"If you could recommend one experience to a family traveling to Yellowstone National Park, what would it be?" my husband asked the former Yellowstone summer staffer a few months before our trip. Her answer surprised him: the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in the city of West Yellowstone. Located only a block from the park entrance, she guaranteed our kids would see grizzly bears up close. She could not have known that West Yellowstone would be a ghost town on the day of our visit after flooding had closed the national park and emptied the gateway town of its visitors.
Our daughter, a true wildlife lover, buzzed with excitement on the morning of our visit. We drove through the emptied town and discovered the one place still bustling was the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center. Any remaining visitors to West Yellowstone joined us in the queue.
Under a blue sky and comfortably warm sun, perfect for outdoor viewing, we approached a huge enclosure where a massive, hairy beast of a bear ambled along. An employee in a bright polo talked about his behavior and habits and told us not to call out to the animals because that would confuse them. It was evident by the tone of every employee that they genuinely care for these creatures.
Posted panels tell about the bears' unique names: Coram was found near the town of Coram, Montana, where he had been eating food and garbage, and Bo grew accustomed to eating delicious and convenient food taken from the Rainbow Point Campground. Rehabilitation here in the center is an alternative to lethal removal.
We walked a curving concrete path, encountering cages of birds of prey (one red-tailed hawk, imprinted on a human at birth, lives in the center because they could still be territorial), and enter the otter building. We watched the volunteers "enrich the environment" by hiding fish pieces to keep the otters active in their hunting skills and instincts. All the visitors gave a collective "aww" as two otters scampered into the area to find their treats.
The climax of the visit is hearing the Pack Chat about wolves. We learned that multiple packs are living at the center and experienced a viewing treat: we watched the wolves pounce and grab live fish. Seeing their grace and power is awe-inspiring but unnerving.
The last exhibit was our three-year-old's favorite: A live bear trap and a semicircle of trash cans with a few coolers in the middle. Closer inspection shows significant damage to most of the cans, a few were obviously breached, and one cooler had a sizable chunk ripped out of the side. We take note: bears prefer the food that is most easily accessible.
It was a eureka moment for us: we now understand the strict trash rules we'd encountered on our trip and the lack of outdoor trash cans at gas stations.
We're Texans, but we are learning what it means to vacation in bear country!
Additional images by Gracie and Will