Sissy Bear at The Fort
By: Holly Arnold Kinney aka “She Who Naps With Bears”
How did a real bear come to live at The Fort?
Sissy Bear was just a two month old Canadian black bear cub when she came to live with my family at The Fort near Morrison, Colorado in the late summer of 1963. Sissy had a difficult life for being such a young cub. We don’t know what happened to her mother, but we do know that before she came to live with us, she had been given to the Denver Zoo who had rescued her from a roadside game farm that had gone bankrupt and she was their only asset. The former owners decided to declaw her, having her claws removed with surgery, and abused her by hitting her in the mouth with a pipe whenever she would chew on anything, similar to a dog when his teeth are growing in as a puppy.
They finally gave her to the Denver Zoo, malnourished and abused. She was named “Sissy” by the staff at the Denver Zoo. Sissy couldn’t defend herself without her claws from the other bears at the Denver Zoo, so the Zoo reached out to a well known animal trainer, Tuffy Trusdale who had a wrestling bear named Victor, and he was very kind to his bear. He was also known to wrestle alligators. The Denver Zoo offered Sissy to Tuffy.
He and his wife had an old school bus and traveled with three alligators in the trunk of the bus, and his wrestling bear Victor, who was a handsome 6’5″ Canadian Black Bear weighing over 700 pounds, and was all black except a beautiful “V” of white hair on his chest. Tuffy would travel around the country and set up his circus tent, and offer the public to wrestle Victor who also wore a muzzle, but he’d lick you through the muzzle and couldn’t bite you.
Tuffy approached my dad, Sam Arnold, in the spring of 1963 and offered to set up his circus tent in the courtyard of The Fort and offer the public to wrestle Victor for $1 for a five minute wrestle of Victor, the bear. This was a great promotional gimmick to get people to drive an hour at that time, to The Fort for this unique attraction. As my father was also an advertising man, he jumped at the opportunity.
I wrestled Victor when I was just 9 years old, in my Sunday church dress. It was so much fun, as Victor would be very gentle with you. But if you were a teenager or grown man and wanted to show the bear you could whip him, Victor would quickly wrestle his opponent to the ground, and sit on top of him, licking him. We would laugh till our bellies hurt, and then everyone would cheer on Victor!
Then Tuffy would bring out a large mat and two alligators into the center of The Fort’s Courtyard. He only wore a small tight Speedo bathing suit, and was quite handsome in his short, yet muscular body, and on his face he had a meticulously groomed goatee beard. He announced to the audience that he would put the muzzle on the alligator by wrestling them. This was very exciting for me and my brother Keith who had just moved up to The Fort and we were living on the second level of a real fort! Before The Fort, we lived in Denver in the Park Hill neighborhood. In just a few months, we were now living in an actual fort, a replica of Bent’s Old Fort, and had a wrestling bear and alligators to entertain us every afternoon!
We would sit on the vigas overlooking the courtyard and watch Tuffy wrestle his alligators. One time, we heard a “Snap! Snap! “And there was blood everywhere- all over Tuffy’s body. We were scared he was seriously injured. Then Tuffy jumped up victorious! The alligator had bitten his own tail, and he was able to wrestle it and put the muzzel on both alligators. Later, Tuffy tended to his alligators injuries, and the alligator was fine.
One day late in the summer, Tuffy and his wife had to go away for a weekend and asked me and my brother to feed and watch the alligators and hose them down with fresh water every day. We were to feed them raw chicken parts. When we’d open the back of the bus alligator compartment, the 6-7 foot long alligators would open their mouths as we raised up the trunk door- they’d hiss at you, and when you threw the raw chicken pieces into their mouths, they’d snap their mouths shut, and then hiss and open their mouths again for another morsel. It was scary, but I’ll never forget it. As a 9 year old, I was half their size and they could look at me as another snack. My brother Keith, who was 2 years older, was also my protector making sure I wouldn’t feed them too closely to the inside of their compartment.
After Tuffy received the phone call from the Denver Zoo in the late summer of 1963, asking him if he would like to adopt another cub bear, he told them he couldn’t take on another bear, but recommended that the Denver Zoo issue a zoo license to The Fort, and he would help teach our family how to handle a wild animal and train her. She could live in the courtyard with us as a family pet at The Fort! This was my little girls dream come true!
Sissy Bear’s Home at The Fort
Where does the bear sleep? Of course bears feel more secure in a cave! So, my father had a cave blasted out of the Red Rock next to the open courtyard at The Fort. Then we thought she would need some privacy, so we built a wooden entrance called a lean-to. We placed lots of hay inside her cave. Then we thought she would like a swimming pool, which was actually a horse trough, made of metal, and had a beach ball floating in the water. A chain link fence was also put up to separate Sissy from the guests coming into the courtyard and going to dinner at The Fort. My dad had a sign made saying “Please don’t feed your fingers to the bear, as her diet is carefully planned.”
The week Sissy came to live with us, my dad also had a Lakota Indian named Chief Big Cloud, aka Charlie Wrangle whom we met in Mt. Rushmore. My dad offered him a job if he and his wife Bell would come and live at The Fort and tell our guests about the Lakota, and Bent’s Fort. He was living with us when we adopted Sissy Bear, and he adored her.
What to Feed a Bear?
We were trained by Tuffy to not feed Sissy until she would eat out of your hand, as that would create a bond between you and her. We could give her water, but no food. After three days, she finally took a small bite of food from my hand. Bears are primarily vegetarian, so we gave Sissy a restaurant bus tub filled with dog food and lettuce, apples, cod liver oil and several raw eggs for her dry skin and coat. Sometimes, we’d put in a buffalo bone which she loved to chew. Sissy also had a sweet tooth and LOVED red maraschino cherries.
In the fall, our Swedish neighbors, the Enabow’s grandmother taught me to make a flour porridge made of butter, flour, milk, sugar, and cinnamon. It was a sticky, almost an oatmeal consistency, and of course you’d add more butter and sugar after it was cooked. I would pretend I was Goldilocks with the bears, and made Sissy a bowl of this porridge. Sissy would take her long tongue, and the porridge would get stuck to the roof of her mouth, and she would lick and lick making funny faces, yet she loved the sweetness of it. I would roll over laughing. Sissy and I became very close those few years, and when I’d come home from school, I’d take naps with her. When we’d awake, we’d wrestle. She’d sometimes bite my arm, but never hard enough to break the skin.
Sissy “kissing” our guests and other fun tricks
To the right is my grandmother, “Katherine Arnold” kissing Sissy.
Tuffy taught us to stand straight and tall, put a maraschino cherry in your mouth, and then let Sissy stand, put her paws on your shoulders, and the gently let her take the cherry out of your mouth. Then you were “kissed” by the bear. Sissy loved it as she would get to eat a cherry. However, make sure you don’t accidentally swallow the cherry. She will want it!
My Life at The Fort with Sissy Bear
When teachers discovered we built the first replica of Bent’s Fort, an early international fur trade fort that operated in Colorado territory in the early 1800’s, they wanted to bring their kids on a field trip to The Fort. We had originally intended to build a living history museum in our fort, and not a restaurant, but construction costs grew so much that we decided to turn the lower level into a restaurant serving foods of what they might have served at Bents Fort, including buffalo, elk quail, buffalo bone marrow, etc.
However, we would lead school tours teaching schools and teachers about Bents Fort in the daytime, and then open the restaurant in the evening, serving foods of the Old West. I actually led school tours dressed in period dress at ten years old teaching my fellow classmates about Bent’s Fort. At the end of the tour, we would line the school kids up, and tell them to stand tall, and place a cherry in their mouths. Then Sissy would stand on her hind legs and would kiss each child going down the line. She would get sometimes 25 cherries! The kids loved Sissy! We found out later that the original Bent’s Fort also had a bear who lived in the courtyard in the mid 1800’s.
Tuffy did teach us that bears are always wild, and you must never ignite their wild instincts such as tag and run. Just like a cat, when you dangle a string in front of the cat, she will pounce and chase it, and try to pick it up to eat it. It mimics prey for her to eat. The same with bears – you find you never can out run a bear – they are solid muscle and very fast. As children, we were taught to confront the bear and never turn your back and run. If she charges you, you huff back and stand your ground.
They also have very sensitive noses and can smell food on your clothing. She will get angry if she thinks you are hiding food from her. We would hold our hands high showing her we had no food and let her sniff all over our bodies, and jean pockets! If you did have food in your pocket, you better give it to her. If she is charging and you need to stop her, you can slap her hard on her nose, as it was very sensitive. But it is best not to get into a confrontation with a bear.
Sissy also loved orange soda. We were taught to keep the cap on the soda, and then take a small nail and hammer small holes in the cap. Then we taught Sissy to stand on her hind legs, and take both paws holding an orange soda, and drink it standing up at our bar! She’s have to suck and suck to get little drops of sweet orange soda out of the bottle. There’s a photo of Sissy at the bar near the entrance of The Fort taken in 1964, with our bartender looking on. Many think she is drinking a beer, but NO, you NEVER give a wild animal alcohol, if you value your life.
When business was slow, we’d take Sissy up to the highway, and all the passing cars would stop to see the bear. Then we’ d take the guests into the restaurant like the pied piper. Many people wouldn’t stop unless they saw Sissy and we showed them The Fort inside the courtyard. Sissy would always be willing as she would get cherries to lead her.
Sissy wore a chain around her neck, which a acted like a dog leash. Frequently she’d snap and break the chain, and climb the rock, and we’d let her go free in the daytime, when there weren’t many guests. But her greatest LOVE was Lobo.
Sissy LOVED Lobo, our famous German Shepherd
When we were building The Fort, we lived in Park Hill and were driving as a family to a restaurant in a poor neighborhood. As we were driving, my dad saw two teenage kids dragging this beautiful German Sheppard through the streets holding a long string of phone wire wrapped around the dogs haunches , hobbling and cutting him. He was crying out and barking in pain. My dad stopped the car and offered the kids $20 for the dog. That was a lot of money in the early 1960s! They took the money and my dad told me and my brother to move over and put the poor dog in the back seat with us. He was hurt but was very grateful we rescued him. He reminded me of the famous “Rin Tin Tin” German Sheppard on TV, which was one of my favorite shows. We took him home, gave him water and food, then called the vet. Luckily he wasn’t badly hurt.
When we moved into The Fort, Lobo was in dog heaven! He could roam for acres surrounding the Fort. He loved being our watch dog at night and was a faithful protector. He was a very bright dog, and my brother Keith taught him how to ride on the back of his dirt bike.
We adopted four more German Sheppards, plus had a big Tom cat named Big John. My mother also had a pet skunk that was “deflowered”, and her name was “Flower”. We also had pet rabbits, and I nursed a young injured coyote back to health. My mother had grown up on a farm in Georgia and loved animals, and her passion was contagious to all of us.
(At right: My mother, “Bay” with me at our Indian Market Powwow in 2004.)
When Sissy came to live with us, she immediately fell in love with Lobo. Maybe they both sensed they had a shared history of abuse by cruel people. Yet, they both were young and full of play. Sissy and Lobo began wrestling, putting on mock fights in the courtyard for our guests. Many thought the bear would kill the dog, but then Lobo would jump on Sissy back and bite her neck with all his teeth bared.
Then they’d lie down together, eat each other’s food, and sleep together. Our guests were always amazed at Sissy and Lobo!
Sissy would come upstairs and sit on our sofa like a human, with her legs dangling off the edge. She also would love to sit on our wooden picnic table in the courtyard after a long wrestling match with Lobo.
After several years of being absolutely in love with each other, one night Lobo went wandering down in the fields around The Fort. The next day, we found Lobo barely alive, having had run into a pack or either coyotes or raccoons late the night before. They bit him all over with multiple puncture wounds and they were infected. We carried him to the car and drove him to the vet.
Later, in the middle of the night, Sissy was howling and whining, being very restless. She woke us up, so we went down and made her warm milk and honey to calm her down. The next morning, the vet called and told us Lobo had died in the middle of the night. Sissy knew it. She then grieved his death for many months, and would barely eat. She never quite got over it. She tried to play with the other dogs, but they weren’t the same. She truly loved Lobo and now they both are together in heaven.
Do Bears Hibernate?
Actually, Sissy never completely hibernated in the winter. She slowed down and was somewhat sluggish, and slept a little more in the winter, but never completely slept through the winter. She had wild bear boyfriends come visit her, and one almost got into our smoke oven where we were smoking turkey’s for Thanksgiving guests!
When the winter was over, she would need brushed out like a dog, as her under hair would matt and be itchy for her. We would alway brush her out.
How Long Did Sissy Live at The Fort?
Sissy came to live with us in the summer of of 1963 and died in 1982 at the age of 19. Apparently this is a good long life for a bear. In the late 1960’s, I had gone back east to live with my aunt Mary, and my parents had been divorced and sold The Fort to another family, the Krohns, in the early 1970’s, who also had children who learned how to care for Sissy. As she got older, like dogs, she slept a lot, and didn’t interact with people as she did when she was young. However, my dad, and brother would frequently go visit her and spend half a day with her. They were very close to her until she died.
I had gone away to school in Pennsylvania and Sissy grew to be over 700 pounds! When I came back, I was a little afraid of her, as I hadn’t seen her for over a year, and she was so much bigger. She seemed to prefer men to women, and loved seeing my dad and my brother. Like horses, Sissy sensed I was afraid of her, and so I never gave her the chance to act out her aggression. She passed away when I was away at school but was told she died of heart failure. I think it was finally a broken heart after losing Lobo all those years ago.
Today, I am carrying on The Fort and all our wonderful stories and memories. So many of our guests today tell me their own stories of Sissy and coming to The Fort to “Kiss the bear”, or feed her. I love hearing those stories, so if you or your family have any good stories, please let me know. Sissy lives on as does Lobo in spirit at The Fort. One guest asked us to put a section on our web site dedicated just to Sissy so she could show her grandchildren that there really was a bear at The Fort and she wasn’t making up the stories. I hope I hear for all of you who visited The Fort in the early years, to share your stories of Sissy!
(This is my brother Keith, walking Sissy in 1963. They both are in heaven right now, and live on through our memories.)
If you buy a stuffed “Sissy Bear” toy at The Fort, make sure you take good care of her for me, and bring her back to see The Fort from your home, so she can always visit her old home from time to time. Sleep with her, play with her, and I hope you’ll get the joy she gave me when I was your age!
-Holly Arnold Kinney
Proprietress, The Fort
To purchase a Sissy Bear you can