On the road to Mt. Rushmore we visited Bear Country USA. It is a drive through zoo with segmented territories for black bears, arctic wolves, timber wolves, elk, mountain lions, mountain goats, dall sheep, American buffalo, and a couple other similar species. It cost 15 bucks per human in the car so it was by no means a cheap excursion (by our standards). The dogs got in free.
For the first hundred yards we strained to find the elk. Then we came around a bend and there were about fifteen of them feeding unselfconsciously from a trough right next to the road. The other species were similarly unconcerned with our presence. Even the wolves strolled lazily in front of our moving car.
The park is rightly named for the bears: there were a lot of bears, I would estimate over thirty in an area smaller than a football field. Their unlikely concentration did not seem to be making them anxious, presumably because of an ample supply of food for all and the fact they were all raised since cubs by humans. The only aggression proved to be a prelude to sex. At the end of the driving tour there was “babyland” where you could walk around territories for the weaned cubs and pups and see some smaller species.
The basic ecology of Bear Country seems to condense the meat productive capacity of the surrounding non-touristic land: the maximum population is sustained against whatever ecological imperatives might have existed of old for the sake of human consumption (of meat, of the image of the animal). At the same time, Bear Country provides a useful link between the unglamorous and displaced (from tourist areas) economy of meat and the aggressively evident images of the tourist economy. The extant economy of maximal meat and grain production appears unnatural when analyzed directly; however, Bear Country establishes a linkage between the already naturalized condition of the consumer and the means by which that population procures the means for its existence.
The economic situation of the bears is that of the tourists: they are as dense on their plot as we are in the car or hotel or camp/ground, but not miserably so. Their hunger is as over-provided for as that of the tourist. They are free to wander and play within the confines of their zone, just as the tourist, not knowing the land and being subject to National Park or other institutional surveillance, is free within but not beyond the boundaries of approved spectacles. By establishing an animal correlative for the material conditions of the tourist, while also representing the economy of animal production existing outside the bounds of tourism, the bears make visible one path by which discourse and material conditions speak to each other about the West. The proximity to the bears is both reassuring of our ultimate similarity and disquieting in its lack of historical context.