The Glory of Otis, Fattest of the Fat Bears
For one week every fall, Alaska's Katmai National Park celebrates the survival skills and ample rolls of the happiest bears in the world. But there's more to their reigning champion than meets the eye.
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Our champion, Otis, is 22 years old, with blondish brown hair, a straight, narrow nose, and deep scars on his neck and above his right eye. When he’s at the top of his game, fans describe his neck as “relatively thick,” his body “walrus-shaped.”
Otis, also known by his ID number, 480, is a brown bear who lives in Alaska’s Katmai National Park. Otis is fat. So fat that he’s been king of the park’s Fat Bear Week two of the past three years. He’s become the face of a tradition that started in 2014 as a fun way to teach people about ursine health and now attracts devoted fans who’ve created a Real World–style experience out of watching the tubbiest bears on the planet.
Fat Bear Week began as Fat Bear Tuesday, when Katmai employees printed before-and-after photos of some of the park’s 2,000-plus residents as they bulked up for hibernation. They asked passersby at the visitor center to vote for the chubbiest in March Madness bracket-style matchups (Otis won). The next year, they extended the vote to a week in October and opened it to the rest of the world through social media.
Being on a peninsula of southern Alaska, the park doesn’t get many visitors—Zion National Park’s visitor count was more than 110 times Katmai’s in 2017—so Fat Bear Week helps the lower 48 really connect with the world’s largest protected population of brown bears. Really, anyone with access to that many chubby bears would’ve done the same. Fat animals hit humans at an emotional level that’s ironic considering the way we think about the fat that’s on people.
Katmai sits back, waits for the internet hordes to descend, then sneaks in a body-positive biology lesson. Watch these creatures enjoy fresh seafood until they’re full! You love it, don’t you? That’s because a fat bear is a bear that’s going to survive the winter. “It’s a celebration of their success,” says Mike Fitz, a former Katmai ranger who now works as an educator and natural history interpreter through the bear cams on Explore.org. “Especially early in the season, people can see them catching their first salmon and the look of satisfaction on their face.”
We still don’t know a lot about what happens to all that stored-up salmon while a bear hibernates. (Just try taking the vitals of a sleeping bear in the wild. Some researchers have done it, but not many.) Until recently, we didn’t know if bears’ metabolism shut down significantly enough in winter to even call it hibernation, so we stuck to terms like “winter sleep.” We do know that late in summer, brown bears put most of their energy into increasing their weight by 30 to 40 percent over a few months. Starting in October and November, around when temps drop to freezing at night, the bears den up for about six months. Their body functions reduce to a quarter of what they were, but if all goes as planned, that stored-up fat will be just enough to keep them alive during their long slumber. Still, bears are so good at packing on fat (while remaining strangely resistant to plaque buildup in the arteries) and barely moving for months (without much muscle or bone deterioration) that many researchers are interested in our ursine friends for applications in long-term space flight or medical issues like the atrophying effects of long hospital stays.
For bears, it’s simple: More fat means a better winter means (if they really fattened up) they’ll emerge from their den with a little extra pep to start mating and preparing for next winter. The circle of life. Katmai’s bears do this with aplomb, with males regularly topping out at more than 1,000 pounds, the approximate weight of a concert grand piano. “In the natural world, they’re probably gonna be among the fattest brown bears,” says Andrew LaValle, a park ranger at Katmai who’s been involved in Fat Bear Week since last year. Not to mention they’re already the second-biggest bear species, after polar bears. Male Yellowstone grizzlies have never been documented weighing over 900 pounds, and Olympic National Park’s male black bears tend to reach 600 pounds.
So, when you see a properly plumped Katmai bear, you’ll know. When most bears come out of their dens, they’re scraggly—vertebrae visible, skin hanging loose, shaggy fur. By late summer, many of the bears will have undergone such a dramatic change that they’re practically unrecognizable.
Like the rest of us, rangers have to estimate the weight of Katmai’s bears visually, since an up-close evaluation would require sedating the animal and palpating to determine relative fatness. But the eyeball test is sufficient. We want the rolls—especially rolls around the haunches, a sign of peak fatness. Much like a football player, a bear’s neck should get so large that its head starts looking disproportionately small. The belly should hang as close to the ground as possible, the fur coat should get glossy and thick enough to cover up scars, and the bear should have the lethargic and slow-moving demeanor of, well, an animal that’s about to mostly sleep for six months. When Fat Bear Week finally rolls around, the healthiest bears are cartoonishly rounded and majestic, so stuffed full that no other word fits better than “rotund.”
This year’s tournament kicked off on October 1, when Katmai released a bracket with every bear in contention—12 that have been well documented at their scraggliest and most rotund. Starting October 3, rangers will post a daily matchup of two bears, with before-and-after photos, on Facebook so followers can vote with their likes. Four of the dependably big bears get a bye week, like Otis and one of his main rivals, 747, who happens to share an ID number turned nickname with the popular Boeing airliner. “He got that number before he grew up to be as big as he is. It’s a fortuitous coincidence,” LaValle says.
The before-and-after voting is meant to reward bears that have made the most progress, but that’s just the official rule. On the internet, as in bear country, the simple fact of fatness reigns.
One of the less horrible places on the internet is Explore.org. It’s where you can watch livestreams of all kinds of animals, but most important, in summer and early fall, you can watch seven different 24/7 streams of brown bears on Katmai’s Brooks River and its aptly named Dumpling Mountain, where many bears go to hibernate. Fat Bear Week’s most hardcore fans are many of the same people who constantly populate the bear cam’s comment section (“Name that behind!”) and keep close tabs on the comings and goings of their favorite bears on Wikipedia-style fan pages. In August, it was the dedicated bear-cam watchers who alerted park officials when a man waded into the popular feeding area of Brooks Falls for a selfie—a satisfying collision of the best and worst of wildlife social media practices. Fat Bear Week is basically bear-cam fans’ election season, but less depressing. They spend all week uploading images and campaign posters to Facebook, rallying others to vote for their favorite ursine personality.
Imagine if your sweet aunt ran ESPN’s college football Facebook page, and all the commenters came from Old Friends Senior Dog Sanctuary’s page, but with the exact same disdain for discrete use of caps lock, exclamation points, and ellipses as Cher on Twitter. That’s about the vibe of Fat Bear fan culture. Their images demonstrate a rudimentary knowledge of Photoshop and their memes a rudimentary knowledge of what a meme is, but what saves them is their endearing earnestness and deep bench of blubber descriptions. “Winter Is Coming,” reads one image of Otis pasted on the iron throne. “Game of Fats: The North Remembers 480 Otis.” A typical meme employs the standard white text at the top and bottom of a bear photo but fails to execute any joke: “Vote for Me…Otis (Bear 480): I’m the Fattest Bear in the Park.”
But (you may want to sit down for this) Otis is probably not the fattest bear in Katmai. Like any true champion in an image-based competition, Otis just knows how to work the camera.
He’s often photographed at his favorite fishing spot in Brooks Falls, known to cam watchers as his Office. His technique is to sit perfectly still, head bowed like Rodin’s Thinker, occasionally lifting a salmon from the water and downing it in a few bites before releasing its carcass and gazing downward again. All the while, he’s unknowingly accentuating his fat.
Consider the classic advice for how to photograph well: Sit up straight, lift your chin, don’t get too close to the camera. Otis does the opposite, to great effect. He leans forward on his haunches, pushing the rolls up around his neck and letting the rest of his fat lump around him. On his best days he looks more Hershey’s Kiss than bear. Other bears tend to stand while catching fish, dispersing their weight for the cameras. Otis slouches chubbily.
Anthropomorphizing Otis et al. is really what Fat Bear Week is all about, because what else are you going to do with a reality show–style bear-watching experience? No other park has a Fat Bear Week, because most other parks don’t have 24/7 video surveillance of a particularly dedicated group of hunters at their favorite meal spot. “That’s kind of what makes the Brooks River area special,” LaValle says. “Bears are pretty habitual. If they receive food in a certain time of year in the same spot, they’ll often return.”
And food is plentiful. Alaska’s coastal brown bears indulge in a particularly fatty smorgasbord of sockeye salmon (up to 4,500 calories) and coho salmon (could be as much as 14,000 calories per fish). “Here these bears have it almost as good as you can imagine. They’re able to just gorge themselves,” LaValle says. They can high-grade, which means eating the fattiest parts of a fish—eggs, skin, brain—and discarding the rest. “It’s like going to a restaurant and not wanting to fill up on bread.”
So it’s not an illusion that the bears at Katmai are extra large and chilled out. At a time when warming winters are keeping some bears up far past denning time and some urban bears stay up all winter eating literal garbage, Katmai’s bears live in rare, blissful ignorance. “What we see on the cams is reflective of a healthy ecosystem at its full potential,” Fitz says. “When we protect wild lands, have areas where watersheds are clean and unaltered, manage fisheries sustainably, we see success stories. We’re not putting Band-Aids on anything here.”
This year is better than ever: Bristol Bay, located to the park’s east and a major supplier of its fish, has seen record numbers of sockeye on top of an already record-setting 2017. In August, LaValle said, some bears were already reaching “September levels” in size. So Otis has plenty of competition for this year’s Fat Bear Week, which runs October 3–9. There’s 747 as always, who is “absolutely mammoth” this year, according to LaValle. Bear 503 is a young upstart, first spotted in 2014 as an abandoned cub, who’s now approaching adulthood and considered one of Katmai’s largest bears. Two females, Grazer and 2016 champion Beadnose, were single this year and bulked up considerably with no cubs to feed. (Even in bear country, females never seem to be able to attain the desirable body type.) Bear 435, Holly, is always a force to be reckoned with despite having two cubs to care for. “Last year she had these rolls you could hide things in,” LaValle says. In a cute but somewhat awkward twist, this year her two female “chubby cubbies” are seeded as a pair in the first round. Holly gets a bye week, and, thankfully, they’re on opposite sides of the bracket and would only meet in the final.
At 22 years old, Otis is getting up there in age (even Katmai’s unhunted and generally unbothered bears tend to live only to 25), and he isn’t looking as big as he has in previous years. LaValle also notes that Otis is missing several key teeth, including one canine, which most bears rely on to tear flesh. But he’s still a top contender thanks to the cult of personality. People seem to love how little he moves (one commenter wrote an ode to his sit-and-eat style, to the tune of Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”). They love how mopey and antisocial he looks. Maybe they root for him because they think, “Wouldn’t it be nice if I could just mind my own business, do a little snacking, take care of myself—and someone cheered for me?”
“He’s probably the most famous bear on the internet,” Fitz says. “People can connect with his story of aging and how he’s still trying to find his way in a world that’s still very tough and competitive.”
Maybe Otis has it figured out. Maybe all we want is a few minutes to sit in a meditative state alongside our chubby hero.
One of the most popular videos of Otis on YouTube is titled “Bear 480 Otis slowly eats his fish.” It’s four minutes and 30 seconds of Otis slowly munching on a fish carcass, tearing off its red flesh in ribbons. He lifts his head while chewing with his mouth open, looking contemplatively into the distance or at a nearby bird. Satisfied, Otis stands and gives a lazy shake of his head that dries only his neck scruff, then ambles off, leaving the rest of his catch to the gulls.