It started as a typical summer at Watoga State Park. But it began and ended as the summer with Tog.
There were seven of us hired for the summer jobs. Several of us had been there the earlier summer or two, and we knew each other. The others were new. We were all about the same age—some were college students, and others were local—just a typical beginning to the summer.
We usually had wild animal babies to raise. Well-intentioned tourists would “rescue” a baby animal, not realizing the mother was probably just gone for a short while. Fawns were the most common as we usually ended up with at least one every summer. One summer we had Mamie, the groundhog, Phoebe, the raccoon. But that’s another story.
This particular summer we had two fox pups — Ruff and Ready. One day they disappeared along with Mr. Park, the park superintendent. When he reappeared, he was accompanied by a small black bear cub. We named him Watoga — Tog for short. Mr. Park had taken the fox pups to the game farm and exchanged them for a bear cub!
A “Park” Loves a Bear and Tog Loves a “Park” Back
Tog quickly became the darling of the park. He had a very large dog kennel cage in a shaded corner of the staff parking lot. In the daytime, we hooked his leash to the clothesline between the supply house and the administration building and he had a wheelbarrow filled with water that he could play in.
Mr. Park loved that bear. Not only would he take Tog in his truck as he made his rounds through the park but it was not unusual to see a bear sitting in the passenger seat as he drove around. The two of them usually ended up at the swimming pool where Tog would swim in the kiddie pool.
In the afternoons, Tog liked to nap in the lounge chair in Mr. Park’s office. Unsuspecting park guests would think he was a dog when they came in. Frequently, they would ask about wild animals in the park. Mr. Park would name the various animals they might see and then casually wave his hand at the chair and say “and we have a bear.” Many a park guest did a doubletake at their first meeting of Tog!
We hand-fed Tog warm milk from a 2-liter bottle. Sometimes, we would be feeding Tog from a bottle in one hand and Flag, the “rescued” fawn that summer, with a bottle in the other hand. They didn’t know they were supposed to be enemies.
Popsicles, Soda Pop, and a Water Hose
Tog developed a fondness for popsicles and soda pop — both of which were sold in the commissary. We would warn guests not to get too close to Tog with either of those items because Tog would just reach out and take them. We tried to be outside when guests were around because they didn’t believe how quickly that paw could reach out or how long the claws were.
Tog also loved to play with the hose. In the afternoons, we would play “keep away” with him. We usually ended up soaked as Tog would grab the hose and chase us with it.
At night, whenever we returned from a movie or the rec center or wherever we had been, we would try to tiptoe past Tog’s kennel without waking him. It never worked. He would wake up and cry like the baby he was. So we would have to go to the kitchen and heat a bottle for him, and then he would go back to sleep, and so could we.
The End of That Summer With Tog
But the end of the summer had come.
Flag was not a problem. The park took “rescued” fawns to their home on the other side of the mountain where they could keep them safe or at least try to keep them safe from hunters. But Tog was a different story. He had to go back to the game farm. This was in 1959 — a different time in the care of animals. Of course, it’s also a good lesson on why wild animals should be raised as wild animals, not as pets. Tog, who had been a pet with all kinds of freedom all summer long, suddenly was confined to a pen with all his freedoms gone.
Eventually, Tog became a mean and dangerous bear. Mr. Park visited whenever he could and Tog always remembered him. In spite of the rangers’ warnings that it wasn’t safe, Mr. Park would go into the cage and he and Tog would greet each other like the old friends that they were.
I visited Tog several times. It was hard to believe that that big prowling bear was the adorable little cub we had hand-fed and played with for one memorable summer — the summer with Tog.
About the Author
Susan Higginbotham worked at Watoga the summers of 1957-1960. She lived upstairs over the kitchen and office with the other girls who all worked in the restaurant and also in the commissary.
Of her experiences with Tog and Watoga, Susan says “I loved Tog. I’ve always loved animals and Tog was just special to me. I had two pictures Mr. Park sent me. They were of me with Tog. I carried them in my billfold for years. When my billfold was stolen, I was devastated over the loss of those two pictures. All these years later, I can’t remember anything else that was lost. Just those pictures.
“I lived at home and went to college. Those summers at Watoga were my growing-up time. They were a great experience. As I look back on it now, I realize that I should have been a forester or a naturalist in some way but those weren’t considered ‘women’s work’ at the time. I loved every minute of my time at Watoga. Mr. and Mrs. Park were like surrogate parents. Watoga was a great place and Tog was part of it.”
Tog died in 1979.
From time to time, Susan retells stories from those memorable summers at Watoga. After college, she became a schoolteacher and now lives about 30 minutes from Chicago.