Kodiak Moment

Why is an Alaskan hunter gunning for a giant bear - in a Phoenix strip joint?

The bear appeared suddenly.

Tony Fabriger had spent five cold and wet days on Kodiak Island, home to the world's largest bears, with no sign of the fabled browns, not even a giant paw print in the spring snow.

The unpredictable Alaska weather, sunny when the float plane dropped him off at Karluk Lake on the south end of the island, had predictably turned bad. Winds of 80 miles an hour had ripped his base camp apart the day before.

Tony Fabriger and his bear, in 1986, at the taxidermist shop.
courtesy of Tony Fabriger
Tony Fabriger and his bear, in 1986, at the taxidermist shop.

On this afternoon -- May 7, 1986 -- Fabriger huddled in the wind and rain on a grassy hill and ate a sandwich, wondering if he'd made the trip too early in the year. Maybe the bears were slow in emerging from their winter dens.

He'd been lucky, though, winning one of only a handful of state permits that year, picked through a drawing, for the spring bear hunt on Kodiak. It was Fabriger's first application for a permit; he knew people who had waited nearly 20 years for a chance at the coveted hunt.

An accomplished bowhunter, Fabriger had hoped to set a record for taking a bear with a bow. But on this day, he'd decided to leave the bow at camp, several miles away, while he scouted for signs.

He finished his lunch and set off down the slope. And there it was, the biggest bear Fabriger had ever seen, not 20 yards away.

"I was shocked," he says now, the image as stark in his mind as it was 15 years ago. "If I'd stayed there another 10 minutes, he would have walked right on by me.

"They are so huge. I was worried, too. Could I kill a big bear like this with a gun without being attacked?"

Fabriger dropped to a crouch, sheltered only by knee-high grass, praying the bear wouldn't see him, smell him. The 30.06 rifle he carried seemed too small for the job. And, lord, how he wanted the bow, the weapon he'd practiced with for nearly 10 years. But camp was miles away. And this was the only bear he'd seen in days.

He spotted some boulders off to the side and skittered over to them. Taking cover behind the rocks, he watched the bear.

"He was just snuffling around through the bushes, eating roots, I guess, or small plants. I think he was still a little bit dazed from crawling out of the den because they take several days to come out of it."

Fabriger waited. And waited. But the bear was taking his own sweet time coming around.

Finally, the bear started walking slowly toward him. And the moment of a lifetime was over in an instant.

"I just kind of stuck my head out and shot him in the neck. I didn't know how to shoot him, really. He fell immediately, but he was still alive, growling a little bit. He was hit. But I hate to see a poor animal suffering. So I shot him maybe five more times in the lungs.

"It still took him a while to die."

Struggling, semi-paralyzed and "kind of rolling," the bear slid down the snowy slope as it died, tumbling over a slight drop. It came to rest in a nest of boulders. All 1,200 pounds of it jammed in tight.

"It was almost impossible," Fabriger says. "I thought, 'Jesus Christ, I'm never going to get him.' I didn't expect anything like that."

The rest of the story is not really the kind of grand adventure that hunters tell in smoky taverns wrapped around a few beers. It's more a strange saga of misfortune, bad planning and a weird kind of perseverance that begins on a remote Alaskan hillside and ends in a Phoenix strip club.

Fabriger worked hard to get that bear. And he's determined to retrieve it from what would seem an unlikely final resting place -- the Great Alaskan Bush Co., the occasionally notorious nude bar on Grand Avenue west of downtown Phoenix.

The 10-foot-tall bear, a real trophy, has stood watch over the Bush Co.'s dance floor since the club opened in 1986; the bear came to Phoenix as part of a lease agreement between Fabriger and a friend of the club's former owner.

The taxidermist gave the bear a perpetual snarl; someone at the Bush Co. gave it a can of Coors that, for a while, anyway, it gripped in a lifeless right paw.

In the past decade, the Bush Co. has been through highly public battles with the state liquor board and numerous bankruptcies. Longtime owners Jack Cox and his mother, Edna, initially filed for bankruptcy in 1990; Edna died a few years later. New owners bought the bar and its assets in 1997, directly from the bankruptcy court after a long and tangled process that in itself was marked by allegations of financial shenanigans on the part of a trustee.

Through it all, despite Fabriger's best efforts, the bear has stayed put.

Since 1991, when the lease expired, Fabriger has been trying to get his bear back. He's hired attorneys -- although only in Alaska -- but he says they want "to squeeze me for money," which he says he doesn't have. Two wrote letters on his behalf, but then dropped the case.

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Jack Cox is a Cox Wad! Mama's boy

 
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