‘Bear hunts’ entertain kids, unite Salt Lake Valley neighborhoods

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Christiaan O'Connor and his 10-year-old daughter Caitrin, put a bear in the window of their Salt Lake City home for kids to see when they are "Going on a Bear Hunt", looking for stuffed animals in windows of neighborhood houses, as an outdoor activity and distraction during COVID-19. Wednesday April 15, 2020

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Parks and wildlife departments across the nation have begun issuing warnings for residents of mountain communities to be on the lookout for bears coming out of hibernation. In Utah, the situation has progressed far past that.

Bears are already invading houses, joining monkeys, bunnies and other furry, plush friends who can be seen staring out of windows in neighborhoods across the state. They’re keeping an eye out for kids joining the pop-up "We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” movement — at least loosely inspired by the picture book by British author Michael Rosen and meant to entertain stir-crazy kids during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shannon Provost has been going on weekly “hunts” with her 3-year-old granddaughter Eloise since she noticed a few stuffed creatures in the windows of homes in Salt Lake City’s Rose Park neighborhood last month. It’s a fun distraction, she said.

“I think it was just something fun for kids,” Provost said. “My granddaughter said, ‘It’s because bears give big hugs.’”

In Rosen’s 1989 tale, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, a family crosses oozy mud, a cold river, dark forests and a whirling snowstorm in search of an elusive bear.

“We’re going to catch a big one,” they say. “We’re not scared.”

They might change their stance if they saw the beast that fills up the entire corner window at the O’Connor family’s Sugar House home.

Holly the bear stands close to 5 feet tall. Her cream-colored nose is almost as wide as the window pane. Upon further inspection, though, she’s more forlorn than frightening. Dressed in a soccer jersey and holding a ball, she looks longingly out onto the foot-golf putting hole dug into the perfectly manicured lawn by homeowner Christiaan O’Connor.

She’s in quarantine and can’t go out to play, O’Connor joked. He borrowed the bear from his 10-year-old daughter, Caitrin, to put in the window after reading a BBC article about bear hunts being held around the world.

Rosen, now 73, had been sharing on Twitter images of bears tucked into windows. But he has since been hospitalized with symptoms similar to those associated with COVID-19.

He had recently written the forward to “These are the Hands,” a new anthology of poems from multiple authors about Britain’s National Health Services. It was published in March on World Poetry Day — which coincidentally, was the United Kingdom’s first day on lockdown, its editors noted. Proceeds from sales of the book are going into a COVID-19 emergency fund created by NHS Charities Together.

In Salt Lake City, O’Connor is considering dressing his family’s bear in various costumes.

“It was related to kids and I thought of my kids and just trying … to keep the kids busy and what to do,” said O’Connor, who is sheltering at home with his wife, Amanda; 13-year-old daughter, Mairead; and Caitrin. “I thought that’s maybe something for the kids.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A window full of bears in a house in Bountiful on Wednesday April 1, 2020. Bears are showing up in windows of homes in Utah, so kids can go on a "bear hunt" as they take a walk or a drive through their neighborhoods.

O’Connor said he hasn’t read the book and hasn’t taken his daughters on a teddy bear hunt. He’s warmed to the idea, though, especially after realizing they could go on their own, giving him and his wife a few now-precious moments in an empty house.

Provost also hadn’t heard of the book, but she’s seen the movement grow. About three weeks ago, she posted on the Rose Park Community Facebook page a picture of Eloise positioning some colored-in pictures of teddy bears in the front window. Since then, beady eyes and fuzzy faces have started cropping up everywhere.

“It blew up like crazy,” she said. “It just started catching on.”

Neighbors started trying to one-up each other with their displays, Provost said. Sometimes they seemed to be done more for the benefit of adults than for the kids. Even so, going on a bear hunt has served as a cuddly distraction for her family.

It has also created rare shared experiences with neighbors during this time of social distancing. And those connections may linger even after people are allowed to come out of their coronavirus-caused hibernations.

“I think it’s great. It’s really nice,” Provost said. “It did bring a little bit of the community — people we didn’t know were private messaging us that when this is over, we should meet — so it’s kind of bringing neighbors together.”