Unless you live in Western Maryland, it's rare to see a bear. And even there - home to more than 600 bears - it's pretty rare.
To address the bruin identity crisis, Department of Natural Resources biologists worked with teachers seven years ago to develop black bear education trunks, a half-dozen wheeled, 30-gallon plastic storage bins stuffed full of the bear necessities for a tutorial. Each box contains a hide, a plastic skull, a rubber paw print and scat replica along with a lesson plan tailored to grade levels K-12, a slide show and a video.
The boxes provide information about habits, life cycles, habitat, range and human interaction.
"Teachers love them. They're a great little learning tool," says Bob Beyer, DNR associate director. "It's easy to use. It doesn't take a lot of time for teachers to get up to speed, and then they can rock and roll."
The program has exceeded everyone's wildest expectations and required the addition of three more trunks to handle requests from Scouts, home-schoolers, senior groups, zoos and even chapters of the Humane Society.
"I feel like it's a hidden jewel," says Linda Coulombe, a biologist and manager of science programs at the National Children's Museum in Washington, who has been borrowing the boxes for more than three years. "They do the research for you, and you know that when it comes from Maryland DNR, it's correct and it's the current status of that animal."
Beyer says the sensory nature of the material "really encourages participation."
The success of the bear trunks has led to the creation of white-tailed deer education trunks.
"I've used them both to dust," Coulombe says, laughing. "You should see how kids and parents react when we pull out a bear pelt. When you hand them a bear claw, the questions start coming. Even kids who have seen a deer have never touched a deer pelt or deer skull. For an informal education, it creates such a tremendous environment."
Last year, the bear and deer boxes were used by 55 groups, says Patty Allen, who updates the materials and handles scheduling. And she estimates that more than 9,000 students have used one of the trunks over the history of the program.
"We'd love to have a wild turkey trunk, but it's a question of money and resources," Allen says.
Anyone can check out one of nine identical boxes for up to two weeks by calling the DNR office nearest to them: Central Region (Baltimore/Abingdon), 410-612-1688; Southern Region (Annapolis), 410-260-8540; Western Region (Cumberland), 301-777-2136; and Eastern Region (Salisbury), 410-713-3851. Or e-mail Allen at email@example.com.
"And it's free," Coulombe says. "I can't believe that."