We ran across this tidbit in The Travels and Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen in our readings in class:
Just as I put my foot upon the ground a large bear leaped upon me with his fore-paws; I caught one in each hand, and squeezed him until he cried most lustily; however, in this position I held him until he starved to death. You may laugh, gentlemen, but this was soon accomplished, as I prevented him licking his paws.
“Bwuh?!?” we said. I had no light to shed on that one.
The Winnebago version of why bears lick their paws in late winter and early spring says it’s for sustenance in winter. The bears walked on berries all summer, crushing them into their paws so that in winter they could lick their paws and get the essence. Wildlife biologist Lynn Rogers explains it this way: Bears lick their paws because their calloused foot pads and toe pads flake off during hibernation, and the newly exposed skin is not yet toughened up. [Source.]
Granted, this particular belief comes from America, and the Baron is European, but the behavior seems to be commonly observed in bears worldwide. Here’s an example from Paris:
Speaking of a cub of the Norway bear, in the French Menagerie, Cuvier says, it “was particular fond of sucking its paws, during which operation it always sent forth a uniform and constant murmur, something like the sound of a spinning-wheel.…The belief, which once so generally obtained, that these animals, during the season which they pass without eating, and surrounded by snows, support themselves by sucking their paws, seems not utterly without foundation. [Source.]
So there you have it: the Baron’s victory over the bear is an allusion to the ancient belief that bears actually do derive sustenance from licking their paws. This of course, still begs the question, “Good gosh, man! Sustenance or not, how long do you have to hold a bear’s paws apart before he starves?!”