Larry Yepez and the Bears


Black Bear and cubs, Yosemite: Photo: NPS.

My friend Larry fights bears.

A recent Washington Post headline reads, “Former Marine, 66, survives bloody hand-to-claw combat with black bear.” His Miwok friends have since given him the name, “Man Who Fights With Bears.”

Larry grew up in Stockton, CA with mixed blood, Spanish Basque, Hispanic, American Indian, and other drops from a poor family. He worked hot Central Valley fields as a kid.

Like his father before him, he joined the Marines at 16. He was promptly sent to Vietnam and wounded at Operation Kingfisher in July of 1967. He is very proud of his service.

Like many war veterans, Larry came home with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a syndrome that was not yet recognized for what it is today. Luckily, Larry is an optimist and channeled his machine away from all but marijuana and causes.

Larry is one of the most idealistic, enthusiastic, and childlike people I know. He stands for good causes and for good people who are wronged by the system and is photogenically vocal.

Larry looks like an Indian Veteran, complete with headband over long black hair, dark wrinkling skin, choker necklace often with a dangling Purple Heart. Sometimes that heart is on his chest, instead, but it is always on him when you see him. Larry has a good heart.

We met while we were working at Yosemite. I was in Administration and he was fighting the system with justification while working as a temporary with the trails and fire crews. He spent years around Yosemite, did a good job, and was repeatedly passed over for permanent positions – even with the earned benefit of being a disabled veteran that allowed for preferential treatment during the hiring process. I agreed with him that the National Park Service was built on the “who ya know” system and it discriminated against veterans, disabled or not.

When the Iraq War started, he and I would go and stand in the riverbed of the Merced River in the Canyon before El Portal on busy weekends with anti-war signs, waving to a beeping crowd of passersbys. I think it was during that time that we gelled as friends. We’d talk about experiences, how the National Park Service bureaucracy worked and how it didn’t, and shared a willingness together to act on our convictions. I left the Park Service shortly after our friendship began.

One of Larry’s causes was, and continues to be, Veteran’s hiring preference for federal jobs. He was screwed out of a number of jobs at Yosemite National Park and has spent years fighting the National Park Service over the hiring practices in an agency that continues to this day to be 80% white male. As we did in the Merced River Canyon years ago, we continue to talk about how the NPS is doing regarding today’s Veteran’s preference in its hiring practices.

A few years ago Larry was given a 100 percent disability by the Veteran’s Administration. You see, Larry felt like he wanted to kill one of the park managers for what they had done to him and vets like him. I guess they believed him.

These days Larry spends whatever money he gets on his book and traveling each year to Washington, D.C. to attend the Veteran’s Day services at the Tomb of the Unknowns. He shows up in a bastardized National Park Service uniform, complete with flat hat, which reads on the back, “The National Park Service Discriminates Against Disabled Veterans” and an NPS arrowhead logo. I’ve seen my former boss and NPS Director Jon Jarvis look disapprovingly upon Larry during the event.

Larry’s always wanted recognition and to tell his story. I think that is part of the PTSD.

He has a book that is cobbled together, as he has difficulty with electronic equipment, that tells a very compelling story. Beyond the NPS, you’d be amazed at the number of Congress people, military brass, media personalities, and other dignitaries he’s met, the homeless vets he cared for or illegal chicken farms he’s exposed, documentaries regarding the Vietnam War, newspaper articles regarding Occupy in New York, and the employment battles with the federal government he’s fought without recognition and always lost. He’s chronicled it.

That book means more to him than most anything. It’s in the Library of Congress and has been displayed in Smithsonian exhibits.

These days, Larry spends his summers growing medical marijuana at his home outside of Yosemite. He can’t afford to pay for his medicine on his disability income alone. He rents a structure on a property where the bathroom is separate from his quarters. He can’t afford anything different.

One night this past August, he went out to take a piss, buck naked, and his motion light switched on. Not five feet in front of Larry was a surprised black bear sow with cubs. He says he knew right away that the mother bear meant business.

Larry picked up a nearby pot and as the bear attacked, smashed it. Larry got his feet under the bear as it lunged and scratched, and pushed with all his might for his life. He says they could see into each other’s eyes.

At that time, Larry’s service dog Yorkie Benji came out the door, barking and nipping at the rear of the bear that was on top of him, the bear whipping around to swipe at the dog that quickly darted back into the house. Larry saw the opportunity and went inside, shut the door, grabbed his katana sword, buck naked, bloody, and pushed as the bear pushed on the door.

“I was covered in blood, he had bit up my hand, ripped my chest and abdomen, scratched my legs and thighs. He had tried to get to my throat. I still have bruises on my neck…Blood was coming from my face and my ear. I had survived the bear attack, but now knew I needed to stop the bleeding.”

* * *

Larry, his friend Robert from Vegas, and I met at Benton Hot Springs in California this past week. He wears the fresh scars of the bear alongside the old. He said his back hurt him the most right now, from pushing the bear off of him while it was biting for his neck. I can see that he is ready for a long hot springs soak and wants to share yet another story.

I asked him what happened to the bear.

He said after two weeks and nine bears captured in the neighborhood, she was the tenth. They took her DNA from Larry’s wounds and compared it to the captured bears. The nine other bears were relocated. Larry’s bear was killed as part of the California Division of Wildlife’s protocol.

We talked about how it was, in part, his fault for the way garbage and pet foods are kept by the neighborhood. We came to agree that Mariposa County, California Supervisor’s need to mandate bear proof garbage containers to protect bears from themselves. Larry’s garbage situation was not unlike any others, to be certain.

Clearly, she was not a on a rampage for the two weeks prior to her capture. Should she have been killed?

“The bear was just startled, confused and scared, with cubs, confronted with a naked human and a bright light at four in the morning, and did what came natural,” I said. “She was at war.”

“Imagine if that were a little kid,” says Larry.

I semi-agree, and said, “Who but you are to say if the bear that attacked you should be killed.”

* * *

We soaked and talked; I was a lightweight and held my hands in my head after only two beers and a joint. The next day, after a great breakfast, Larry had to get back early, as the folks at People magazine were doing a piece on Benji coming to his rescue.

“If people don’t care about my story, maybe they’ll care about Benji’s!” he said as he loaded up in his white van that is peppered with magnet signs proclaiming his being a Marine and proud – of his dog, too.

I hope Larry finds his fame and, before he leaves forever, decides what to do with the other bears.

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Chris Zinda is an activist and writer living in Oregon.

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