Last week, all eyes were on the Senate and its controversial vote to approve Brett Kavanaugh—a federal judge accused of sexual assault and misconduct by multiple women—for a lifetime appointment to the nation's highest court of justice. But at the same time, a smaller number of people were engaged in a less controversial voting process: Fat Bear Week, the competition to declare one brown bear in Alaska the thickest of them all.
The March Madness-style contest, which Katmai National Park and Preserve has held annually since 2014, placed the park's bears in head-to-head match-ups on the park's Facebook page. Bear devotees will recognize these furry fellows from the park's highly viewed (at least by one writer) Bear Cam, which showed them chomping fresh salmon from the Brooks River all summer long.
Fat Bear Week's twice-daily match-ups featured before-and-after shots of the bears, showcasing some fairly astonishing transformations. Early in the contest, a tweet by Katmai staff displaying the impressive winter-ready body of bear No. 409 (known as Beadnose), the bear who would go on to win the title of 2018 Fat Bear Tuesday Champion, went viral.
Beadnose impressed voters with her lusciously round belly, displayed in a fat-flattering seated position. She handily beat Otis (bear No. 480), a fan favorite who won the contest in two of the last three years. (Full disclosure: This writer started the week on Team Otis and may have tweeted "Otis is getting ROBBED" in a moment of indignation.) And in the final round, Beadnose beat out 747, a bear who lacks a non-numerical name but appropriately drew jokes related to aircraft. Beadnose, one commenter wrote on Tuesday morning, has grown "so fat that if she was on top of Dumpling [Mountain] and tucked her head in, she would roll like a big ball clear to the Falls."
Watching Fat Bear Week unfold was a delight, even if, as Outside notes, the match-ups set voters up to judge bears by their photos and not any quantitative standard of rotundity.
Here are a few reasons why Fat Bear Week is good and we deserve it.
It's a Chance to Learn About the Environment
As the tweet's popularity showed, the fat bears of Katmai elicit a lot of joy—but following their journeys to winter plumpness is also educational. "Fat bears exemplify the richness of Katmai," Mike Fitz, 2018 Bear Cam fellow for Explore.org, wrote on the livestream's comment feed, one of best and purest places on the Internet. "Fat Bear Week is a celebration not just of fat bears but also of Katmai's healthy, robust ecosystem."
Katmai, which celebrates its centennial this year, was established to protect the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, a wild landscape transformed by the ash deposited when a new volcano appeared in 1912 and erupted. The valley and surrounding areas provide excellent habitat for brown bears and the salmon on which they fatten themselves, making Katmai a destination for bear watching. About 2,200 brown bears are estimated to live in the park.
Fat Bear Week Trumpets Body Positivity
There's no fat-shaming in Fat Bear Week. Quite the opposite, in fact: A bear with a hefty belly that nearly touches the ground is a bear who will survive the long, cold Alaska winter. Brown bears can lose a third of their body mass while they hibernate for up to half the year. To prepare, the bears go into a state called hyperphagia: Right now, they are essentially eating all the time, with the sockeye salmon of the Brooks River providing an ongoing sushi buffet.
We All Need a Break From the News
For those who were closely watching the twists and turns of Kavanaugh's confirmation to the Supreme Court, Katmai's fat bears appeared like, well, a bunch of glorious fat bears. Since we humans can't hibernate for half the year and hope to arise to better news in the spring, we have to take our solace and rest in smaller sips, and the fat bears delivered just that: a magnificent distraction, a way to rest our weary heads and root for something uncomplicated and inconsequential.