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Editor’s Note: As of August 2022, Otis has returned to Brooks Falls. In celebration of Fat Bear Week’s chunkiest veteran, we’re republishing this updated essay from our executive editor on what Otis has meant to him.
I’m knocking on the door of my mid-thirties. That’s not old, but it’s old enough that I’m finally internalizing the fact that aging isn’t just something that happens to other people. I’m starting to notice gray hairs, and I semi-regularly discover new and interesting ways to strain my back. I used to stay up late and get up early; now, after putting my toddler son to bed, I sometimes fall asleep on the floor at 8 p.m. like some kind of elderly housecat.
Worst of all, I’m becoming acutely aware of just how young the people I see accomplishing things—from Olympic athletes to new doctors to Grammy winners—are. On the occasions I see an older guy performing at his prime, I rejoice. That’s why 480 Otis is, and will always be, my favorite bear on Earth.
Technically, Otis, a gigantic brown bear living in Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve, is younger than I am. But at an estimated 26 years old out of an average lifespan of 20 to 30, he’s firmly into his golden years as a griz, and his body is showing its age. His face and neck are heavily scarred, he’s missing two of his canine teeth, and the chompers he has left are worn down to nubs. Bears live hard lives: Most adults in protected areas like Katmai die in conflict with other bears, often over salmon and other food resources. The older they get, the harder it becomes for them to compete with younger, stronger animals.
But in his old age, Otis hasn’t just survived: He’s thrived. For Alaskan bears, getting fat is the name of the game as they spend the fall bulking up in preparation for their winter torpor. And when it comes to size, there are few bears as chunky as Otis. He has won Katmai’s Fat Bear Week, essentially a beauty contest for big bruins, four times, the latest last year. It seems he still ends every year as rotund as the last.
Otis’s success lies in how he’s turned his age and experience into an advantage: As younger bears have displaced him from the prime spots on Brooks Falls, he’s learned to fish as patiently as possible, sitting in one spot for hours and scooping up passing salmon from the water without burning any extra calories. Occasionally, Explore.org’s Brooks Falls webcams will catch him asleep at his post on the edge of the river.
Years before he started hocking electric grills on TV, George Foreman was a boxing prodigy. He won an Olympic gold medal at 19, a heavyweight world championship at 20, and retired at age 28 with a legacy that any pro boxer could be proud of. Ten years later, he announced he was returning to the ring, and at age 45, he became heavyweight champion again after knocking out an opponent 19 years younger than he was. Asked why he risked a comeback after accomplishing so much, he said he wanted to prove that “the age of 40 is not a death sentence.” I think we all like to hear stories like Foreman’s, because just for a minute, it lets us believe that our lives can just keep trending upwards instead of reaching a peak.
Unfortunately for bears, age can quite literally be a death sentence. In 2020, Brooks Falls livestream viewers were starting to wonder whether they had seen the last of 480 Otis—it was getting late in the season—when the park announced he had finally returned last year in late July. Today, he’s back at his post, plucking fish out of the river to add to his seasonal gut. As I’m writing this, I don’t know if he has it in him to win Fat Bear Week again. But I do know I’ll be cheering the old guy on.