Katmai National Park’s Otis the bear: Celebrity, tough guy, and ambassador

Otis the Bear, Brooks Falls

Brooks Falls bear--Otis

It doesn’t take long to figure out why Bear 480—better known as Otis—is one of Katmai’s most popular bears, a celebrity on the Explore.org Bear Cams and a reason why people make the trip to Katmai National Park.

Otis, the awesome

  • First, he’s big—one of the biggest bears at Brooks Falls.  Katmai park staff estimate that when he headed into hibernation this year he weighed around 1,000 pounds.
  • He’s also really, really fat, which is of course the sexiest thing a bear can be.  He’s so obese, in fact, that in October he was named 2017’s Fat Bear Tuesday Champion (a contest sponsored on Katmai’s Facebook page).  And this wasn’t his first taste of glory; he also won the title in 2014 and 2016.

From the neck down, Otis reminded me of a prized heifer, fattened on sweet grass and salmon.  The National Park Service described his autumn physique thus: “fat and walrus-shaped with a relatively thick, wrinkled neck.”  Walrus shaped!  Indeed.

Brooks Falls bear--Otis
“Hippo” also comes to mind…
  • Distinctive physical features also differentiate Otis from the rest of the sloth (what you call a group of bears): he has patchy blonde spots on his brown fur, various scars on his face and neck, and an endearingly floppy right ear.
Brooks Falls bear--Otis
Otis puts the grizzled in “grizzly.”
  • He also looks like he’s survived more than a few winters, and indeed he has; he’s one of the oldest known bears in the park.  First identified in 2001 as either an older subadult or a young adult, he’s around 20 years old.
  • Otis is tolerant of other bears, even when they beg from him (as can be observed here), and this gives him a magnanimous air.  He’s also a level-headed fellow; while we were at Brooks Camp in September, we witnessed a brutal fight between two adult males, but Otis broke it up and then returned to his fishing.
  • Otis’ slothfulness is almost cartoonish.  He sits in one place all day, napping and eating as the opportunity arises.  He doesn’t seem to be moved by much of anything, including moving, and he often appears to be in a stupor, as if he’s consumed too many bottles of chardonnay with those salmon dinners.

Otis the Bear, Brooks Falls

Movement seems to require monumental effort.  There was a particular moment when we watched, awestruck, as Otis waded across the Brooks River.  The river’s not particularly wide, but it took him a good five minutes to cross.  We gasped and marveled at all that mass, headed straight for us, and felt thankful that we were on the platform well above him.

Brooks Camp bears, Otis


Pausing to catch his breath
Brooks Camp bears, Otis
Made it!  I wonder if the paparazzi ever get to him…

Otis, the survivor

It’s easy to come away with the impression that Otis, while endearing, is a bit of a lazy glutton, but such an image doesn’t do him justice.  He’s survived 20-plus years in a severe environment, living alongside other competitive, powerful bears, all while coping with the constant struggle to consume calories.  Additionally, he returned to the river in summer 2016 with two missing canines, which makes eating the most nutritious parts of the salmon (brains, roe, and skin) more challenging, but these dental troubles obviously haven’t prevented him from gaining weight.  He’s a tough old guy.

Brooks Falls bear--Otis
Brooks Falls. Otis is the bear in the far pool, a spot known as “The Office”

Otis’ size and seeming inertia also belie the fact that he is a skilled fisherman.  He has perfected the sit-and-wait technique and possesses patience so legendary that National Park staff nicknamed him “Zen Master.”  He may appear to be napping (and sometimes he is), but he’s also practicing a magnificent strategy that allows him to conserve energy while maximizing intake and nutrition.

He can often be found in a primo fishing spot below the falls known as “The Office.”  He stares intently, waiting for the opportunity to pounce:

Brown bear waiting for fish to swim by.
The Zen Master in his office

Seeing him suddenly come to life in pursuit of a fish made it clear that he’s still a skilled predator:

Got it!


Brooks Falls bear--Otis
Yummy for my big fat tummy

Otis, the ambassador

Obviously there’s a lot to love about Otis, from his hippo-shaped bottom and his floppy ear to his patience and resilience.

But what I love most about him is just that he’s there, day in and day out, being Otis, and that his home, Katmai National Park, exists to protect him.

We’ve met people from all over the place who visit America for a little bit of magic—the magic that is offered in our protected lands.  No other country has a park system quite like ours, and people come from around the world to experience it.

The possibility of seeing wildlife is what draws many people here, so whether or not he realizes it, Otis is an ambassador—a giant, grizzled, walrus-shaped ambassador—for wild creatures and for the wild places that keep them.  I’m sure he’d rather be an anonymous joe eating his fish in peace, but he puts a face on everything that’s good about our national park system.

If he could, I’m pretty sure Otis would thank us for making a place for him in our world, and I bet he’d say it with a smile.

Brooks Falls bear--Otis
Thanks, everyone.