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When Katmai National Park employees printed out some photos of the Brooks Falls bears in 2014 and arranged them in a March Madness-style bracket, they thought the analog competition that would culminate later that day was nothing more than a fun gimmick to engage park visitors.
“When I was a ranger at Katmai during the first two Fat Bear events, I did not expect it to become as popular as it is now,” said Mike Fitz, a founder of Fat Bear Week and resident naturalist at explore.org.
Now in its ninth iteration, Fat Bear Week, where viewers vote online for the creature with the best pre-hibernation bulk-up, has gained outsize popularity among spectators, many of whom are thousands of miles from Katmai. This year alone, the competition has gotten coverage from outlets like the New York Times, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, and BBC. High-profile government officials like Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland praised it. For a friendly showdown between fat brown bears, it’s become ubiquitous in a way no one would have been able to predict.
“Katmai is a difficult, time consuming, and expensive place to visit,” said Fitz. “I’ve argued that national parks aren’t truly accessible spaces because people experience many barriers that restrict their ability to visit and connect with parks. Through the bear cams and Fat Bear Week, we can partly bridge some of those barriers.”
Online, the contest has evolved from its casual origins into a focal point of passionate debates. And yes, the vote has even been the subject of juicy political scandal.
Social media users “campaign” amongst their friends. When it comes to choosing favorites, the internet has a lot to say:
“909 Yearling is the underdog (underbear?) story I can get behind. Very annoyed that she’s matched up against 901 in the first round since they’re two of my favorites,” writes Reddit user diadmer.
“Otis is my everything. He’s such an old bear—maybe older than the expected lifetime of brown bears—definitely at least at the upper end of it. But he just chills in his office, eats fish, survives another year. Inspirational,” FirePuppyAttack, another Reddit user, says.
“There is still time to vote for the Mama of all Mamas, Grazer (which I did). Let me explain. Although 901 is my ideal, she is the future queen. For now, Grazer has worked for it and deserves her Crown,” wrote commenter fuNnyGrrrl901 on explore.org.
Why do we love Fat Bear Week so much? How has this digital event, with its humble origins, won the hearts of thousands of regular people—not just outdoors and wildlife enthusiasts—many of whom will never set foot on Alaska? Looked at through another lens, it’s not so hard to understand. Fat bears are innocent (as long as you’re not a salmon). They’re fluffy and cute. Their appeal is so wide, it’s inspired people from all over to learn and care about wildlife, conservation, and ecology.
“Katmai is a special place,” said Fitz. “It is one of the wildest regions in North America and it helps support the last great salmon run on Earth. We can all help Katmai’s bears by sharing our love for them with others and encouraging more people to vote in Fat Bear Week no matter which bear wins.”
In this day and age, we could all use something to rally around. And what better cause than the endearing, corpulent survival tactics of a couple of bears? Fat Bear Week is a celebration of persistence, prosperity, and good, clean, non-polarizing fun (OK, maybe a little polarizing). Maybe there’s a part of us that wishes our problems were as simple as catching enough salmon to last us through winter. Whatever it is, we could all use a little more fat bear energy in our lives.