In late 2019, when actor Jason Momoa was promoting his Apple TV+ series SEE, he shared a behind-the-scenes video with one of his co-stars—a massive Kodiak bear named Tag. In a short clip posted to Instagram, Momoa puts a Golden Oreo between his teeth and Tag eats it right out of his mouth, leaving Momoa’s beard soaked with bear spit. “[H]ere’s my cookie kisses big guy,” he captioned the video. “Love you, Tag.”
Afterward, on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Momoa clarified that he didn’t rely on CGI while filming SEE, and that he actually did wrestle the 900-pound bear. He explained that sharing a sandwich cookie with Tag was just a way for the animal to get to know him—but he joked that it would've made for an undignified ending if the stunt had gone sideways. “Jason Momoa died today. He got his face ripped off by a bear,” he said of the potential headlines. “How? He had a cookie in his mouth. I mean, it doesn’t make any sense.”
What makes even less sense is what Tag is doing now. After a lengthy career that has involved appearances in a wide range of TV shows, commercials for everything from Burger King to Volkswagen, Johnny Knoxville’s Action Point, and that Daniel Radcliffe movie about a fart-powered corpse, the nine-year-old bear is now making appearances in parking lots across California, representing the concept of "Beastliness" in a political campaign.
Republican businessman-turned-politician John Cox is running in the recall election to replace Gavin Newsom as California governor—yes, the election with Caitlyn Jenner, former adult film performer Mary Carey, and maybe even Randy Quaid—and he’s leaning hard into the “Beast” concept. His social media handle is @BeastJohnCox, he’s put “Meet the Beast” on the side of his bright-red bus, and in the TV commercial that he reportedly paid $5 million to make, Cox is described as “the nicest, smartest beast in California” while he stares approvingly at Tag’s massive body.
“The bear's done a great job highlighting the beastly changes needed to fix California, like slashing taxes and making the state more affordable,” Anthony Ramirez, the Cox campaign’s press secretary, told VICE in an email.
In fact, Tag might be doing a better job than ‘The Beast’ has so far. On the “Solutions” section of his website, Cox, who has previously run for California governor, doesn’t elaborate on how he’ll make any so-called “beastly” changes. But he does make ursine puns (“California taxes are so high they’re unbearable”), and promises to be “a beast” when it comes to reopening schools—whatever that means. There’s a picture of Tag on every page.
“[Using Tag] was done to get attention—I'm going to be honest about that—but it also was done to show the seriousness of a beast,” Cox said during a campaign stop in San Diego. “We’ve got to tackle these problems.”
Using a bear who’s reportedly a member of the Screen Actors Guild to convey how serious you are about your campaign is certainly an interesting choice—especially when that bear’s own Instagram account describes him as “the Goofiest Bear you’ll ever see.” Tag has spent his life in captivity, which means he probably wouldn't be able to function in the wild, with no one to feed him bowls of chicken and occasional Oreos. Being reliant on others for your continued survival, and having a skill set that doesn’t at all translate to the real world, probably shouldn’t be the first-choice metaphor for your political campaign.
Tag has been raised and trained by Steve Martin’s Working Wildlife (no, not that Steve Martin), which describes itself as “the largest exotic animal rental compound in California” in its listing in the Creative Handbook. An ad for the company boasts that it maintains "an ‘accident free’ record, knowledge beyond most, plus an amazing perception of how to set up shots, to get your shots."
“It takes years of experience to understand what motivates animals to perform from positive guided reward," the ad continues. "We hand raise our animals from infants, and take them on sets so they grow up being comfortable on sets, and around crews.” (When VICE reached out to Working Wildlife for comment, they forwarded our request to Ramirez.)
Tag has also worked as a bear-for-hire, recently appearing at a 4/20 party in Los Angeles hosted by Instagram influencer and semi-professional ballsack Dan Bilzerian. A video on Bilzerian's Instagram shows him hand-feeding Tag while a dozen bored-looking women watch behind a knee-high electric wire. “When your girls [sic] hungry,” the caption reads.
The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) found out about that party, calling it Bilzarian’s “most recent act of cruelty and douchebaggery” in a blog post. According to the post, the organization had reported both Bilzarian and Steve Martin’s Working Wildlife to the Los Angeles Department of Animal Services and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, claiming they had violated a city regulation that prohibits “keeping wild bears in the residential zone where the party occurred.” (In response to the allegations, Bilzerian said, “PETA can suck my dick.”)
Unsurprisingly, PETA hasn’t been delighted by Tag’s appearances with Cox, either. In a May 6 statement, they announced that they had written to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, alleging that Tag’s campaign cameos have been violations of both state regulations and the federal Animal Welfare Act.
“Bears like Tag should be living in a naturalistic environment at an accredited sanctuary, not being abused and used as money-making machines after having been torn away from their mothers,” Debbie Metzler, the PETA Foundation's associate director of captive animal law enforcement, said in the statement. “PETA is calling on authorities to investigate this incident and throw the book at everyone responsible for exploiting Tag and putting people in danger.”
In a press release, California state senator Ben Hueso—the author of the state’s Circus Cruelty Prevention Act—said that he was “disappointed and appalled” by Cox’s approach to campaigning. "Two years ago I introduced SB 313, which was signed into law and bans the use of wild animals in circuses,” he explained. “While the letter of the law pertained to circuses, the spirit of the law protected animals, such as Kodiak bears, from being used in events as props, such as Mr. Cox's publicity stunt.”
Darren Minier, an associate director of animal care at the Oakland Zoo, has said he is worried for the safety of both the bear and whoever’s standing around keeping track of how many times Cox says the word “beastly” during his campaign stops. “We don't see this as often as we used to a few decades ago," he told ABC 7. “The main reason is because of how unsafe it is [...] Truthfully with a bear that's scared, a hot wire is not really going to stop it. If the hot wire is strong enough to actually stop the bear, it's a danger [for people] to be around."
Responding to the bear-related criticism the campaign has received, Ramirez told VICE: “Both the campaign and Working Wildlife have taken every care to ensure Tag’s comfort and safety with the approval of several government agencies. California needs beastly change and that may ruffle the feathers of those who disagree.”
But even the “Goofiest Bear you’ll ever see” might not help Cox—not even in one of the Goofiest Elections we’ll probably ever see. This is the second time that he’s run for California governor; in 2018, he lost to Newsom by three million votes, in what was called the biggest landslide since 1950. He’s previously run for state senate in Illinois, for the U.S. Senate, and for Cook County (Ill.) Recorder of Deeds, and briefly attempted a run for President in 2008. He has yet to win a single election. It’s not going to be Tag’s fault if that doesn’t change.