A diligent scholar is like a bee who takes honey from many different flowers and stores it in his hive.
—John Amos Comenius
A lengthy wire story that made the rounds of American newspapers in 1895 alleges that multiple bear-goat hybrids, raised in captivity, were seen by numerous witnesses in Deer River, a town in Itasca County, Minnesota. This account is interesting because it has elements of Greek myth (a weird hairy being living in a remote cave, strange composite beings, a quest) and yet it was written as a nonfiction news report in the modern era. The following is a transcript of the story as it appeared on the front page of the Fort Worth Gazette, March 24, 1895:
Deer River, Minn., March 22.
A mystery of long standing has been cleared up by the killing of an Indian known here as “Bow String Jack,” of a strange animal resembling to a marked degree a domestic goat, and yet retaining nearly all the characteristics of a common brown bear. It has solved the mysterious disappearance of Thomas Freeman, who fled from his home here some years ago, after getting into trouble with a neighbor over a young girl both were in love with, and has brought to light the strange way in which a man can live when deprived of the refining influences of civilization.
A few days ago the Indian hunter was roaming the woods in the northern part of this (Itasca) county, about 30 miles from this place when his attention was attracted by a peculiar looking animal a short distance away, which did not make any threatening demonstrations or try to run away on his approach. When within a short distance of the animal, Bow String Jack fired and killed the brute, putting a 44 Winchester bullet through its head. On making an examination of his catch he was surprised to find that the creature was in reality half bear, half goat, and had around its neck a broad leather strap, on which was a metallic tag bearing the name, Freeman.
The Indian brought the animal to this place and placed it on exhibition at the store of J. H. Fairbanks, where it attracted no end of attention. Alfred Stone, who is an old resident and knew Freeman, called attention to the strap on the animal’s neck, and it was explained to the Indian that it was more than probable that Freeman could be found somewhere near the place where the bear goat was killed. Jack was willing to pilot a party to the place, and four men set out at once.
Bow String Jack led the party to a point near the shore of Long Bow Lake, a wild and almost inaccessible place at the extreme northern end of the county, where a white man is not seen once in ten years, so far as anyone here knows.
From the west end of the lake a huge cliff of dull gray rock rises abruptly to a height of about 300 feet, and here the Indian pointed to the place he had killed the bear. It was found that someone had visited the camp made by Bow String Jack during his absence, which was taken as conclusive evidence that there was someone living near the lake. The party at once made a careful search of the entire neighborhood, and after a long hunt their endeavors were crowned with success, for a cave was found in the rocks which had been occupied but a short time before, and a fire was yet burning in a rude stove of stone. In one corner were several garments of fur, and beside them stood a rifle and other things, showing that the owner was a woodsman. All the furniture in the cave was of the most primitive nature, and not a scrap of paper or cloth could be found.
The members of the party determined to see the mystery through, and so hid in the cave. Their wait was not a long one, for in less than half an hour the occupant of the cave returned, and it proved to be Thomas Freeman, who has been so long missing. At first he was not recognized, as his hair and beard had grown to a tremendous length, and his skin was tanned such a dark color that he resembled an Indian more than a white man. When he saw the men in his cave he started to run but was forced to stop and return to the party. It was a long time before he could be induced to talk, but when he did open his mouth, the words rolled out in a perfect torrent, and there was no stopping him.
He had not seen a white man before, he said, since he became a hermit, and so far as he was concerned, he never intended to see one again. He had become disgusted with his own race when he had the trouble with a neighbor at Deer Rapids, and it was his intention to remain in the wilderness so long as he lived. He was happy in his present condition, with his pets around him, and wanted nothing better than to be forgotten by the world, the world forgetting. He had long since ceased to take any interest in the affairs of the outside world, and did not even know the name of the present governor of the state. He was singularly silent on the subject of his pets, and, as there was not an animal of any kind around his cave, the members of the searching party became very curious to know what sort of pets Freeman had. The hermit refused to answer any questions concerning the matter, merely saying that he had several, and they were in a safe place. He offered the further information that one of the pets had escaped from its pen a few days ago, and, although he had searched everywhere, he could not find it.
Freeman refused to accompany the party back to Deer Rapids, but offered to accompany the men to the trail, which lay some four or five miles to the south. After going about a mile the party heard strange noises coming from a small valley in the hills and insisted on investigating, much against the wish of Freeman, who insisted that it amounted to nothing. In the valley the party found a large corral of stone, inside of which could be seen a dozen or more peculiar looking animals, which, on close investigation, were found to be of the same variety as the one killed by Bow String Jack a few days before.
The leader of the party promised that no one should molest the corral if Freeman would explain what the animals were, and under this promise Freeman told a strange story, which would be hard to believe, but for the reliability of the members of the party, and the fact that one of the animals seen is now on exhibition in this city.
According to Freeman, when he left Deer River, he was disgusted with life, and only wanted to get away from the haunts of men. He had taken with him when he left his home a female goat, which had been an old pet, as he wanted something for a companion in the wilderness. Arriving at Long Bow Lake, he had made his home in the cave, where he got along very nicely. On one of his hunting trips into the woods surrounding the lake he had killed a mother bear and captured her two cubs. The female cub had died but the male had lived and became almost as much a pet as was the goat. Soon the two animals became the best of friends, and were inseparable. Where one went the other was sure to follow, and when the bear was about 1 year old the goat gave birth to a kid, which was a strange mixture of bear and kid. This was the beginning, and soon Mr. Freeman went into the goat bear raising business, being somewhat of a naturalist.
He found that a male bear and a female goat would mate under proper conditions as readily as a male and female goat, but try as he would, he could not induce a male goat and a female bear to mate. The young at birth resembled a bear more than a goat—rough, round body, short, blunt head and small, sharp eyes. The most notable thing about them was the legs, which were small and slender, resembling those of the goat. As the little ones grew older, they lost something of the bear characteristics and took on many of the goat peculiarities—the fur became lighter and coarser, hoofs appeared and two small horns appeared on the heads of the males. These peculiarities became more marked as the animals grew to maturity, and to see the body of a full grown animal one would think it was a goat with an oddly formed head, while to see the legs one would swear it was a bear.
Efforts are now being made to induce Mr. Freeman to give up his hermit ideas and place his herd of animals on exhibition in the various cities of the country. A trust is being formed to offer him a large sum for the herd in case he will take no action looking to putting them before the public, and the plan will probably be successful, as Mr. Freeman confided to Mr. Stone that he was getting tired of living in the wilderness.
As indicated in the reality thermometer at right, I've rated the reliability of this report as very low for multiple reasons. First, there's the disparity of the cross; goats and bears are generally considered very distantly related, so bear-goat hybrids would seem to violate the widely received notion that very distantly related animals cannot hybridize (though, a similar cross, bear x cow, is alleged in various German-language publications, which are quoted elsewhere on this website). Then there is the fact that no specimen is available, nor even a photograph. So anyone could have merely written this story up as a hoax. There are also internal inconsistencies. For example, supposedly, Freeman had only a male bear and female goat, and yet, the account also talks about his efforts to mate a female bear with a billy goat.
On the positive side, the story does provide a good bit of detail, names of people involved, the site where the event occurred, fairly detailed descriptions of the supposed bear-goat hybrids, an explanation of how the animals came to mate. And it was published in many newspapers across the country. But if it weren't for these last few points the Reality Thermometer would be standing at zero.
By the same author: Handbook of Avian Hybrids of the World, Oxford University Press (2006).
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