A Short Story
By Allison R. Shely
The strip mall is an unassuming place, by Newton standards: glossy glass storefronts, a herd of Lexus SUVs parked outside the Whole Foods, the shrieks of dying human desperation breaking through the gentle Muzak.
The periodic screams come from the end unit of the center, Cheryl Smith’s boutique gym “Survival of the Fittest.”
“I prefer ‘bear-tique’,” says Smith. She has the enthusiasm of a twenty-something, despite having a few traces of gray in her blonde ponytail. “Sitka and I have an equal partnership.”
Sitka is, of course, the five-year-old, four-hundred-pound female grizzly bear. She lives with her two young cubs, Beaufort and Bering, in a specially-designed, climate-controlled enclosure that attaches to the back of Smith’s gym.
“It’s a very detailed recreation of an acre of Alaskan wilderness. The waterfall is about ten feet high. At this time of year, you’ll be able to see our newly-stocked salmon run.”
A dash through the enclosure is the highlight of her workouts, according to Smith.
After stretches and light weights, the classes of eight to ten drop into the enclosure and run to the other side. Smith, who supervises from a secure area, makes sure that participants enter between Sitka and her cubs.
“It really motivates people, even those who haven’t gotten much out of a fitness program before,” Smith continues. “We haven’t lost a single customer yet.”
The idea came to Smith, a lifelong animal enthusiast, during a more conventional exercise class.
“I was over in Chestnut Hill on the Megaformer–kind of like a bobsled on a track–when I got stuck on my back with my head dangling under the sled.And I thought to myself ‘Wow, one false move and I might die here.’ I had never gotten a rush, a push, like that before. That’s when I realized that core-tightening and weight-lifting are really just practice for the big test: survival.”
A few permits later, Smith’s five-month-old business is booming.
“It was a real nightmare, trying to figure out how to license a grizzly bear in Massachusetts, but the emotional support animal laws have some wiggle room. I’m glad I can help conserve these magnificent creatures. Beaufort and Bering will be released into Denali National Park when they’re old enough. I’m reaching out to zoos about finding a stud for Sitka’s next litter.”
“Survival of the Fittest” has not opened without controversy, however. Most days of the week, Janet Kaplinsky stands outside, distributing flyers.
“I think it’s a disgrace,” Kaplinsky says, “These animals belong in the wild, or at least under the care of a professional. This isn’t much better than bear-baiting.”
“Partnering good causes and profit will save the world. Sitka isn’t being forced to do anything. She is only doing what any mother would for her children: protecting them. Besides,” Smith adds, “it’s good for the animals to have an enriched environment.”
Our reporters spoke with Roger Otis as he was leaving “Survival.”
“It was a little nerve-wracking, but Sitka really pushed me to climb that tree.” He said. “I’ve been afraid of heights since childhood. I’m really growing as a person. I just needed a little more, you know ‘bear spirit.'”
He lifted a wooden bear totem in the style of Alaska’s Tlingit people. Smith makes and sells them from the snack counter at “Survival,” though she is not a member of the tribe.
A first time customer, Melanie Goldman, also gave rave reviews.
“I think I’ll buy my husband a three-pack for his birthday.”
Smith talked a little more about the vision behind her gym.
“We’re so far from nature. It’s really weakening us, spiritually and physically. Antibiotics, vaccines…we wouldn’t need these things if we just exposed our immune systems to nature directly.”
Indeed, the cafe at “Survival of the Fittest” serves only food compatible with a raw Paleo diet. The fountains provide raw water sourced from the retention pond at the far edge of the parking lot.
Smith admits to taking it a step further–sometimes drinking straight from the stream with Sitka. She boasts of her ability to gut a fish with her fingernails.
“I try to live what I preach,” says Smith.
A gym regular who only identified himself as “Erikk,” “with two ‘k’s’,” agreed with Smith’s philosophy.
“Western Civilization is really under threat.” He said, running a hand through his close-cropped hair. “We need to rediscover our warrior heritage. Normally I wouldn’t come all the way out to Newton, but this is worth it.”
We asked Cheryl Smith what would happen when something does go wrong.
“Well, I don’t anticipate anything going wrong, but everyone fills out waiver and organ donation information before their first visit. We’ve contracted with a very professional ambulance service and have discount packages available with local funeral homes.”
Would she feel any guilt if she lost a customer?
“I don’t think I would bear–no pun intended–any responsibility. People are fully informed of the risks and still choose to come in. And if a few people aren’t able to overcome their limitations…” she shrugs. “I don’t know. I don’t think it would be a great loss for society.”
Then, of course, there is Sitka. We found her huddled at the back of her den, separated from us by bars. The cubs played near her. She stared at us with her jet-black eyes, unaware of both our purpose there and the purposes to which she is put.