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New Morro Bay exhibit explores the history of the California grizzly bear 

Grizzly bears are an enduring symbol of California—their fierce, independent spirits embraced for centuries as a reflection of the state itself.

But while Californians loved the idea of the grizzly, we never cared much for the bears themselves.

Between the mid-1700s and early 1900s, California's European and American settlers drove the entire population of brown bears, about 10,000 strong, to extinction. The last sighting of a grizzly bear in California dates back to 1924.

click to enlarge CALIFORNIA SYMBOL A new exhibit on the history of the California grizzly bear is currently on display at the Morro Bay Museum of Natural History through Jan. 16. - IMAGE COURTESY OF AMY HART
  • Image Courtesy Of Amy Hart
  • CALIFORNIA SYMBOL A new exhibit on the history of the California grizzly bear is currently on display at the Morro Bay Museum of Natural History through Jan. 16.

"The grizzly is a symbol of the American West—always known to represent California as a wild and untamed state. But ironically, the grizzly bear doesn't exist in California and we only see it as a symbol on our state flag," said Amy Hart, a historian with the California State Parks' SLO Coast District.

So, what happened to the California grizzly? How did it define our state? What lessons did the extinction teach us? The Morro Bay Museum of Natural History has a new traveling exhibit, Bear in Mind: The Story of the California Grizzly, that delves into those questions and more.

Sponsored by the Central Coast State Parks Association, and open through Jan. 16, the Bear in Mind exhibit explores not only the history of the grizzly in California, but its impact on our popular culture and politics.

That history is told at the Morro Bay museum through stories, artifacts, images, and hands-on activities, giving viewers an "in-depth look at the history and science of California's most revered and feared animals," according to a State Parks press release.

Hart told New Times that the exhibit is appropriate for all ages. It provides an interesting glimpse into how the grizzly bear made its stamp on California, and vice versa, she said.

"They have this charisma that we value," Hart said. "They're independent and adaptable, resourceful and intelligent. We took on these characteristics, but ironically people didn't want to actually live next to the bears."

Grizzly bears used to roam the Central Coast, as evidenced in the names of local places like Oso Flaco Lake and Los Osos ("oso" is the Spanish word for "bear"). But grizzlies became a common target of the Spanish when they settled in the region in the 1700s.

"That was the beginning of their demise, when the Spanish came in," Hart said.

The introduction of guns to the state also made killing grizzlies easier work. But Hart noted that even native communities had their run-ins with grizzlies.

"They're bigger. They're a little bit more aggressive," she said.

The Morro Bay Museum of Natural History is located at 20 State Park Road, near the Morro Bay State Park Campground, and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Entry is $3 for adults and free for kids, and the exhibit is free upon entry. Masks are required.

"It's in the big auditorium space. It's a large exhibit," Hart said. "There are interactive elements for kids and a corner where kids can sit and learn more about grizzly bears and compare paw size to hand size."

The grizzly exhibit isn't the only offering from State Parks right now. It's also collaborating with the Wine History Project on an exhibit about the local history of Prohibition, at Spooner Ranch House in Montaña de Oro. A launch party for that exhibit will take place on Dec. 2 from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Fast facts

• The International Surfing Association's World Para Surfing Championship is coming to Pismo Beach Dec. 6 through 11. The sixth annual event "will gather the world's best para surfers to compete and display their talents," according to a press release. More than 300 surfers, coaches, and trainers from all over the world are expected to convene in Pismo to showcase their talents in this adapted form of surfing that allows people with physical disabilities to compete. Led by AmpSurf, event organizers are currently looking for volunteers and sponsors. The event is also free to the public. Visit for more information.

Laguna Middle School students raised $2,165 for the Heart Cancer Resource Center at French Hospital Medical Center as part of their "Coins for Cancer" fundraising competition. Laguna's seventh and eighth grades competed through the month of October, with the winning class receiving extra recess time. Δ

Assistant Editor Peter Johnson wrote this week's Strokes and Plugs. Send tidbits to [email protected].

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