine a Grizzly Bear Conflict Manager does, which I am almost entirely certain has nothing to do with what someone with this job actually does. Please do not come to this story for a true accounting of the job, you will be gravely disappointed, and possibly in danger if you ever encounter an actual grizzly. Needless to say, apologies to all genuine Grizzly Bear Conflict Managers out there.

This story is dedicated to Gail Simone, who is, as her Twitter bio assures us, and this is a quote, “NOT EVEN A BEAR AT ALL YOU GUYS,” and who has chosen me to have one of her many blood feuds with. I am honored.

And now: On with the story!


By John Scalzi

Let me start by saying that this is a circle of trust. We are here not to assign blame or dole out punishment, but to resolve conflict and come to a space of understanding and care. There are no bad bears here. There are only good bears, whose motivations may be misunderstood. Through discussion, we can come to a resolution.

We have a few issues to get through, and this room is scheduled for a raccoon encounter group right after us, so let’s just dive in. Kodiak, let’s start with you. I understand that you have been possessive of a certain point in the river where the salmon have been swimming upstream to breed, and that you have been trying to keep other grizzlies from wading in and catching their own salmon. Do you want to explain your thinking here?

Yes, I understand that you are a large bear with a large appetite, and I hear the validity of that argument. But surely you understand that all grizzlies are large bears with large appetites? And that while you have claimed that neck of the river as your own, even you, large as you are, and hungry as you are, cannot eat all of the salmon that come up the river?

Right, yes, I understand that you believe you could eat them all. That ambition is a sign of a healthy self-image. But, large as you are, you can’t be where every single salmon is as they come up the river. Let me put it another way, Kodiak. You see that large bowl of blueberries I have put on the table, right? If I tossed one of the blueberries toward you, you could catch it with your mouth. But what if I threw five at the same time? Could you catch them all? How about ten? Or fifteen?

Okay, now, Kodiak, grabbing the bowl and consuming all the blueberries in one go, as you have just done, is very clever, yes. But I think you’re intentionally avoiding the issue at hand, aren’t you. The salmon aren’t just sitting there in the bowl, some of them will get past you. Why not let some of the other grizzlies have a chance at them? There will still be more than enough for you at the end of the day.

Thank you, Kodiak. Everyone, see how this works? Just a little discussion and reasoning and we can come to a conclusion that makes life easier for everyone. Grizzlies can be reasonable and kind. 

Yes, Paw-Paw? No, I’m sorry, there are no other snacks. But at the break we can go out and root for something.

Which brings us to our next conflict, and it involves you, Paw-Paw. I understand that you have been wandering into town and digging through the humans’ trash again. We’ve talked about this before, Paw-Paw, haven’t we?

Now, Paw-Paw, this can only be a circle of trust if we tell the truth, and when you tell me you haven’t been going through trash, I know you’re not being truthful. You know that the court order we have on you allows us to examine your stool samples. Your last stool sample contained evidence of enriched flours, processed meats, and several types of plastic wrappers. You were snacking out of the bin behind the Stop N’ Shop again, weren’t you? We all know how you love Sno Balls and Slim Jims.

Yes, of course we found your stool in the woods, Paw-Paw. That’s where bears go to poop. This is widely known. Please don’t act surprised. Instead, tell me why you’re dumpster diving again.

While I find your newfound commitment to the environment admirable and indeed heartening, Paw-Paw, I have to inform you that your ingesting all that human trash does not, in fact, constitute an “accelerated composting project.” If you sincerely want to start composting, I can see about getting you an actual composting drum. Which, I want to be very clear, since I see you perking up about this, you will not be able to eat out of, either. Yes, I see, there goes your enthusiasm. That’s what I thought.

Paw-Paw, let me tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to team you up with Kodiak, you can go with him to his bend of the river, and the two of you can eat all the salmon you can catch. It’s much healthier for you, and Kodiak will learn the value of sharing. See? Everyone wins here.

Yes, except for the salmon, very true, Kodiak. But this is not the Salmon Conflict Resolution session, is it? That’s next Tuesday, my colleague Ranger Adams handles that. 

Moving away from salmon: Scruffy, it’s my understanding that you’ve been photobombing tourists, sneaking up on them while they are taking selfies and family portraits. Would you like to explain your rationale for this?

Uh-huh. While I certainly understand that it’s important to maintain a presence on social media in order to be an “influencer,” what I want to ask you at this juncture is what does being an “influencer” mean to a grizzly? Who are you trying to influence, and why, and more importantly, how are those goals achieved by sneaking up on teenagers and families and sending them screaming into the distance?

Yes, I understand that’s your “thing.” But, Scruffy, I want you to understand that terrorizing tourists is not the same sort of thing as being food YouTuber or a true crime podcaster. No one’s worried that a food YouTuber is going to maul them and eat their face.

No, Scruffy, I do recognize that you almost never eat faces any more, and I appreciate your restraint. But you need to realize that, one, “almost never,” is not as reassuring a qualification as you might expect, and two, these tourists don’t know that you’ve cut back your face-eating considerably. You don’t wear a t-shirt that says “hardly any face-eating anymore” and even if you did, I’m not sure how much that would help. You might be wearing that t-shirt ironically.

Let’s do this, Scruffy. You stop popping up behind unsuspecting parkgoers, and I’ll talk to the Park Service about setting you up with your own Instagram account. And in the meantime if you have to get your social media fix, there’s that trail camera that’s attached to the Internet. Drop by it and do a funky bear dance. The kids love that. It’ll go viral, I promise. Yes? Okay, good. 

Finally, and honestly, I can’t believe we’re back here again — Gail. Gail, Gail, Gail. Again with the blood feuds. You’ve been asked to lower the number of blood feuds that you have with others, and not only have you not done that, you’ve actually increased the number!

Oh, don’t give me that look, Gail. Okay, everyone, a show of paws, here: How many of you are currently under a threat of blood feud by Gail? Don’t be afraid, this is a safe space, Gail can’t hurt you here.

Do you see, Gail? Everyone has their paws up. And beyond this, I’m told that you’ve expanded your blood feud list to include actors, artists, politicians, even obscure science fiction writers. Where does it end, Gail? How much blood feuding is enough? Isn’t it time to call off some of these quote unquote blood feuds?

What? Lymph feud? You want to change some of your blood feuds to lymph feuds? No. No, Gail — no. Stop. Gail, listen to me. Changing what you call the feud doesn’t really solve the problem. Blood feud, lymph feud, spinal fluid feud — the common denominator is the word “feud,” isn’t it? It doesn’t matter if the fluid in question goes through the heart or the spleen or the spine; stabbing someone through any of them is still going to hurt.

What, Scruffy? Yes, I suppose people can live without their spleens, and thus a lymph feud might be marginally less severe than a blood feud. But that’s really missing the point. The point is not to develop a taxonomy of feuds whose severity is based on bodily fluids. The point is to reduce the number of feuds altogether. Gail, when will you see that the conflict that you see in the world has actually just been inside of you all along? That the person who you most need to resolve a blood feud with is not Kodiak, or Paw-Paw, or Scruffy, but with yourself?

Yes. Good. Thank you, Gail. This promise to reduce the number of blood feuds you have to just one is a very good step. I am less enthused that the person who you’ve chosen to have that single blood feud with is me, but, well, baby steps, I guess. We’ve made some real progress here. And also, I have bear spray if you get out of line.

All right, Grizzlies, let’s have a ten minute break, and when we come back, I want to talk about this turf war you have going on with the polar bears. Yes, I know about it, when you start throwing out gang signs on the Discovery Channel it tends to get noticed. You better believe we’re going to get into it, folks.

— JS

40 Comments on “A New Story For You: Grizzly Bear Conflict Manager”

  1. Today is my birthday, and I am going to take this as a birthday present.

    Thank you so much, John, this is the best present I have received this year. I am struggling to type because I am laughing so much! Gail and her tendency to feud, in particular.

  2. Thank you for this, for those of us geographically challenged by your tour locations. I remembered to close my office door before reading this time due to guffaws. Thank you sir

  3. You have such a lovely turn of phrase. I can’t decide which I like better: “accelerated composting project”, or “The point is not to develop a taxonomy of feuds whose severity is based on bodily fluids.”

  4. One: Did Gail know about this beforehand, or Two: Did she NOT know about it beforehand and you did a show WITH her where SHE read it while you watched to see her reaction when she got to THAT point?

    I’m thinking here about your LA Redshirts reading where Wil Wheaton read the part of the lawyer on To Sue The World and he, as a professional actor, just NAILED the part without missing a beat and you were visibly embarrassed, which just ADDED to the hilarity of, “Did you know, on one Universal Union ship they let a TEENAGER pilot the ship?”

    OK, Three: Did Wil REALLY not know that piece was coming up, or did he only know that Redshirts was a meta-piece about SF TV shows? Because on reflection I need to know that too.

  5. True story: I spent a summer in Montana at the Flathead Lake research station. On our first day, we received a bear safety lecture from a local ranger who had been mauled by a grizzly a few years back. His advice (which works for grizzlies but not black bears) was to climb a tree, since grizzlies don’t climb well. Being a forest biologist, I had noticed that most of the local trees were huge ponderosa pine, with nary a branch for the first 30 feet.

    So I stuck up my hand and asked him “Sir? Back east, our trees actually have branches. How do you climb one of these pines?”

    He looked me in the eye, and replied “Son, when 700 pounds of carnivore is fixing to make a meal of you, you learn real fast.”

    He later elaborated that once, when a grizzly treed him, he found himself 30 feet up a tree with bark under his fingernails and no idea how he’d got there or how he got down again.

  6. I love this! I am an Ohio resident and I have only seen one bear in the wild, thank god it wasn’t a Gail!

  7. It was pure joy to listen to you read this in St. Louis.

    By the way, BOTH of your readings had my wife — who doesn’t read fiction — laughing. We both really enjoyed the evening.

  8. John, how much do you regret that you wrote a story for the express purpose of reading aloud and then included the word combination of “spinal fluid feud?”

  9. I submit the following title as a prompt for a response story:

    Grizzly bear, conflict manager

  10. “to develop a taxonomy of feuds whose severity is based on bodily fluids”

    I’m a taxonomist and I endorse this message.

  11. Thank you, thank you for sharing this story! It gave me a much-needed series of laughs.

  12. My uncle has this job in Northern Alberta, working for the oil companies. The reason he gets paid the big bucks is because it is his responsibility to scare bears away from oil development sites. Occasionally he has to shoot one, which pisses him off big time, because it’s not the bear’s fault they’ve figured out that human garbage is the best place to find fattening foods for the winter.

    So he spends most of his time lecturing oil workers to dispose of their garbage properly. His lectures are more effective than most, because he has a really good stock of scary stories…

  13. Our local (Vancouver island) bears, who are numerous but not grizzly (except a small number at the extreme north), are asking if they might Zoom in to the sessions.

  14. 1.) re: Ursus horribilis stool samples:

    Actual lecture point for tourists going on trail hikes in Glacier National Park:

    Q: How can you tell the difference between grizzly bear scat and black bear scat?

    A: Grizzly bear scat has little bells in it, and smells like pepper spray.

    re: climbing trees to escape grizzly bears:

    “If you climb a tree, the griz will just amble off…and come back five minutes later with a beaver under each arm.”

  15. Just read this aloud for my wife whilst we prepared dinner, and I couldn’t help channeling Joyce Grenfell for presentation style. I think Gilda Radner might be a suitable American equivalent speaker.

  16. Nice.

    My favorite joke was told by Dr. Don during Bio 101 at Montana State U.

    Two guys are hiking in Montana when a Grizzly rears up about 30 feet away.
    The first hiker sits down, reaches in his backpack and pulls out some running shoes. He then proceeds to take off his hiking boots and put on the sneakers.
    His buddy looks at the bear and back to his friend. “You’re crazy. You can’t outrun that bear.”
    His buddy looks up and says “I don’t have to outrun him, I just have to outrun you.”

  17. Influencing social media “personalities” to run away screaming is a valuable service. Scruffy is doing the right thing and should be encouraged.

  18. The joke around here is that to determine if you are being chased by a black bear or a grizzly, you climb a tree. Black bears come up after you, while the grizzly will knock the tree down.

  19. No, Scruffy, I do recognize that you almost never eat faces any more, and I appreciate your restraint.

    That’s some grizzly humor there…

  20. I just wanted to say that any of this kind of story you write I am going to hear in Bob Newhart’s voice. This could have been a bit on “The Button-Down Mind 2022”. Thanks for sharing it.

  21. This was a great story. I read this to my grandchildren and we all had huge laughs. Thank you

  22. When I first read the title my brain short-circuited and threw forth the following possibilities:
    1) A conflict manager who is a Grizzly Bear;
    2) A conflict manager who manages conflict between bears and/or bears and people;
    3) A conflict manager who manages conflict using Grizzly Bears as their primary tools.

    It turns out that option 2 best fits this story.

  23. Great fun reading story this story out loud to my husband, a true bear conflict specialist. Sessions with grizzly and black bears, a raucous time! Then there are the mountain lions…don’t get me started. Busy place here in NW Montana. Thank you for the story!

  24. I’m an idiot not have come here sooner. I’ve seriously been missing out. This was my first Whatever post actually read on Whatever. And, as I’ve been watching “Slow Horses” on TV, I weirdly heard Gary Oldman’s cockney accent as I read it which only enhanced it. Thanks for the badly-needed laugh!

  25. (Apologies for my typos, missing words, repeated words, etc. I was laughing too hard to pay proper attention.)

  26. I’m pretty sure that this is your best work yet, John. It’s both humorous and scathing in such concise form.

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