otis laughing
Otis, Bear 480 (Photo: Ronald Woan, Flickr)

Fat Bear Week Will Never Get Old Because It’s Really About Life and Death

Our favorite wildlife competition crowned an aging winner this year, and reminded us that for the chubby bears we love, the stakes will always be high

otis in water
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A few years ago I became obsessed with an event called Fat Bear Week, the entire subculture of its fan base that votes on the pudgiest brown bear in Katmai National Park leading up to hibernation season, and their obsession with one particular bear named Otis. In 2018, I wrote that Otis was old considering that he was 22 and most brown bears live until around 25. Otis had won Fat Bear Week three times, but starting that year hit a dry spell in which he was constantly outshined by younger bears who plumped up with a quickness.

Otis, who was identified as a young adult in 2001, is now at least 25, and he just won Fat Bear Week for the fourth time. He was already missing teeth and a slow eater, surely losing out on extra helpings of salmon that all the speedier ursines were getting (can relate). He looked particularly rough when he arrived on the explore.org Katmai brown bear live feeds this year, which broadcast the bears’ daily activities at prime viewing locations with the help of remote volunteer camera operators. Otis was a little late to show up and displayed even more skin and bones than the other bears. And yet he got so fat. He is looking so ready for hibernation. The people have spoken, and they are saying “Have a nice cozy winter,” “It’s not just the weight—it’s the ‘tude,” “Congrats, Otis. I will keep my distance.”

All this to say, I have truly had enough of talking about Otis. It’s time to move on.

Kidding, kidding! Please keep talking about Otis. With me, specifically. I don’t want to jinx it, but Fat Bear Week is one of the rare internet phenomena that encourages constant commentary and that we have not ruined. It’s a competition for people who don’t like sports (I finally get “seeding!”). It’s positive without being saccharine because it involves wild animals working hard for their survival. And it’s somehow remained about improvement rather than simple aesthetics; while I always expect to see Fat Bear Week turn into a personality contest, each bear is simply too appealing to pick a favorite based on personal bias alone. I really feel that voters pick the bear who has worked the hardest every year (who can forget the unreal proportions and incredible camera angles Beadnose pulled in 2018?). Otis, this year, truly put in the effort to shore himself up for winter.

Fat Bear Week, I’ve realized, is the healthiest parasocial relationship we’ll ever be in.

As much as I have to give Fat Bear fans credit, I think what makes Fat Bear Week so therapeutic and hard to be cynical about is that it so profoundly has absolutely nothing to do with us. These bears are just living their lives with minimal (though occasional, unwanted) interaction with humans. And they have no real obligation to make us feel warm and fuzzy all the time. I experience real anxiety every year until Otis shows up on the explore.org feed, lazily pawing salmon or falling asleep in his Office, his fans’ name for a little fishing spot where he likes to park it for the day. After all, it’s not guaranteed that he will show up. I felt a similar pang when the team at Katmai introduced a Fat Bear Junior bracket for cubs; last year, some livestream viewers saw a cub die on camera. You don’t ever forget that you’re essentially watching a nature documentary in real time, with no editing, and you can’t control the fate of these wild animals. But maybe that’s one way to practice accepting the unpredictability of life and coming to terms with mortality. Fat Bear Week, I’ve realized, is the healthiest parasocial relationship we’ll ever be in.

The only thing I would ask is that if Otis ever dies, no one is allowed to say a word about it. I don’t need to know.

Lead Photo: Ronald Woan, Flickr
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