Nature’s had a rough go lately, what with the young Minneapolis lovers carving their initials into Montana’s Pompeys Pillar, and three Boy Scout leaders forced to resign after toppling an ancient boulder in Utah.
Neither act seemed malicious. Clueless, yes, and ripe for tossing onto an expanding pile of evidence that modern society doesn’t get out enough. I mean really out, and regularly, to feel small and awed and, ultimately, connected to something that doesn’t require electric charging.
So it was humbling to witness exactly that on Monday, a young man so fully aware of our responsibility to care for the Earth and fellow creatures that nothing — chilly downpour, icy hands, wheelchair stuck momentarily in mud — stopped him from getting knee-deep in it.
“Closest I’ve been to a bear — ever!” Paul Schnell said gleefully. He wears a furry wolf hat and orange parka, and is seated inches from the muzzle of a 600-pound cinnamon-colored black bear named Charlie.
A praying mantis tattoo decorates his right hand. A pop-up tent keeps him from getting drenched, but he wouldn’t complain regardless.
“Well, since there’s a fence between us, that’s good,” said Peggy Callahan, executive director of the Wildlife Science Center (WSC) in Columbus, a k a Tree City, U.S.A.
It’s an 11-foot-high secured fence, for the record.
Callahan pushes another half-dozen Duplex cookies covered with globs of peanut butter through an opening and Charlie devours them.
“Now, I don’t want you to think this is what we usually feed them,” she adds with a laugh, leaning in toward Schnell. “This is a special day.”
And a long time coming.
Schnell, 22, was born with spina bifida, a birth disorder in which some vertebrae over the spinal cord remain open. He has felt a powerful connection to nature and animals as long as he can remember. He discovered “Animal Planet” on television and was mesmerized by “Growing Up Wolf” and “Growing Up Black Bear,” full-length Animal Planet specials filmed at WSC in 2003.
Since 2006, with the help of his dedicated registered nurse, Laura Bump, Schnell has made regular visits to the wildlife center inside the Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area. The educational center, whose motto is “No Child Left Indoors,” houses wolves, bobcats, mountain lions, raptors, black bears and other wild animals. It welcomes more than 20,000 students annually, but there’s only one Paul.
“He has a passion for the outdoors that I don’t see in kids,” Callahan said. “And courage. Courage to keep coming back. He has to do much more to get here,” she said. “No one else faces these obstacles.”
Schnell, who after high school attended a two-year animal program through Dakota County Technical College, doesn’t see obstacles. He treasures animals, he quips, “because they don’t talk back to you.”
For years, Callahan has welcomed Schnell’s arrival, trying to carve out time to talk with him about wildlife protection and particularly their shared love of a “Growing Up Wolf” star named Rosalyn. He teaches her, too, informing Callahan about an animal in Madagascar that she didn’t know existed.
But there are usually tons of kids around, she said, “and I can’t dedicate time to him.”
She’s felt more urgency to do that lately. Rosalyn died last week at age 16, and Callahan knows she needs to tell Schnell about that today.
And while Schnell is doing very well health-wise, “I would hate to think I just hadn’t taken the time. This is the year,” she told him recently, “where I’m taking you to see Charlie.”
Bump arrived at Schnell’s house around 8 a.m. Monday to get him dressed, ready and lifted into the family’s handicap-accessible van. Throughout the nearly hourlong drive from his home in Mendota Heights, Schnell asked Bump, “Are we really going to meet Charlie Bear?”
Charlie and four other black bears are housed at the future home of WSC in Stacy, Minn. Bump maneuvers the van down a gravel road and parks as close as she can to the tent. She carefully guides Schnell down and out and toward the fence, putting gloves on his hands.
The wheelchair’s wheels get stuck. “No big deal,” Schnell tells Bump. “No big deal.” Charlie takes his time coming over. The 10-year-old bear has lived here since he was the size of a teacup. “He’s pretty big,” Schnell said, holding out a stick with his own glob of peanut butter.
They spend a good half-hour studying each other. Callahan finally tells Schnell that Rosalyn has died. Schnell sits quietly for a moment. Then he speaks.
“At least my boy is still here,” he said. “If it weren’t for you,” he tells the enormous black bear, eye-to-eye, “I never would have met Peggy.”