Friday, December 24, 2010

Grizzly Bear Training 101

As a Christmas gift to all of you out there, here is a video I took of me doing a standard training exercise with Chaik and Killisnoo at Fortress of the Bear this summer. I put this up on Facebook and never really thought about putting it up here. While the video is jerky due to the fact that I was holding it while filming, you should find it useful if interested in interactions between human and bear. It's hard to see but note at one point that Killisnoo offers me the same paw turned two different ways when I give the command "foot" and "other foot". Intelligence is understanding the command and knowing how to execute it; high intelligence is knowing how to use it to deceive your trainer. Nevertheless, I had to give him a grape for original thinking.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Doug Peacock Video Interview

Three-part interview on Democracy Now with Doug Peacock. In Part 1, the focus is primarily on conservationist Edward Abbey, but Doug talks about his experience in Vietnam, how that impacted his life and led to the beginnings of his work with grizzlies:


In Part 2, Doug addresses his concerns for the grizzly's future and where and how things went wrong. This is the real meat of the interview and Doug tells it like it is. Frankly, he's right. We're not angry enough and we don't care enough. Is there hope or is it already too late?


In Part 3, there is more discussion of the grizzly being de-listed from the Endangered Species Act as well as the lack of viable habitat for grizzlies simply because we will not allow them to move elsewhere in search of such habitat. Again, Doug tells it like it is, that these are problems we could solve if we wanted to.


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

E-mail From Charlie Russell

Dear Chris,

Thanks for your letter. It is not often that someone expresses concerns in ways that I understand. A lot of people like bears, but liking them is about as far as it goes. You seem to get it. Too many people don’t know how to turn their fascination and concerns into anything helpful for the bear and so things just go around in circles.

Except for Gay Bradshaw, I do not know what most scientist are doing and I have two bear biologist brothers. After all the studying they do, I do not even recognize the animal that they describe most of the time. And too many conservationists use the grizzly mostly just as a tool to protect or establish wilderness by insisting that to survive the bear needs empty, peopleless land (that humans have no use of), ignoring the fact that this is a disservice to the bear because what grizzlies really need is for people to just relax a bit and let them share some good productive land on their ranch or along a road, etc, and even in our parks, without their mere presence causing a huge commotion and if they happen to decide to not be afraid of people, this does not automatically lead to their death.

What we have never learned is to be nonchalant around bears and it is getting to be more unimaginable all the time that we can develop this. Bears in general are too much like celebrities to us except we are afraid of them. We can not just accept them and carry on what we are doing and let them do what they need to do, which might even be sitting on the deck with us, enjoying the same scenery that we enjoy…

From what I and Gay Bradshaw have decided about bears becoming predators, it is initially about the disrespect that we create in them, by what we do to them, that sets the scene for what they might do to us if they run out of food, rather than the loss of a food source itself. If they decide they like you, you are pretty safe, no matter what goes on in their year to year lives…………… and all this, so far, is about questions that you did not even ask, except maybe the one about whether I have any hope left.

I was back to Russia a lot after 2003, but without Maureen. I rescued 7 more orphaned cubs (10 all together). I would not have gone back if a producer who I have known for 20 years had not wanted to do a movie of Grizzly Heart. It never happened but in the end, a good documentary was made about my work there. I finally left for good in 2007 and I do not want to go back ever again. It was an amazing privilege to have been allowed to be in that one place with all those bears for 11 years, 7 of which not one person interfered with my exploration about bears and trust.

I never did resolve for sure what happened to Chico, but in the end I had a lot more unanswered questions than that one about various cubs. I very deliberately chose not to have radio collars on my bears so I kind of expected to have those kinds of puzzles to ponder about. Those were not the questions that I was asking.

A friend from Switzerland was back to my cabin (which was in fine disrepair) for 10 days in August 2010 and he reported that there were many bears. He has spent a couple months with me in 2004. He said that the salmon also seemed to be in good numbers. It was a nice report except that the Russian guide that he had was insanely afraid of the bears of the area. It seems that there is a residing idea that there still might be bears around, left over from my "misguided" work there, that might be unafraid of people and that was totally scary to him. Oh well. After 13 years in total, in the Far East, there were a few Russians who appreciated what I was doing.

A question to you would be: How did you get a look at the letter we wrote to Chas Cartwright? We wrote him in 09 shortly after the death of Old Man Lake female and her cub and re sent it last spring to the request for public comment on their bear policy. We have never heard one word of response in either case. It was as if they disappeared into the ether. It is difficult to feel relevant with this level of consideration, given the amount of effort that I have put into understanding what bears are capable of around getting along with humans, depending on how we respond to them.

Thanks for writing to me. I know very well that what I have learned about bears and the way I learned it is important, not just about bears, but even about ourselves. However, most people in a bear management capacity deliberately dismiss and then confuse what I have done into something inappropriate because it suggests that it is OK to be close to bears. They do this because what I am really suggesting is that they, as managers, might be creating dangerous bears by their very policies of being abusive to bears. Not being an abuser myself, the only way I could study this question was to be kind and see if that was a problem. I found they like people if they are allowed to and I did not beat them away from me. That resulted in us being close together and comfortable and safe. Because I found that profound trust was possible with grizzlies and black bear if you did not beat up on them, an important question arises. Why are bears becoming increasingly impatient and violent in our parks? Could it be that they are never rewarded for their efforts to get along with us and they are just getting sick of trying?


Charlie Russell


To wrap things up, a video from a documentary about Charlie showing the paw to hand interaction that he and Chico developed.

The Wages of Fear

I've just recently finished another read-through of Grizzly Heart by Charlie Russell and Maureen Enns and it's still one of the most incredible books I've ever read and tells the story of what I think is some of the most important work that's ever been done with wild bears.

The son of well-known naturalist and grizzly advocate Andy Russell, Charlie grew up in Alberta, where his experiences ranching in grizzly country began to give him a new perspective of these fearsome animals. Treating the bears in his area with respect, he was surprised to find the bears returning the favor by not harming any of his cattle. His neighbors, who were frightened of the bears and tried to deter them aggressively, did not fare as well in the preservation of their livestock. Introduced to documentary filmmaking by his father, Charlie visited British Columbia's Princess Royal Island in the early 1990's with a film crew to make a documentary about the rare spirit bears that inhabited the area. Having never seen people, the bears of the island were very friendly and curious and Charlie established a unique bond with the young spirit bear who was to be the subject of the film.

A few years later, while working as a bear viewing guide in the Khutzeymateen Valley of British Columbia, Charlie was approached by a young grizzly bear sitting on a log who allowed him to run his hands over her and even to feel her teeth. All of these bears lived in protected areas and had mostly only had positive experiences with people. Thus, they had no fear of people and did not behave aggressively towards their human visitors.

Toying with the theory that bears are not born with an instinctive fear of man, that it must be learned, and that the proliferation of that fear will only create a situation in which attacks on people are more likely, Charlie set out to test this theory in the field. With the blood-soaked history of man and bear throughout North America and Canada, there was nowhere on this continent where this theory could thoroughly and safely be studied, so Charlie ultimately settled on an enormous, untouched wilderness preserve on the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia, a preserve with one of the largest populations of grizzlies on the planet.

Arriving in Kamchatka with his partner, artist Maureen Enns, Charlie was initially disheartened to see that most of the bears in the area were afraid of them and ran away without hesitation. Charlie began to fear that he was wrong and that maybe fear of man really was natural. Then one day, while out exploring alone, Charlie encountered a mother and her cubs. The mother did not seem at all distressed or concerned about his presence and even lied down to watch him, head cocked curiously to one side. Realizing that the wind was blowing his scent away from her, he got up and moved away, hoping the bear would move in to where he had been sitting and ctach his scent there. To his delight, she did just that, but when she caught his scent, she froze and a visible shudder ran down the length of her body. She jumped away and ran as fast she could in the opposite direction, so desperate to get away from that area that she left her cubs behind, scrambling to keep up. Obviously she had never seen a human being before, because she did not recognize Charlie by sight, but she knew the smell and was terrified of what it meant. This made Charlie wonder if perhaps illegal poaching and hunting operations were being carried out under the radar within the preserve.

It didn't take very long for Charlie to discover that he was right. On a nighttime walk, he came very close to a poacher's camp with a large bear trapped in a snare nearby. As the angry grizzly struggled to escape, the snare buried deeper and deeper into its paw, causing severe pain which stimulated the production of bile in the bear's gall bladder. Soon the animal would be killed, the gall bladder harvested, and sold on the black market for a small fortune. Charlie couldn't risk freeing the animal as it would identify him by appearance as one of its tormentors and kill him, so he had no choice but to walk away. Soon thereafter, Charlie captured video footage of a massive poaching operation being led by the director of the Kamchatka Sanctuary himself! The tape was turned over to the authorities and the director was brought to court on the grounds that he had been smuggling poachers in and out of the preserve. The director claimed that he blacked out and didn't know what had happened. He finally pleaded insanity and got off scott-free.

Knowing now that the bears of the area had indeed been exposed to a negative human influence, Charlie moved to plan B. He rescued three orphaned cubs from a zoo who were going to be killed because they had outlived their usefulness as cute, cuddly attractions. Charlie and Maureen took the cubs to their cabin in the wilderness, intending to raise them as wild animals to test whether human contact would ultimately make them aggressive to a human presence. Charlie didn't think so, but many of those watching from behind the scenes were not so sure. One of these was Vitaly Nikolaenko, a local bear expert who was jealous to find an outsider moving onto his territory to perform an experiment that could prove most of the so-called experts wrong in many of their assumptions. Because of that, Vitaly became one of Charlie's greatest stumbling blocks, insisting that the cubs would inevitably turn on him. When that never happened, Vitaly became more and more frustrated and once threatened that all he had to do was shoot the cubs and lie about their having become aggressive. This never happened, fortunately, and while Vitaly failed to find any evidence that the cubs were becoming more dangerous because of Charlie's interactions, his tirades against Charlie's tactics were unceasing and ultimately unfounded when one considers the amazing things Charlie was discovering with his bears.

The three cubs - named Chico, Biscuit, and Rosie - grew to be completely wild animals (hunting, foraging, and denning on their own) who were there at the beginning of every summer to greet Charlie and Maureen when they returned for another season of work. Chico, in particular, seemed to sense Charlie's interest and made the greatest effort to connect. She and Charlie developed a friendly greeting involving the interweaving of claws and fingers that they used only with each other. As the years passed and the cubs reached adulthood, they remained affectionate toward their surrogate parents, despite their ever-growing independence.

Charlie and Maureen also befriended a mother bear that they named Brandy. They never made any effort to interact with her or catch her attention...until she started using them as babysitters for her cubs. She even allowed Charlie to walk in formation with her and her cubs. Charlie was most surprised by this and recognized this level of trust as coming from an intelligent, thinking animal that had the ability (and the willingness) to adapt to changes in her environment rather than flee from them.

For six or seven years, Charlie and Maureen returned to Kamchatka in the summers and each time they were warmly greeted by their bears. The relationship between them never changed. Sadly, they returned one summer to find that Rosie had fallen prey to a large male bear, who will sometimes kill cubs to eliminate future competition for food resources. The next summer, many of the bears in the preserve were forced to migrate out in search of food due to the heavy toll poaching operations had taken on the salmon runs in an attempt to harvest their eggs. Chico was part of the migration and moved on to parts unknown. In the fall of 2002, Biscuit was pregnant with her first litter of cubs and Charlie and Maureen were looking forward to their return in 2003...this time as grandparents.

Unfortunately, in late 2002/early 2003, the poachers - smarting from the victories Charlie had won against them - invaded the preserve and killed every bear in sight, including Biscuit and Brandy. When Charlie returned the following summer, a single gall bladder was nailed to the wall of his cabin for spite. Those people needed the fear of bears to be rampant in order to sustain their way of life and to avoid public opposition to their work and they couldn't allow someone like Charlie to rock the boat, and neither could the bear experts who refused to let go of the dogma that human/bear interactions will always create a dangerous animal, when it's more often human ignorance of bear behavior and needs that creates the danger. Case in point, in 2008 the poaching of spawning salmon in Kamchatka became so out of control that it created a nightmare scenario straight out of a horror movie (details here: If there truly is a monster lurking out there in the dark, it is a product of our fear. It's our fear of a monster that may or not exist that ultimately creates that monster, in one form or another. As desperate as these people were to silence Charlie, they only proved him right in the end.

Words cannot describe how amazing a book this is, how powerful a story, how inspiring a message, and how frustrating the misguided attempts to stop it are. I've been very intrigued by Charlie Russell ever since first reading it and was mostly interested to know if he had ever gone back to Kamchatka after that incident. I was fortunate enough to find his e-mail through a foundation he created and got in touch with him. I asked him a few questions and sent him the link to this blog so he would know the full scope of where I stand on this issue. He must have read it, due to the amount of information he gave me. His response to my e-mail follows in the next post.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Words of Wisdom

Soon after writing up the most recent post, I e-mailed Doug Peacock to get his opinion on the subject and determine whether or not it might be a plausible scenario. He wrote back, stating that that very well could be the outcome of this crisis but, that if it happens, it will be the fault of us bear advocates for not doing our job well enough. It may seem an obvious point to some, but it struck me in a big way. The problem before us is getting the message to the people who don't want to hear it. It can seem an incredibly daunting task, but it re-enforces the need to spread the message as far and as wide as we can to ensure that our voice is the loudest.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Fall of the Grizzly

In the early 1800's, grizzly bears were as common throughout North America as the black bear is today. Ranging from the Mississippi River westward through the plains, into the deserts, across the mountains, and all the way to the California coast, hundreds of thousands of grizzlies roamed the West. Some of the Indians hunted them, some feared them, and some revered them as gods, but when the Lewis and Clark expedition began its westward progression, all they saw was a dangerous killer. With no knowledge of bear behavior available in those days, all actions displayed by the grizzlies (huffing, jaw-popping, bluff charges, and even harmless curiosity) were treated as dangerous and the explorers carved that path westward with gunfire. Throughout the coming decades - as the encroachment of human civilization decided that a monster like the grizzly had no place in the world - the mass extermination began. Those hundreds of thousands of grizzlies were shot, stabbed, trapped, burned, poisoned, and blown out of existence. Today all that's left are those backed up against the wall in Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, with a few remnants scattered throughout the Cascade Mountains of Washington State and (possibly!) the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. And today, as then, the final downfall of those few remaining grizzlies may be taking shape.

Although it's somewhat old news at this point, the attack this summer on a group of campers in Yellowstone by a mother grizzly and her malnourished cubs deserves a second look. Re-reading Doug Peacock's article on the attack (posted here:, several interesting details were brought to light. As an aside, if you're unfamiliar with Doug Peacock, he is one of the leading grizzly bear conservationists in the world as well one of the most intense personalities out there. His book Grizzly Years is a literary masterpiece!

As is the case with the majority of all bear attacks, the reasons why this one occured were glossed over and left unexplained. According to Peacock, the bears were malnourished due to a lack of their most important food sources: whitebark pine nuts. Once plentiful, the increasingly warmer winter temperatures have allowed an infestation of mountain pine beetles to ravage the whitebark pines that produce the nuts, which, in turn, provide the Yellowstone bears with most of the nutrition that they need, nutrition that a diet of grasses and berries will not give them. With the nuts all but gone this summer, the bears were in a desperate place, needing the nutrition and having no source of it available to them. This is presumably what led to the attack in Soda Butte Campground, and while there do seem to be predatory elements to the attack (one of those killed was fed upon, though it's not clear if that was the bear's intention going in), a woman who survived the attack and who recounted her story from the hospital said that as she screamed and resisted the bear, the animal increased the attack and did not let go and move away until the woman went limp and played dead. Had this been a predatory assault, playing dead would have encouraged the bear to start feeding; the fact that she let go of the woman and went away indicates a defensive attack and a determination on the bear's part that the threat had been removed. Not a stretch considering that mother grizzlies with cubs are highly volatile, but the events of that night and the motivations of the bear are not clear, nor will they ever be. After all, who can know the mind of a bear?

What is clear is that if the pine nut crisis continues, predatory attacks on humans will no doubt escalate in the coming years. Peacock himself states in the article that if things continue on this track, the predatory bear may become the Yellowstone bear of the future. He predicts that the bears will expand their range and roam far and wide outside the park boundaries in search of food, ultimately running into the brick wall of human intolerance. When that happens, the public outcry will be fierce. If you refer back to my post Fighting The Grizzly Wars (March 12, 2010), I discuss David Knibb's book Grizzly Wars and the vicious, spiteful public backlash leveled at wildlife officials working to protect and conserve the grizzly population in the Cascade Mountains. All of the fears voiced by citizens in this instance were based on fear and ignorance, which will always prevail unless reasons for bear attacks are made more clear. As hard as it is to imagine - I would never have believed it had I not gone through so much material from so many different perspectives to get to this point - the last ragged remnants of the grizzly still exist here in the lower 48 tier of North America by the sheer grace of God, because there are so many people out there who not only have a voice but who have the power to make that voice into a reality, who want that animal gone. And if predatory attacks escalate due to the failure of the Yellowstone environment, those voices who so angrily opposed grizzlies in the Cascades, the same voices that cast death threats at the wildlife agents working for that recovery, will direct their venom to the national parks and will call for the complete eradication of the grizzly in the lower 48 states. With the public pressure and the threat of litigations, what will be the result? It sounds unlikely, but the fate of the grizzly in this country has been hanging by a thread for a very, very long time and it will not take many more missteps before the decision is made to cut that thread once and for all. Peacock's article goes more in-depth and shows how many other food resources throughout Yellowstone are failing as well. It's lengthy reading, but very important material.

Now we play the waiting game. Waiting to see how winter temperatures will play out in Yellowstone and then waiting to see how bear/human interactions will play out next summer. Unfortunately, there's not much else that we can do.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Bear Psychology and Body Language

This is a post I've been wanting to make for a long time, but I just never had enough insight into the subject to properly tackle it. Having worked closely with bears now, I feel that I have a much better grasp on it than I did before. Although I'm in no position whatsoever to write up a dissertation on the full complexities of bear body language and communication, I feel that I'm familiar enough with the subject to offer up a slight scratching of the surface.

When I initially started working face-to-face with Chaik and Killisnoo this summer, I was nervous -- not so much nervous about being that close to a large animal, but more nervous about doing something that would make them nervous. One of my earliest memories as a child was visiting a zoo that had just acquired a large male gorilla. While I was there to see him, the gorilla went into a rage, roaring and pounding the glass, which rippled and rolled like waves. People were screaming and running in all directions. That pretty much became the image in my mind of how a wild animal in captivity would behave. My fear this summer was that I would mess up a training command or run things together and confuse the bears, thus prompting a similar reaction to the gorilla's, a fear that I laugh about now that I've spent so much time with those bears and have seen how they really are.

No matter which way you cut it, being approached by an 800 pound animal - even if it is tame and behind a barrier - is more than a little intimidating, so my instinctive response at first was to take one tiny step back, a move that could have been critical had I been dealing with a wild animal and no barrier. For bears, body language is very important, and every movement, every muscle twitch, communicates intention as loudly and as clearly as if they had a voice. Body language is how they communicate their intentions not only to each other, but also to us, and they read our body language to discern what our intentions are. If we had a full understanding of this, I wonder how much it would change our perception of some attacks on people. Even though I wasn't aware of it at the time, my seemingly irrelevant step backwards communicated submission, even while they communicated the same to me by sitting down or lying down in front of me and keeping their heads lowered. Fortunately, they didn't hold my mistake against me. In fact, the change in their demeanor from rambunctious and playful while out in the habitat to quiet and slow while in the training room seemed to suggest that they were respectfully trying to not make us nervous.

While Killisnoo was always very responsive, Chaik had a tendency to be the stoic, anti-social loner who would give you a look of acknowledgement and then pointedly ignore everything you asked him to do. Although Chaik was the first to offer me his paw through the barrier and seemed to be the one most aware of my interest in them, he never truly came out of his shell until sometime around August and then he seemed to bond with me. I don't know why or how it happened or what it was that clicked in him, but he seemed to be very interested in me as summer's end moved nearer (see picture at top - he sat watching me on the viewing platform for more than ten minutes one day). Instead of ignoring most commands, he became as ready and willing to perform as his brother and he seemed to relish any physical contact he could get with us, whether it was touching paw to hand or letting someone scratch the top of his head (something that Killisnoo never seemed to care too much for). That convinced me that human contact can be very important for an intelligent animal in captivity, as it serves as part of their enrichment, only in an emotional sense.

When it comes to body language, all I can say for sure is that it's instinctive. We're all born with it and we all know how to use it, but I don't think many of us could articulate it if we had to. Have you ever been able to read the intentions of a person just by looking at them or have you ever had an anti-social cat come and jump up in your lap because you're a cat person? These are two examples of how it works on an everyday basis. Being face-to-face with the bears, I instinctually tapped into it pretty quickly and learned not to take that one step back, and even learned that they seemed more comfortable with my sitting with them rather than remaining on my feet. I have not had anywhere near enough encounters with enough bears to go any deeper into this subject, but it's one of great importance to this field of study as it could change man-bear relations in many different ways.

For more info, biologist Stephen Stringham has made the study of bear body language his life's work and has written - and is still writing - in-depth books on the subject. Beauty Within The Beast, Alaska Magnum Bear Safety Manual, and When Bears Whisper, Do You Listen? are his current works, with Bear Aggression and The Language of Bears coming over the next few months.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Re-Visiting the Night of the Grizzlies

I've had a tendency in the past to be a bit skeptical about bear attack books, unless they offer solid and clear explanations for why those attacks may have occurred. Mind you, I'm not in denial about bear attacks, I just feel that presenting and analyzing possible causes is more beneficial than serving up a bloody dish of horror stories, which is what most books on the subject do. One exception is Jack Olsen's Night of the Grizzlies, the true account of one of the most horrific and unexplained attacks in recorded history.

One does not need to read very many bear books before hearing of Julie Helgeson and Michele Koons and the violent deaths they suffered on the same night in August 1967. Separated by nine miles of 9,000 foot mountain peaks in Glacier National Park, both teenage girls were mauled by ravenous grizzlies in the middle of the night. Helgeson was attacked at midnight, spent more than two hours lying mutilated and alone in the dark before a search party found her. She was taken back to Granite Park Chalet where she died from her wounds shortly after 4 A.M. - almost two more hours later. Fifteen minutes later and nine miles away, Michele Koons was attacked by a grizzly. Mercifully, her death was swift.

The bear responsible for Michele's death was found and killed. It had been quite active in the area and appeared to be exhibiting signs of mental illness. At Granite Park Chalet, the four or five bears that frequented the garbage dump every night were destroyed. Each bear was closely examined, including stomach contents and dried blood caked between claws. Investigators were forced to come to a grim conclusion - none of the bears were responsible for Julie's death. These were the first recorded deaths in the history of Glacier Park and the attacks there have continued to this day, prompting the great mystery as to what set these two bears off that night. Speculation abounds and theories are tossed about left and right, but we may never know for a certainty.

Olsen's book is as thorough an account as one could hope to find. Several chapters are devoted to the events that preceded the attack, including all persons involved in the incident, from the biggest key players to the smallest bit parts, the whole thing moving like a predator in the night toward the dreaded events that the reader is doomed to repeat. Something about this particular incident has always sucked me in, something about the two girls involved that has stirred deep feelings of empathy and sorrow for the plight they suffered, and I can't quite put my finger on what it is. As disturbing as it can be, I highly recommend the book as one of the most thorough and well-written accounts of non-fiction history that I've read.

I find it interesting that the summer in which I got to work with bears and talk to people about how docile and non-aggressive they really are, is the same summer that bear attacks were reported seemingly every other day. Grizzlies got a few in Yellowstone, a captive grizzly killed his keeper in Ohio, and a man in Seattle was attacked by a black bear right outside the door of his own house....and I'm sure I'm missing a few more. To me, it just drives home how complex these animals are. Human beings are just as complicated. Some of us are kind and friendly, while some are mean and nasty. Bears are much the same way. Nowhere is this complexity more brilliantly captured than in Doug and Andrea Peacock's The Essential Grizzly (recently re-printed as In the Presence of Grizzlies), a look at the relationship between man and bear, from the good, to the bad, to the downright ugly.

To me, as bear advocates, we should never lose sight of the fact that bear attacks do happen. They always have and they always will. They should not be swept aside and disregarded in some state of denial. Rather they should be analyzed and explained. We should look at those situations and try to determine what went wrong and think of ways to prevent it from happening again, ways that are a bit more enlightened than shooting every bear in sight for weeks afterward. The problem is that we expect these animals to behave as simply as possible and we don't know what to think when they don't. As with all things, time and education are the key. Nowadays I usually advocate several attack books to anyone interested in the subject of bears, because once you've learned about that complexity, 90% of the time you can step back, look at the dark side of the issue, and pinpoint exactly where it all went wrong.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Saying Goodbye

Today marks the end of my summer stint at Fortress of the Bear and I'm caught in a swirl of emotions right now. I was able to squeeze in one last training session with Chaik and Killisnoo and said my goodbyes while feeding them grapes. While Toby (who we recently discovered is actually a female - oops!), Baloo, and Lucky have been a lot of fun, I didn't bond with them in the way that I did the big boys (and little Seek months ago) and now I must face the emptiness of daily life without them. Of the many lessons that I have learned from these bears - and those will be discussed in greater detail later - perhaps the most valuable is that friendship and love are universal concepts that truly know no bounds. Thank you, boys, for showing me what I had previously only imagined. You will be deeply missed!!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Three Amigos, Here To Stay

Only a few days after our successful capture of the three orphaned cubs who, amazingly, came back to Fortress of the Bear after the death of their mother, two Fish and Game officials (one the new executive director and the other the head of the permit department in Juneau, who initially wanted to euthanize Seek) accompanied biologist Phil Mooney to the Fortress to spend the day discussing the future of the cubs with us. The new director had been there once before, was very impressed with the facility, and wanted to help us move forward. Now it was just a matter of impressing the permit department, especially after our less than cordial confrontation a few months ago.

Tom Schumacher, the head of that department, was happy with what he saw. It turns out that he knew nothing about what we were trying to do and that all of the information he had gotten about our project was misinformation. By the end of the three-or-four-hour long meeting, it was decided that Fortress was the best place for the cubs to reside. We don't know if they will be permanent residents or not, but they will remain throughout the winter and possibly be transferred in the spring if a zoo somewhere is seeking new cubs.

Meanwhile, the Three Amigos - named Lucky, Toby, and Baloo - have adjusted extremely well to their new home. It only took two or three days for them to adapt to the presence of people and remain out in the open and now they are fully socialized to our presence. Toby, in particular, is performer and a show-off - much like Killisnoo - who displays a noticeably high level of intelligence. The way he works his paws when he stands on his hind legs is fascinating. It often seems that he's mimicking a catching motion, as if to say "throw me a treat and I'll catch it." This is behavior that was not taught to him. I have to remember to keep my video camera on hand next week in order to capture that behavior on film.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Temporary New Tenants Now Permanent?

Our arrival at the Fortress last Tuesday morning was met with an unexpected surprise: we had once again been visited by bears during the night. Although we suspected the same mother with cubs who had been hanging around previously, we couldn't be sure. A perimiter sweep of the fence line revealed a very large and very fresh bear track in the mud, one perhaps made by the mother. Again, we contacted Phil Mooney, the local Fish and Game biologist, and informed him of the situation. He gave us the go-ahead to try trapping again and if the culprit turned out to be a different bear, then we could radio-collar him as well. We rigged the trap that night and returned the next morning to find the exact same three cubs (numbered 12, 13, and 14), but no sign of the mother.

Following the signal from her collar, Phil and a trooper found her dead body a few miles away but were unable to distinguish a cause of death visually. An investigation is currently underway. Meanwhile, the three cubs are being housed at the Fortress. Phil is lobbying for us to keep them, but we won't get a final word on that until sometime next week. While waiting, we've started trying to socialize them by letting them see us throwing food out to them. Occasionally we have entered the enclosure and allowed them to watch us pouring out dog food. The goal is to help them develop a positive association with us, and it's worked remarkably well thus far. For the first two days, they hid in the bushes when people appeared, but spent the rest of the week playing and sometimes sleeping in plain sight, so we couldn't be more pleased with their progress thus far. The death of the mother has been a pall of sadness hanging over our heads, though. We wish things could have been different for her.

That said, it does raise a mystery. If the mother is dead, what is the explanation for the large bear tracks outside the fence line? Could it be the big male that was after the cubs? If so, did he kill the mother and follow the cubs when they came back to us for safety? We may never know the answers to these questions.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Yellowstone Bear Attack Stresses The Need For Co-Existence

In late July, a sow grizzly with three yearling cubs attacked campers in the Soda Butte area of Yellowstone National Park, rampaging through three tents in the middle of the night, badly injuring two people and killing one man. Almost immediately, the bears were captured and DNA testing identified them as the culprits within 24 hours (funny, it takes longer than that for DNA testing to link a human being with a crime). The mother was euthanized shortly thereafter and the cubs moved to a temporary holding cell until a home can be found for them at a zoo.

Now it's coming out that while the mother appeared healthy, the cubs definitely are not. Weighing only 60 to 70 pounds when they should weigh 100 to 130 pounds, and all three still sporting ragged winter coats, the cubs are badly malnourished and not very well fed. As tragic as the attack was, could this be the reason for it? A mother facing a lack of natural resources and desperate to feed her starving cubs? I don't feel that euthanizing the sow served any purpose to begin with and, in light of this new information, it now seems even more senseless. Is it supposed to teach her a lesson or act as some kind of punishment? We are warned constantly about "anthropomorphising" animals, yet we are so quick to force our notions of "justice" upon them as if they can understand the concept. I feel that a better solution would have been to place her in a sanctuary to live out her life naturally with her cubs.

Recently a black bear was euthanized in Yellowstone for developing a taste for human garbage and again it begs the question WHY? There are plenty of bear sanctuaries around that would have taken him and many of these places were started for that very reason: to take in problem bears as an alternative to killing them. Nonetheless, that incident started a mass public criticism of those who preach co-existence with bears, citing instead that we need to forcefully dominate the animal in every way possible. Someone should really inform these people that our attempts to dominate bears are a very large part of the problem. The more we attempt to exert our will on these animals, the more of their territory we invade, the more we show them that we are a dangerous predator, the more of their natural resources we eliminate, the more desperate choices they are forced to make....which can include preying upon us. Greater public education is desperately needed. Camping with electric fences and bear spray should be mandatory and people should expect certain potential consequences if they choose to go without those precautions, like driving without a seat belt. We have to be more aware of the impact our actions have on the world around us and take careful steps to ensure that animals like bears have what they need to survive without turning to us as a possible alternative. Search for "Yellowstone bear attack" and check out some of the comments on news reports of this incident and you'll get a pretty good idea of how far from a positive change we really are.

I'll cap this off with a quote from R. Yorke Edwards, a Canadian environmentalist who hit the issue square on the nose: "When all the dangerous cliffs are fenced off, all the trees that might fall on people are cut down, all of the insects that bite have been poisoned, and all of the grizzlies are dead because they are occasionally dangerous, the wilderness will not be made safe. Rather, the safety will have destroyed the wilderness."

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Temporary New Tenants

With the salmon run unusually late this summer, wild bears have been coming down to eat the plentiful numbers of berries growing along the fenceline at Fortress of the Bear. The most prominent among these are a mother with three second-year cubs (pictured at left in a photo from the Sitka newspaper).

After cleaning out the berries, these four came over the fence at Fortress every night for a week. They never did any serious damage and ultimately fashioned a very impressive bed out of hay, straw, and shredded paper. They seemed to be making themselves right at home.

Consulting with the local biologist, he asked us if we could trap him in our second enclosure, which is currently empty, so that he could radio-collar the mother and tag the cubs in order to track their movements. We agreed and successfully managed to catch them late one night. The next day the biologist came in and tranquilized them with a full crowd of tourists as spectators. The mother was radio-collared, and the cubs tranquilized and numbered. The plan was to release them that night but the mother had not fully recovered from the tranquilizer, so we decided it best to keep them another day to monitor her progress.

Although she was strangely slow to recover, she finally did pull out of it and we attempted to drive them away the next evening. Two hundred firecrackers were thrown into the enclosure and we banged pots and pans while screaming and shouting. Despite everything we think we know about bears, the noise did NOT frighten them away. Instead it angered the mother and she attacked the firecrackers. Again, I have to emphasize: if you're enjoying outdoor activities in bear country, you should make noise....but within reason. Do not be an intrusive presence!

With our failure in driving the bears away, we left the gate to their enclosure open and went home for the evening. When we returned the next morning, the family had found their way out....but not before frollicking around inside the facility first. A reading from the mother's radio-collar indicated that they had only moved a half a mile away and the next morning we found that they had broken in again. After hanging around for another day or two, they moved off but haven't gone more than four or five miles. It's only now that we've discovered the full story behind what was happening. Apparently a large male bear in the area has been threatening cubs and this mother was bringing hers over the fence into our facility to protect them, knowing that their pursuer would not follow them into an area that smelled strongly of two large males. Considering the bed they made, their reluctance to leave when we tried to drive them away, and their refusal to leave the area despite the lack of a food source, it's the only explanation that satisfactorily answers all the questions. Now that fish have finally started moving into the streams, the male has moved on, giving this family a chance to get out.

Even so, they haven't gone far and are not on one of the fish streams. They haven't yet gotten into trouble with the residents, but if they do the tagging and collaring will identify them as research bears and prevent them from being shot. Instead they will be brought back to us where they will be given plenty of love and care. I've been off work a couple of days and haven't heard any news about them, but with all the recent sightings of the cubs, I expect to hear something new first thing in the morning.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Grizzly Maze: The Legacy of Timothy Treadwell

It's inevitable that this would happen. Now that I'm working with bears, the subject of Timothy Treadwell comes up almost on a daily basis, either when people ask my opinion of him, or - particularly annoying - when people caution me about talking to Chaik and Killisnoo and calling them things like "pretty bear" because "that's what Treadwell did." While I never really had any serious problems with Treadwell, having to address this issue day after day has made me almost unapologetically a Treadwell supporter and I'm glad to say that I've been able to offer some of our guests a little more food for thought than Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man did.

After seeing that 2005 documentary, I had wanted to learn more about Treadwell's life and mission, but was somehow reluctant to go down that path. I had long heard that Nick Jans's The Grizzly Maze was not only the best book on Treadwell's life but was also the most unbiased and fairly-balanced. Initially hesitant, I finally - warily - picked up a copy at a bookstore in Sitka and was greatly intrigued by what I read.

From the get-go, Jans wastes no time lambasting Herzog's Grizzly Man for its fraudulent depiction of Treadwell and his seeming "insanity". Several bear experts who knew Treadwell - among them Charlie Russell and Stephen Stringham - also criticized the movie for trying to turn the audience against its subject, stating that Treadwell was getting stronger and becoming more mellow through his work with the bears, not spiraling into insanity and paranoia. Timothy was an aspiring actor with a big ego and an equally big imagination who often entertained himself with his video camera while spending all those months alone in the Alaskan wilderness. Heck, I have a video camera and I often do the same thing. One can easily be made to look mentally unstable if moments like that are carefully selected and placed at opportune moments. In Jans's introduction, even Timothy's greatest detractors confess their shock with Grizzly Man, stating that the man seen on film there was not Timothy Treadwell.

Reading about Timothy's life brought up mixed emotions for me. Outside of the obvious bear connection, I found myself identifying with him in some ways. Even so, I have my issues with him as well. The first is that he did not take steps to protect himself. A simple electric fence around his camp and a can of pepper spray would have been enough to keep him alive. I completely understand why he did what he did, but he should have been prepared for the possibility of running into that one bear, the one gone horribly wrong. Charlie Russell and Stephen Stringham have spent years living with wild grizzlies, seeking to prove what Treadwell sought to prove, but both have been appropriately prepared for a bad situation, and, despite Russell's incredible discoveries working with wild grizzlies, perhaps working with tame or captive bears would have been a better option for Treadwell. After all, wild bears are more focused and single-minded in their quest to find sufficient amounts of food, whereas a tame or captive bear that is not faced with these concerns would have a different mind-set and might offer more insights into what bears are truly capable of. My biggest issue with Treadwell is that after being killed by a bear, those of us who seek to prove, as he did, that bears are misunderstood and undeserving of their monstrous reputations, will probably never be taken seriously again. If Timothy wasn't concerned for his own safety, he should have at least thought of the safety of his girlfriend, the bears he loved, and the validity of the work that he, and others, have been doing.

And there my problems with Treadwell stop. I sympathize with him in every other way and I frankly find it sad that no one took him or his work seriously. A man who spends four of five months out of the year for 13 years - unarmed and unprotected - with grizzlies in one of the wildest corners of the planet, is surely someone who knows something that the rest of us don't. Whether this speaks to the accuracy of Treadwell's beliefs or to the natural tolerance of the bear, it still speaks to something that is important and that cannot be ignored. People only seem to focus on how things ended instead of how long it took for things to get to that point. Of course, if you own a car and you drive everywhere you want to go, it's only a matter of time before you have a wreck. That won't get you labeled as crazy or suicidal, though. So whenever this subject comes up at work, my response is this: if Timothy Treadwell had been a NASCAR driver and had been killed in a head-on collision with a concrete wall, he would have been lauded as a hero instead of a nut with a death wish. So what's the difference between him doing that and doing what he actually did?

Monday, June 7, 2010

Bear Bonding

The days have been so packed with visitors that there has seldom been any time lately to work closely with Chaik and Killisnoo. On the morning of my birthday (June 1), during a brief, uncommon lull, I spotted Chaik in the training room watching me from behind a wall of steel bars. I fed him some apples and lettuce and sat, talking to him very quietly. I told him that I wanted to know what bears think and feel and what they dream about when they sleep. Chaik watched me intently throughout, almost as if he were reading something in my body language or tone of voice, and then he slowly extended his paw through a small opening in the barrier. My heart pounding nervously - mostly with the fear of making him nervous - I reached out and touched his paw. He just sat there with his head lowered while I felt the pad underneath and traced the curve of the claws. He spread them and allowed me to run my fingers between them. My breath was caught in my throat and when I pulled away, he picked up an apple and walked back out into the enclosure. Not only was it the best birthday present I could have ever gotten, it was one of the most profound experiences of my life, one that was repeated almost verbatim the next afternoon. I felt like I had gotten my first taste of what it must be like to walk on the moon.

Meanwhile, Seek is ready to go and will be departing for Texas in the morning. After restoring his health, my next job was getting him used to being alone and traveling in a kennel. He didn't like either one ate first but adapted quickly to both. He plays wildly, though, and has a tendency to bite a little too hard during these bouts. I've been working to cure him of that, too, and am pleased to say that he's learned very, very well. Now during play he thrashes wildly if he grabs pant legs or jacket sleeves, but his bite on bare skin is so gentle that it tickles. On one of my last days with him, he became spooked by heavy machinery that was working nearby and jumped into my arms, holding onto me with a death grip, his little heart racing. I calmed him down by mimicking the cooing of a mother bear (thanks to Lynn Rogers and all his work for teaching me that). Afterwards he climbed onto my shoulders and onto my head. He fell asleep up there and - over the course of half and hour - slid down my arm, onto my lap, and off onto the ground. I'm deeply going to miss the little guy.

Fight For Life

Three weeks into my stint at Fortress of the Bear and the excitement is already overwhelming. Our two three-year-old grizzly bears, Chaik and Killisnoo, display an amazing intelligence and respond extraordinarily well to training, enrichment, and visitors. What is most interesting is how sociable they are toward us. They certainly don't have to be - we would feed them anyway - but they appear to react that way out of a willingness to be sociable, evidence of their ability to adapt to new situations. Equally interesting is how picky they are about what they do and do not eat, proving that bears are not the mindless garbage cans they are thought to be.

It's very interesting to see how well bears respond to being in captivity. Many other species of wild animals do not live as long in captivity as bears do. With an average lifespan of thirty years, most bears in the wild are lucky to live only a third of that time. In captivity, however, they can exceed their lifespan, sometimes living as long as forty to fifty years, particularly when they are well-cared for and given a diverse diet and a stress-free, enriched environment. I'm also excited to see that one of my earlier observations is apparently correct: they are reciprocal animals and give what they get. If treated with respect, they will return that respect.

While Chaik and Killisnoo have filled my time with wonder, fascination, and study, it is the new cub Seek (Tlingit for "black bear") that has filled my time with joy. Seek was found in the Excursion Inlet area 100 miles north of here in the middle of May by a fisherman. He had apparently been orphaned for at least a month, indicated by his being ten pounds underweight and only a third of the size that he should be at his age (five months), and could barely stand up or walk. He was trapped on a tidal flat with the water coming in and could not ecsape, so the man wrapped him in a blanket and took him to his cabin. Alaska Fish and Game then sent him to us, thinking that he was a brown bear cub. When they determined that he was actually a black bear, they told us that they were going to take him back and euthanize him, claiming that because black bears are found all across the country they are not "viable zoo animals" and that no one would be interested in seeing him.

Angry, we turned to anyone that we could for help: the local radio and television stations, the town biologist who is a big supporter of the work that we do, and tried to get some voices on our side. We told all of our guests what was going to happen and word began to spread around town. A "save the cub" petition was started onboard one of the cruise ships and Fish and Game began to receive a negative backlash from the community. Finally, the local radio personality contacted us and told us that he knew Jeff Corwin's people and that he would try to contact him in India, where he was shooting an episode of his show. A couple hours later, Corwin personally called us and told us that if they destroyed the cub, they would broadcast the story to the world and put Fish and Game in their place.

At 4:00 that afternoon, the showdown had begun. Fish and Game officials arrived to take the cub. We met them at the gate, refused to let them in, and told them there was no way they were taking the cub. Not wanting a confrontation, and already hit with a serious public backlash, the officials backed down and agreed to let the cub live. Of course, their damage control spin in the paper made us look paranoid and made them look better than they were, especially when they claimed they were only taking the cub for identification purposes. Two weeks later, Holly, one of the officials who came to take the cub, personally thanked us for saying no.

So, fortunately, Seek has been with us for the last three weeks. It's been a long process of nursing him back to health, but he's a fighter and was determined not to give up. Weighing only four and a half pounds when he arrived, he is now almost ten pounds, he has regained the use of his legs, improved his coordination, and has grown a thick, beautiful coat of fur. This week he transfers to a wildlife sanctuary in Texas. He will be deeply missed but I'll be planning to take a trip there somewhere down the road. I want to see him when he's grown up.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Taking Things to a New Level

Tomorrow morning I'm headed for Sitka, Alaska to take a seasonal bear manager position at Fortress of the Bear. The owners of the sanctuary have read this blog and told me that they've observed some remarkable things with their two bears, Killisnoo and Chaik. I will be caring for the bears, overseeing enrichment programs to keep them from getting bored (as heavily detailed in Else Poulsen's Smiling Bears, which will be my Bible over the next few months), and raising any new orphaned cubs that we may obtain. It's an exciting opportunity, mostly from the perspective of this blog and my own personal research, so check back often for pictures, updates, and any observations I make, plus more book reviews and discussion topics. This is going to be an interesting adventure!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Safety in Bear Country

Throughout the course of this blog, I've tried to show how complex bears are and how little we really know about them. Considering that, we have to wonder how accurate our ideas about staying safe in bear country really are. Most of those safety pamphlets that are readily available in almost all national parks are not written by scientists or experts, but by law firms representing the parks themselves, lawyers worried about litigation who feel that pushing fear and danger will reduce the chances of a lawsuit. While most of the advice is accurate and helpful, some is not...and some could even make a bad situation worse.

For example, the advice given in these pamphlets does not differentiate between the two principle types of bears one might encounter. Instead of saying "if you see a black bear, you should do this" or "if you see a grizzly, you should do that", we are told simply "if you see a bear (of any type), do this". That in itself is not very smart advice as the rules vary depending on the bear. Black bears are normally shy and timid animals, easily intimidated and provoked. Stand your ground and make eye contact (yes, make eye contact!) to show that you are the dominant in the situation, and the bear will back down. Break eye contact even for a moment and the bear may take advantage and charge. Not to worry, though, as most black bear demonstrations of aggressiveness are only bluster and are signs of the bear's fear and nervousness, not a prelude to an attack. Talk to the bear calmly. Do not raise your voice, shout, or wave your arms as most safety pamphlets tell you to do. Hold your ground, be the one in control, and the situation will resolve itself. Grizzlies on the other hand are naturally dominant animals and will react aggressively to any dominant behavior exhibited by intruders. Like the black bear, hold your ground to show that you will not be bullied (do NOT make eye contact) and lower your head and turn it - and perhaps even your whole body - to the side. This is a display of submission and peaceful intent that most wild animals recognize. Speak quietly and calmly. This will keep you calm and in turn will keep the bear calm. Raising your voice and waving your arms could be interpreted as a display of aggressive intent and could lead to an attack.

One piece of advice given is to play dead when attacked by a bear. While that is true if the bear perceives you as a threat to his space or his young, you only have to read any one given bear attack book to find an account of someone who misinterpreted this advice and played dead upon sighting a grizzly. The result, obviously, was a vicious attack, as dropping to the ground in a fetal position is a display of weakness to a dominant animal. A bear that is only concerned with removing a perceived threat will usually break off an attack when the victim plays dead. In the case of a predatory attack, this strategy would be suicide. In that scenario, fighting back is your only option, to show the bear that you will not be easy prey. An attack in defense of cubs would only be likely in grizzly country, as black bears and even polar bears do not aggressively defend their young.

But all of these situations, the little pamphlets tell us, can easily be avoided by hiking in groups and never alone. Supposedly, a large group of people can appear intimidating to a bear, but guru grizzly conservationist Doug Peacock has controversially challenged that opinion. He claims (and I agree) that hiking alone and being quieter can lessen your chances of a bear attack as you are a silent, unobtrusive visitor. Shouting, singing, and clapping can anger a bear, in particular a sleeping bear, and whistling can sound like a wounded animal, so those could be very risky options for hikers. Remember, bears have exceptional hearing - some evidence suggesting in the ultrasonic range - and could react angrily to sharp, shrill sounds. Likewise, hiking in a group could increase the risk of an attack by being a louder and more obtrusive presence. A large number of people alone would not necessarily be more intimidating to a bear, but would give the hikers a greater sense of security and their body language would show more self-confidence than a lone hiker's would. There are no definitive right or wrong rules for hikers, except remain calm and composed. While bear bells are not especially effective, bear spray is, and will most often successfully defuse any situation that peaceful negotiation cannot.

Bottom line, bears are highly intelligent, complex animals, and they should be treated as such. If you're going to be spending any amount of time in bear country, the smartest thing you can do is educate yourself about bear psychology, body language, and communication. Unfortunately, with the exception of Stephen Stringham's When Bears Whisper, Do You Listen, there isn't a lot of available information on the subject. Stringham's follow-up, entitled The Language of Bears, is set to be released in spring 2011. While most books contain some measure of helpful information on the subject, these two will be the definitive works, but I unfortunately don't feel that I can devote much to the topic without having first read both titles and one is still a year off. Nevertheless, I'll try to compile as much as I can from what info I do have into an upcoming post.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Bear Intelligence

Because of the slow, plodding nature of bears, they're not really thought of as being all that intelligent, even though circus bears are trained to ride bikes and roller skates, play musical instruments, and other routines of such remarkable complexity that no other animal could master them. Most people overlook this instead of realizing that it speaks to a high level of intelligence and cognitive ability within the bear. In fact, they've been found to have a brain almost as convoluted as that of a human being and many biologists readily admit that bears are equal to the great apes and even dolphins in their intelligence. Some take that a step farther and claim that some bears have the IQ of a three-year-old child.

What's most interesting is that this level of intelligence and cognitive reasoning is not often observed among bears in the wild. A possible explanation for this is that a bear in the wild is so driven by the single-minded purpose of survival and finding enough food before the onset of winter that the full scope of what they're capable of must often take a backseat to wild instinct. Researchers like Else Poulsen and Doug Seus have shown that when a bear is kept in captivity, well-fed, cared for, and given a stress-free life, the other side of their nature becomes more apparent and takes precedence over instinct.

Doug Seus has worked with grizzlies for 33 years and says that never a day goes by when he's not amazed by what they're capable of. He says that his Kodiak Bart the Bear was at least as intelligent as a chimpanzee and was still not that remarkably intelligent as grizzlies go. He recounts a story in which a flash flood had washed a Coke can and a thorny hawthorn tree into a ditch alongside his Utah home. Bart attempted to retrieve the can but was deterred by the sharp thorns. Looking back and forth from the can to a two by twelve plank lying nearby, Bart picked up the plank and used it to press the branches down so he could retrieve the can.

Else Poulsen witnessed some of the most amazing evidence of intelligence while working with captive bears as a rehabilitator for a zoo. A grizzly would run her paws over herself in a washing motion to indicate that she wanted a bath and would use her nose to point to the part of her body that she wanted washed. If in pain, the bears would point with their noses to whatever it was that hurt and would then bite down on their paws to indicate pain. One young bear - shunned from play by two older bears - did the same thing, apparently to indicate emotional pain. The polar bears showed the greatest intelligence, one very pointedly demonstrating to Poulsen why frozen chickens don't make good toys: they thaw out in water! Likewise, Charlie Russell's bear Chico seemed to understand Russell's interest in bears and taught him a simple greeting that they shared only between each other.

Lily the Black Bear was seemingly smart enough to associate her den cam with Lynn Rogers. Whacking it with her paw during play, she gazed wide-eyed at the camera, sniffed it, licked it, and cooed reassuringly at it in the same way that she would to calm her cub, all of this apparently an apologetic gesture.

Larry Kaniut's Alaska Bear Tales tells the story of a hunter who encountered two grizzlies. He shot and killed one and pursued when the other one, a female, ran. He cornered the grizzly in a river trying to climb a steep embankment, but the slope was too muddy and she kept sliding back into the water. Trapped between the slope and the man, the hunter said the bear moaned and wailed when he raised the gun. Surprised, he lowered the gun....and then raised it again. He did this repeatedly, getting the same reaction each time the weapon was raised. Finally, he says that the bear lowered her head into the water and drowned herself. As disgusting and horrifying as the story is, if it's true it says a lot about a bear's cognitive ability and - for me - explains why some attacks against humans are so aggressive and merciless.

In Stephen Herrero's Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, the story is told of a radio-collared black bear being tracked on foot by a researcher while the man's father patrolled overhead in an airplane. In order to throw off his tracker, the bear built several nests in different locations, then entered a stream, backtracked 50 yards, and slipped into thick foliage. The man refused to give up and by late afternoon, the sun was melting the snow and rocks appeared. The bear used this to his advantage, stepping from rock to rock, leaving no trail behind. Finally the researcher picked up the tracks again and followed them until they stopped, disappearing into thin air. This time the bear had walked backwards, placing his feet precisely into his tracks, and went back in the opposite direction, eluding the man.

Ben Kilham's Among the Bears recounts his experiences raising several different sets of cubs in New Hampshire. Not only did his work show how impressionable they are in their youth and how one bad experience during that formative time can scar them for life, but also that they're capable of altruism, a quality that was previously only thought to be found in human beings. But not only did they show altruism for other bears, but for other forms of life that they encountered! They demonstrated how clever, intelligent, and adaptable to changes in their environment they really are. Testing that intelligence, Kilham presented them with a mirror, hoping to find evidence of self-awareness. In every case, the young bears reacted as if they were meeting another bear, but after sniffing the mirror and running circles around it to find the other bear, they seemed to decide that they were looking at their reflections. They were observed dragging objects in front of the mirror and playing while watching themselves. Kilham concluded that it would never be enough to convince most scientists, but it seemed to him a demonstration of some level of self-awareness.

Perhaps the best and most famous example of this level of intelligence being observed in the wild was with the Mud Creek Grizzly of Glacier National Park. The bear had been captured twice by biologists over a two year period for research purposes. Finally the bear decided he'd had enough of that and began to fight back. After a trap site had been set up with bait and cameras, he would sneak into the area, tear down the plastic strips that marked the trail to the site, set off the traps with rocks and sticks, steal the bait, gnaw on the camera until it popped open, remove the film cartridge, and smash it on a rock. This happened several times before biologists decided it best to leave the animal alone before it started taking its frustration out on one research bear did in 2003. This bear was first captured by biologists during the Exxon-Valdez oil spill in Alaska and was tracked down, tranquilized, and captured every summer thereafter. When released for the last time, the researchers reported it as exhibiting "strong, abnormal aggression towards human beings" (Gee, I wonder why). A short time later, the bear was killed and identified as being responsible for the deaths of Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend. That should be a very clear warning to biologists and researchers whose actions towards an animal that they don't fully understand could end in disaster somewhere down the line. Unfortunately, it's a warning that I don't think many will even bother to acknowledge.

These are just a few of the countless examples of bear intelligence and cognition that are out there, so the next time someone says you're smarter than the average bear, you can rest assured that you're pretty well off.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Highlights From The Den

If you haven't been following the Lily the Black Bear den cam over the last couple of months, then you've missed quite a show! With a Facebook following of almost 100,000 fans in only two months, Lily and her cub - named Hope - have seemingly become worldwide sensations and have helped change a lot of people's ideas about what black bears are really like. Now that it's late March, Lily and Hope will be leaving the den soon and leaving the day-to-day lives of their loyal fans, so if you haven't been watching (and, honestly, why haven't you been watching?), now is a good time to give you a peek into what you've missed.

First is a video clip of Lily giving birth to Hope on Friday January 22. This video alone dispelled one myth about bears: that they sleep all winter, give birth in their sleep, and wake up in the spring with cubs. As you can clearly see, Lily is very much awake when the little bundle of joy arrives. After the birth, a bear hunter posted on the Lily Facebook page that he would never again shoot a bear after hearing the cub cry like a human baby.

Next is a "highlight" clip showing mother/daughter moments in the den, Hope being left on her own when Lily goes out to forage. If you listen, now and then you can hear the chipmunk chatter of Hope as she nurses. I believe it's clearest towards the end. This is a sound that bear cubs make to let their mothers know that they're content.

Finally, a clip of Lily and Hope playing in the den. After two months of Hope keeping Lily awake almost every night, Lily turns the tables and Hope doesn't like it very much. This also shows that bears do not sleep all winter. In fact, they're wide awake most of the time and occasionally leave the den to stretch for a few hours.

Over the last week, as the weather's been getting warmer, Lily has been leaving the den more and more, leaving Hope behind to exercise her legs and adjust to Mama's abscence. Hope viciously protested this at first but has become more accepting of it over the past few days as her legs are getting stronger. Finally, early this afternoon, Lily left the den and took Hope with her. Five hours later, they returned for the night. This should be seen as a sign that they will soon be leaving the den for good, so if you haven't watched the Lily cam yet, you should while there's still time. You can view it at either or They're well worth a watch.

Lynn Rogers - owner of the North American Bear Center, near where Lily has made her den - monitors and tracks the movements of the bears in this area by fitting them with radio collars. This should also protect them from hunters, but it doesn't and Lynn has lost several black bears that were supposed to be radio-collar protected. Currently the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is debating on illegalizing the hunting of radio-collared black bears, but it remains iffy as to whether or not they will enforce that law. Lynn is very close with Lily and is doing everything he can to ensure that he doesn't lose her. He visits the den every few days and Lily always comes out to greet him, cooing softly to the cub, assuring her that they are in no danger, but she is wary of people she doesn't know and would not approach a hunter with a gun. That doesn't make her any safer, unfortunately.

To help the Minnesota DNR make the right decision in regards to protecting radio-collared research bears, many of Lily's Facebook fans have been sending them letters and e-mails and signing petitions, hoping to make a difference. Below is a link to a video that I edited and captioned. It's an idea that I had in a dream and it stayed with me for days until I decided to make it a reality. I would love to e-mail it to the Minnesota DNR in the hopes that it might have an impact:

Friday, March 12, 2010

Fighting The Grizzly Wars

If one were to sit down and read only the most important books about bears, a good place to stop might be David Knibb's Grizzly Wars, a study of the attempts to preserve grizzly populations in North America and the attempts of the general public and government agencies to drive the last traces of the animal into extinction. In many ways, the book would make the perfect summation of one's own personal bear education.

The story begins with the mysterious sightings of grizzly bears in Washington's Cascade Mountains, the slowly mounting evidence that a small population of grizzlies may be trying to re-establish itself there, and the efforts - some almost desperate - of Fish and Game wildlife managers to sweep it all under the rug, despite the presence of some undeniable evidence. With the Bush Administration's removal of the grizzly from the protection of the Endangered Species Act (citing it as a waste of tax dollars), the fight begins, following U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials who were unlucky enough to be given the job of challenging that removal and standing up for the rights of an animal that is feared and hated by so many.

At a public meeting, one of these hapless officials was confronted by an elderly woman. "So you're one of those bastards in favor of grizzly bears," she said. She railed and cursed at him for a few minutes, telling him that he would be responsible for the death of her grandchildren, and then she spit on him....and that was only the beginning of the meeting! By evening's end, he had received NINE death threats, including a man who swore that he would be waiting outside the building with a gun at the end of the gathering, a threat that was fortunately only a bluff.

As the meetings went on, so did the opposition. Fear caused by misconception ruled the hearts and minds of the public, who proclaimed the grizzly to be nothing more than a murderous killer and that if there were any in the Cascades, they should be hunted down and destroyed. It's telling that most of these ideas came from people who did not live in bear country and whose ideas were fueled by Hollywood theatrics, whereas the biggest support came from those who did live in bear country and who did not consider the grizzly something to be feared. Finally, a nationwide poll showed that 97% of the country favored restoring grizzly populations. Unfortunately, America is no longer a country in which the people have a voice, so the government and wildlife officials persisted in brushing aside the issue. Jon Almack, a state wildlife manager, says that he personally observed a "strategy within the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to deny, discount, and dismiss the evidence about Cascades grizzlies." Wildlife managers know that if they continue to deny even the most irrefutable of evidence that they can delay grizzly recovery for as long as possible, maybe even until there is no longer a species left to recover. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee now estimates that it could take as long as two hundred years to restore grizzlies to the Cascades.

This is a shocking prospect! The idea that wildlife managers, who are supposed to be for the protection of wildlife - especially endangered wildlife - would instead be stalling the issue until it's too late, is difficult to fathom but it's exactly the reason why this book would be the perfect summation to your own bear education, because it drives home just how important that education is. I've read volumes on both sides of the bear bandwagon and taking all of that information and putting it together as a whole has been a revelation! This book shows what can happen when that information doesn't come together. Bears are too complex to focus on only one side of their story; it must be taken as a whole. This is a field of study that is about to blow wide open and most people either don't know or don't care and that's precisly what leads to some of the attitudes in this book. It's partly because of those attitudes that the book was written in the first place. It's why I started this blog. The book doesn't end with much hope except to say that progress will never be made unless people are properly educated and are made to see that living with the grizzly is a blessing, not a curse. That's the goal we're working towards but it's going to be a long road getting there.

Is a Fed Bear Really a Dead Bear?

Putting the final cap on the habituation vs. food conditioning argument, here is a link to an excellent article by Dr. Lynn Rogers who manages the North American Bear Center in Minnesota, home of the Lily the Black Bear den cam. Some of Lynn's ideas in this article are not very popular with wildlife managers and that's one of the things I like the most about it. It's going to be hard - maybe even impossible - to win people over to this way of thinking, but it's still a battle worth fighting.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Further Thoughts On Food Conditioning

Tackling the subject of habituation vs. food conditioning on a blog like this is enormously difficult simply due to the scope of the issue. It would take several books and a bibliography of references the size of a book to present readers with enough information to analyze the data on their own. After doing more research, I have to concede that whether or not food conditioning will create a dangerous bear depends greatly on the bear itself.

Because they are so remarkably intelligent (equal to primates and dolphins), bears develop individual personalities that are formed by their experiences, much like people. While some can be peaceful and even friendly, some can be vicious, nasty, and destructive. In Beauty Within the Beast, a story is told of a female black bear who was fed by an elderly couple living in a cabin in Alaska. As a result, she became a bully and often forced her way into the cabin to get any treats she could find. Despite her tendency to intimidate the couple into letting her do whatever she wanted, she never attacked or injured them, not even when they proceeded to beat her with a frying pan. With her aggressive bullying, however, it's possible that she would have become dangerous. On the opposite end, Summers With The Bears tells the story of another elderly couple in Minnesota who befriended - and often hand-fed - several black bears over the course of six years. The animals never became dangerous, never damaged their home or property, and disappeared whenever strangers dropped by for a visit. In fact, one of the bears was strongly protective of the couple, at one point actually defending them from a strange bear that wandered into their yard with seemingly unfriendly intentions.

If you have the time, an excellent research paper on this subject by Lynn Rogers can be found at

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Habituation Vs. Food Conditioning

Having read close to two dozen books about bears, I've had to sit through more than my fair share of in-depth rants about the dangers of food conditioning and habituation. Although they are two very different things, most authors lump them together as if they were one and the same and this creates a lot of confusion and misunderstanding on the issue. While food conditioning can be very dangerous for people and bears, habituation has a number of potential benefits for both sides, not the least of which is safety.

Food conditioning is dangerous because a food conditioned bear has not learned to tolerate people. Rather, it has learned that it can obtain food from people either by raiding campgrounds, bullying hikers, or - worst case scenario - using people as food, evidenced by the brutal deaths of Julie Helgeson and Michele Koons in Glacier National Park in 1967, two teenage girls who were killed on the same night, miles away from each other, by two food conditioned grizzlies. That tragic day rocked the world and since then great pains have been taken to limit bears access to human food. Equally tragic is the fact that a number of bears were also hunted down and killed. Unfortunately, the slow expansion of civilization is destroying more and more bear habitat and having a negative impact on their ability to obtain their natural foods. With the desperate need to consume as much food as possible before the onset of the winter months and hibernation, black bears in California are now moving into human civilization in search of that food, damaging property and fraying nerves. Similar incidents have occured throughout parts of Washington and Oregon but the good news is that instead of increasing the annual hunting quota, these states have instituted supplemental feeding programs for the bears. The animals do not associate the food supplied to them with people or civilization and the programs have been met with an almost 100% success rate in deterring bears from homes and neighborhoods. If more states took steps to establish their own programs like this, it could easily solve most food conditioning issues in a way that's safe for both bears and people.

That brings us to habituation, a word that is used in such a broadly generalized way that it almost has no clearly defined meaning anymore. Most researchers have a tendency to lump food conditioning and habituation together as if they're the same thing (I'm looking at you, Herrero, but I still love your book), but this is a mistake and one in which greater care should be taken to avoid. Habituation - adaptation would actually be a better word - is nothing more than the process of acclimating to new things and is something that is not just exclusive to bears. People do it, too, be it with a new car, a new house, new neighbors, etc. Habituated bears are animals that have mostly had positive, peaceful encounters with people and usually like, respect, and trust people. In fact, in all of my digging, I couldn't find a single account in which a habituated bear has ever hurt or killed anyone. The grizzlies at McNeil River are the best example of this, often eating and sleeping within only a few feet of the thousands of tourists that visit every year. The animals are treated with respect and so they give respect in turn.

In Beauty Within the Beast, Stephen Stringham advocates setting aside areas like McNeil River where bears can be habituated to people for the purposes of research, art, or the spiritual renewal of visitors. I'm not afraid to admit that I completely support that idea, and while I'm not holding my breath for it to ever happen, to hear that coming from a noted and respected biologist is surprising and refreshing! He has even shown in his work - as has Charlie Russell - that an acclimated bear will typically only trust those certain people that he is familiar with and will not put himself in any greater danger by approaching strangers with guns. Dr. Stringham also has been unable to find any evidence proving that habituated bears are more dangerous to people than non-habituated bears. If anything, he has helped to disprove it. That's vitally important information! How can it just be swept under the rug and ignored...unless the intention of most researchers is to ignore it? That will be the subject of a later post.

In the study of bear behavior, habituated bears are seen as the exception to the rule rather than the rule itself. I think serious studies need to be done of habituated bears and I think that if those studies are done, it will be found that habituated bears are not "damaged", but are the models of what could be possible with bears everywhere...depending on our tolerance and influence.

For further study, I recommend anything by Stephen Stringham and Charlie Russell, Summers With The Bears, and the research paper From the Field: Brown Bear Habituation to People - Safety, Risks, and Benefits by Stephen Herrero, Tom Smith, Terry DeBruyn, Kerry Gunther, and Colleen Matt, which can be found online.