MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. -- Steve Searles is not really a cop, not really a civilian; he lives in limbo between those two worlds.
And, man, does he live. Think of him as the Serpico of the Sierra, a little snarly and gruff and frayed around the edges -- a ponytailed ex-surfer turned mountain man. A bit of a hillbilly intellectual without much formal schooling, a void in his resume that both flusters and propels him.
"It's haunted me my whole life," he confesses.
There are lots of contradictions to this 60-year-old wildlife officer, lots of ironies and surprising qualities that make him more than another town character, and worthy of a memoir.
Searles has carved out a niche and a career as Mammoth Lakes' "bear whisperer," a protector of the wild things that roam the night: the ubiquitous bears, deer, coyotes and all manner of high-country cat. He protects the residents and the 2.5 million annual visitors too, though they have the numerical advantage. They also have guns and cars ... warm beds and cozy, muffin-scented kitchens.
The wildlife sense this. They want decent food and cozy cabins too. Sometimes, they help themselves.
Back in the 1990s, when he was first hired as go-to guy for Mammoth's critter overpopulation, it was the intrusive coyotes and raccoons that Searles handled. Mammoth Lakes had thousands of the trespassers under houses and cabins -- mean and clever rascals that he trapped and removed before turning his efforts in 1996 to another nuisance, the black bears.
The bears were sweeter souls but even bigger presences, some topping 600 pounds. After a break-in, there'd be scat everywhere.
The police chief hired him -- as a temp -- to rid the ski village of half the big vagrants, who'd made a habit of plowing through restaurant Dumpsters and frightening the city folks from L.A. and San Francisco who came here to wallpaper the place with $100 bills. The fed-up police chief told Searles, who had a reputation as one of the region's top hunters and trappers, to kill 16 bears.
"Right, chief," Searles said. "On it."