Setting Free The Bears

Grizzly bears were among the wild animals set free by Terry Thompson before Thompson killed himself

Grizzly bears were among the wild animals set free by Terry Thompson before Thompson killed himself

Are Hannes Graff and Siggy Javotnik running around Zanesville, Ohio, this week?

In 1968, John Irving's first novel, Setting Free The Bears, was released. It was about two new friends, Siggy and Graff, traveling on a grand motorcycle tour across Austria on their way to Vienna, with the ultimate goal of liberating all the animals from the Vienna Zoo.

Siggy dies on the trip, after crashing into a truck full of bee hives and being stung to death. But Graff carries on with Siggy's scheme to free the zoo animals. I haven't read the novel in years, but if I recall correctly, it started out as a plan to free the bears, but ended up as an indiscriminate mass liberation of all the animals in the zoo.

It ended badly, of course. The predators ate the prey, and ultimately most of the animals ended up dead. The novel ends on an upbeat note, though, with a vision of the two freed Asiatic black bears running free across the Austrian countryside.

I can't believe that no reporter has yet interviewed John Irving in relation to the great Terry Thompson suicide-and-zoo-bust in Zanesville.

John Irving's first novel was based on the real-life Vienna zoo bust that happened shortly after World War II. Now, real life imitates art that imitated real life, as dangerous wild animals again roamed free after being liberated from captivity.

Like many people, I'm appalled at Thompson's actions, and I'm saddened that so many animals had to be killed. But I have to say that I think Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz made the right call in giving his men the order to shoot to kill. When you have grizzly bears, Bengal tigers, cheetahs, wolves, lions and leopards suddenly turned loose and roaming free, you have to put human life first. Tranquilizing them, especially with dark coming on fast, was simply not a practical or realistic option. Dozens of grizzly bears, tigers and leopards running around populated neighborhood means that it's definitely time to panic.

John Irving has long been one of my favorite authors. After reading The World According To Garp, which turned him into a household name, I found and devoured his 3 earlier novels (Setting Free The Bears, The Water-Method Man, and the 158-Pound Marriage. I've read and enjoyed all of his books since then.

I need to read Setting Free The Bears again. For a first novel, it was astoundingly well-written and entertaining. But damn! It's not available for my Kindle. Now that I have a Kindle, it's my goal to never again buy or read a dead-tree book. But for the joy of reading Setting Free The Bears again, I just might have to drag out my old dusty paperback from years ago.



  1. Eric D. Goodman says

    I, too, am a John Irving reader (I actually met him at the National Book Festival). This post is interesting and hits close to home. I am in the process of revisions on my own novel, SETTING THE FAMILY FREE, which is inspired by the Ohio event. Funny, but BEARS is one of the few Irving novels I have not yet read. I’ll certainly have to give it a look.


Speak Your Mind


%d bloggers like this: -