Thursday, January 28, 2010

Book Review - Bear Attacks: The Deadly Truth

I'll be the first to admit that every book written about bears has an agenda and that every author of every book written about bears has an agenda. Even I have an agenda. Only some of us are pushing an agenda for education, conservation, and co-existence, while others - like James Gary Shelton here - have a very different plan in mind.

Shelton admits from the get-go that he moved his family to British Columbia because he wanted to hunt the grizzlies there, then he makes several claims of wanting to save and protect bears, and then he backpedals again and says that the reason why bears attack people is because we don't kill enough of them to keep them in line. He then goes on to bash the study of bears and the conservation of bears, claiming that the logging and hunting industries have done more to benefit these animals than scientists have. Wait a minute....what?! That's probably the most ingeniously diabolical hidden agenda I've ever seen!

As if that weren't enough, many of the attack stories read like bad B-movie fiction. First, he makes the bears out to be much more sinister and scheming than any wild animal of any intelligence could be capable of and then he loses his last lingering shred of credibility by publishing the story of a hunter who claims that a grizzly ran after him on her hind legs at well over 20 mph. Wow. That's just dumb. A full grown grizzly can barely walk on its hind legs, let alone run on them. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

What's truly revealing is the fact that out of 25 reviews for this book on, 19 of them are five stars, citing it as the best and most complete book on bears ever written, the only one void of an agenda, and the few reviews that pan the book are blasted with nasty, mean-spirited comments. Folks, if you ever needed any more proof of some of the claims I made in my previous post, there you have it! Fear sells and this just shows how easily people are willing to buy into it. There are plenty of books about bears out there and all of them contain some measure of useful information, but I can't even seriously begin to recommend this one...not even for a laugh.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

My Story

Okay, now that I've made a few posts to this blog and gotten some information out there, I feel like I can safely give you the abridged version of my story and fill you in on how all of this came together.

My fascination with bears began in the summer of 2008 when I took a seasonal job in southeast Alaska and, being an avid reader, decided to brush up on some of the local literature. Thus, into my hands landed the infamous Alaska Bear Tales by Larry Kaniut, a collection of bone-crushing, blood-spilling true stories that make Jaws look like Finding Nemo. It didn't take long - maybe only a third of the way through the book - for me to decide that I was never going to leave the house again, certainly not to venture out into the wilderness.

But being an outdoor enthusiast - and being in Alaska, where outdoor adventure is a must - venture into the wilderness I did. I think I mastered every hiking trail near the town of Skagway, though I expected all my limbs to be violently ripped off at any moment every step of the way. Can you imagine my puzzlement when that did not happen? I never once saw a bear in those woods - though I did occasionally see signs that they were nearby somewhere - and I began to feel more and more foolish as time went on. Even so, my dreams were haunted and I awoke more than a few times in the middle of the night to see large, dark silhouettes lumbering up to my bedside.

Being stuck in Alaska for so long, The Edge became one of my favorite movies to watch and it inspired me to look into the full story of Bart the Bear when I returned home....just to see how anyone could work that closely with such a vicious creature and live to tell about it. I watched the "Legacy of Bart the Bear" video that I posted a link to in an earlier post and it completely blew my mind. Now it seemed like bears were just one big walking contradiction. That video never left me, though, and began to linger in my memory even more than the horror stories did.

Now interested in bears mostly because I wanted to know which side of the story was true, I stumbled across the work of Charlie Russell and his book Grizzly Heart, still the greatest book I have ever read. That ended up being the perfect place to start, simply because of the ideas that it presented and the things that it made me think about; things that I had never heard said about bears before but that somehow made complete sense to me. That led to more reading, all the internet research I could muster, and plenty of personal musing...and this is where it's brought me.

Now I obviously haven't done any work around living, breathing bears and I'm not a scientist (and I'm not sure I would want to be, especially in this field of study), but I've seen enough evidence to completely change my stance from bear hater (I often wondered why we didn't just take the initiative and wipe these "monsters" off the face of the earth) to bear lover. Now I look at the work that's been done with gorillas and killer whales and I see how far we've come in our understanding of those animals and I wonder what's holding us back from accomplishing the same thing with bears? What is it that scares us so much? Why is it that we have no problem ascribing intelligence, emotion, self-awareness, and humanity to primates, whales, and dolphins, but we lash out in hostility when someone says the same about bears? The reason is because bears are a trophy animal, heavily hunted and heavily poached, their organs and bile worth thousands of dollars on the Black Market, a practice that would be abolished if people began to see bears in a more humane light (Charlie Russell's bears were slaughtered because of that). The reason is because the hunting industry has planted a backwards idea of wildlife management in our heads to keep their coveted trophy animal legal. The reason is because bear biologists - the people who are supposed to be for the bears - subject these animals to much of the same cruel treatment in university laboratories as poachers do in bile farms in Asia, justifying it by saying that the bears are machines without thought, feeling, or emotion. Even poor Lily the Black Bear and her cub have to be closely watched from a distance to ensure that some psychopath doesn't decide to get his 15 minutes of fame by sticking a shotgun barrel in her den live on the internet. That is a sad, sad world.

The good news is that the tide is slowly turning. Right now the number of revolutionary books on bears that are available can be counted on one hand, but judging by the list of books set to be released over the next year, that number is set to skyrocket. Beyond that, it's just a matter of hoping that people will listen and make the attempt to unlearn what they have learned.

Folks, that is the purpose of this blog, to do whatever I am able to do to help keep that snowball rolling. Most people will disregard the information here, calling it unscientific and anthropomorphic (the hopeless is what we'll call them) and others will embrace it (the hopeful) and learn from it and pass it on to someone else or make a donation to conservation work. If even one person does any one of those things, then I've done my job.

So let's keep that snowball rolling.

Update on Lily

So be honest, how many of you were "held captive by Lily" this weekend? Anyone? Am I the only one?

Yeah, I think I'm the only one.

But seriously, though, I never would've thought that watching a black bear sleep would be all that exciting, but it's better than anything on network TV right now. Truthfully, she actually doesn't sleep much because her newborn cub (who we've gotten a few glimpses of in the last couple of days) usually starts screeching shrilly just as she begins nodding off. This is followed by Lily's dove-like cooing to relax the baby and the contented chipmunk-chatter sound that the little tyke makes when he's nursing and happy. Since it's snowing up there in Minnesota, Lily keeps her back to the camera so that the baby is pushed against the back of the den and sheltered from the cold with mama wrapped around him like a warm blanket.

Right now Lily's webcam has almost 3,000 viewers watching live and her Facebook page has over 63,000 fans who are bombarding the site with questions about bear behavior and habits and - best of all - sharing their stories about how watching Lily in her den is re-shaping their ideas and notions about bears. Donations are poring in to Lynn Rogers and his North American Bear Center for the work they're doing here. They've received almost $35,000 so far and the number keeps climbing. I intend to be contributing to the cause myself later this week.

It's very exciting to see how people have responded to this. I think deep down there is a strange fascination with bears in all of us - some type of spiritual link if you will - and a desire to know and understand them better. Not only is Lily inspiring that right now, but she's providing a much-needed ray of light in the lives of a lot of people as well, and even though she will remain in her den until at least April, I for one won't be able to resist taking a peek every now and then to see if she's nursing, sleeping....or taking a peek back.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Black Bear Cam

Lynn Rogers of the North American Bear Society in Ely, Minnesotta lives and work with black bears, and the work he's done has gone a long way in helping people learn to co-exist with these shy and timid animals. As part of his research, he's set up a web cam in the winter den of Lily, one of his bears. Apparently she gave birth to a cub just today and it's possible that another is on the way, though Lynn isn't so sure. Right now she's trying to sleep, and junior is none too happy about it.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Book Review - Smiling Bears

One of the most heavily debated subjects in the fields of science and biology is that of animals and emotions: do they have them or don't they? Scientists claim that what may seem to be emotional reponses in animals are actually just physiological responses to certain stimuli. They claim that there is no hard evidence that animals have feelings, yet they have consistently been unable to provide hard evidence that they don't. Personally, I find it quite interesting that the only researchers to have made truly groundbreaking advances in the field of animal research are the ones who have tried to tap into the feelings of animals and connect with them in emotional ways. To that ever-growing list should be added Else Poulsen who, with her 2009 book Smiling Bears, has crafted a work equal to Grizzly Heart in its emotional power and revelation.

After working as a field biologist, Poulsen ultimately became a zookeeper in Calgary, Canada where she specialized in bear rehabilitation. Working with the animals in this way required her to initiate close and intimate contact with them...and them with her. Needless to say she was stunned when her bears started communicating to her their needs, wants, and emotional states. Some of her co-workers had experienced many of the same things but were forced to keep their mouths shut for fear of losing their reputations or even their jobs. Unable to stay silent any longer, Poulsen brings us this book and gives the field of bear research a big push in the right direction.

The bears in this book are a joy to read about as they open themselves up to Poulsen and allow her into their world. Some of the stories are humorous, like the bear who reacted with disgust after eating a Halls menthol drop, then - upon realizing that the medicine was clearing his head cold - "asked" for more, or the bear who demonstrated with body language that she wanted a bath and even indicated what parts of her body she wanted washed. A very human-like intelligence was evident in the polar bears, one of whom cleverly demonstrated to Poulsen that frozen chickens don't make ideal toys because they thaw out in water and fall apart, while the other developed an obssessive-compulsive case of pacing that was prozac. Perhaps most remarkable of all are the biting-the-paw gestures that the bears use to express to Poulsen that they're feeling pain, both physical and emotional.

Inevitably, some readers will dismiss the book as being too anthropomorphic (a word that I cringe to even have to write), but it's a must-read for bear lovers, animal lovers, or just anyone who wants a fresh perspective on the world around them. A HIGHLY recommended and invaluable new addition to this fascinating field of study.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Growing Up Grizzly

Doug Seus is considered to be "the Moses of animal trainers", one of the best that ever lived. He's also a personal hero of mine and, in my opinion, is one of the greatest revolutionaries in the field of bear behavior and psychology. Interested in animal rehabilitation as a small child (he jokes that his dad benched him in Little League for trying to catch butterflies), his lifelong dream was to own and raise a Kodiak grizzly bear, one of the largest and most fearsome animals on earth. Thinking he'd lost his mind, family and friends tried to talk him out of this baffling idea, insisting that he should get a real job instead. But Doug didn't want a real job; he wanted a Kodiak.

In 1977, he and his wife Lynne were licensed to raise bears and a zoo placed them with a newborn Kodiak who had barely even opened his eyes. Bottle-feeding the new arrival, the cub imprinted on Doug as its mother and looked to him as a guide, the final answer on what to be and how to act. Working intensively with the cub, Doug taught it patience, how to deal with stress and gained its trust, partly through feeding, playing, and general interaction...and partly by breathing in its nose. Wild bears exhale deep breaths into each other's mouths as a sign of trust and affection and Doug started this practice with the bear from a very young age (you'll see in the video later how the bears cup his face in their mouths as they return the breath).

At this point, the downside to raising a bear became apparent: they can consume up to 40 pounds of food per day and require an enormous amount of space in order to thrive. Unfortunately, those things require enormous amounts of money and Doug didn't want to sacrifice quality time with the bear in order to work enough to support it, so he began looking for another way. Interested primarily in bear intelligence, body language, communication and peaceful co-existence with them, Doug intended for the bear to be an educational resource, a way to show people the reality of these "dangerous monsters". Training the bear to be a performer was a means to an end, a way to earn more than enough money to support the bear and fund the educational side of things. Thus, Bart the Bear was born, possibly the most famous animal actor since Lassie. Trained by Doug to do things that most animal actors only wish they could do, such as show emotion and characterization, Bart was met with almost instant fame and accolades. He was funny in The Great Outdoors, emotional in The Bear, and terrifying in The Edge, and his human co-stars were often jealous, feeling like they'd been upstaged by him. Bart finally made it to the Academy Awards in 1998 for a tribute to animal actors.

The bond formed between Bart and Doug throughout the 23 years they spent together was deeper than friendship, deeper than companionship. In Doug's words, "He was my soulmate." It was a relationship that no one ever thought could be possible and their bond alone went a long way in changing public opinion about bears. After Bart's tragic death in 2000, Doug has continued his work with Tank, Little Bart, and Honey Bump who have appeared in Dr. Dolittle 2 (this, The Bear, and The Edge represent animal training at its finest), Without a Paddle, Into the Wild, and the upcoming The Zookeeper.

So all of that to say this: I will soon be getting my hands on Growing Up Grizzly 1 and 2, Animal Planet documentaries about Doug and his work and I couldn't be more excited! They originally aired in the early 2000's and focus primarily on Doug's raising and training Little Bart and Honey Bump, two cubs that he took in after their mother was shot in Denali National Park. The best part is that part 2 will be coming to me through Vital Ground, Doug's conservation organization and has been re-edited into a much longer documentary featuring more of the bears and insights into their training and behaviors. Having these in my collection will be priceless and there's a chance that I'll able to correspond with Doug somewhere down the road. If that happens, you can bet that I'll have it up here as soon as possible. Until then, here are some links that you might enjoy:

Doug's website, focusing on his animal training:

Audio clips detailing some of Doug's training techniques. The exhaled breath is described here, as are tips for teaching grizzlies patience:
This is the link to Vital Ground, Doug and Lynne's conservation organization. They buy private land for use as grizzly bear sanctuaries:

And finally a stirring video about Doug and his relationship with the bears. It's uplifting, inspirational, and a little sad as Doug's grief for Bart is as deep and as piercing as the grief of a parent over a lost child. Even so, it's a beautiful look into the life and work of an amazing man.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Central Question

One of the things that has always bugged me when it comes to wildlife management in regards to bears is the idea that bears have a "natural-born fear of man". Although that cannot be proven 100% one way or the other, I personally don't believe it to be true. Bear cubs are born almost as blank slates. They have very few instincts and don't even possess the basic knowledge of how to find food and water, nor what to eat or how to den for the winter. A cub learns all of these things from his mother, who is essentially his guide to the world. In tense situations, cubs look to their mothers as behavior models. They are frightened by what frightens her and are disinterested in whatever she disregards. Think about that for a moment. Fear is something that bears learn, something that they are conditioned to feel, not something that they are born with.

If that's not enough, legendary naturalist Charlie Russell practically proved it in his trilogy Spirit Bear, Grizzly Heart, (see the notes on my Facebook page for a detailed summary), and Grizzly Seasons, the Holy Trinity of bear books. Surrounded by bears all his life in Alberta, Russell theorized that bears who had not been negatively impacted by people would not react negatively towards people and he set out to prove that theory. Tracking and filming a rare spirit bear on an uninhabited island in British Columbia showed just how curious and gentle black bears could be towards humans when they did not perceive a threat. But black bears are a whole different animal unto themselves, so Russell's research led him to Kamchatka, Russia and the massive grizzlies that roam there.

Arriving there with his partner, photographer Maureen Enns, Russell was dejected to find that most of the bears were frightened by his presence, but he quickly discovered why: poachers were operating in the area and had slaughtered a number of bears in order to harvest their gall bladders. Russell was uncertain if he was wrong in his thinking or if the bears had learned fear of man from the poachers. Almost in answer, he was sitting by a lake one day when a mother grizzly with cubs approached. She had never seen human beings before and sat, regarding him with curiosity, but never once displaying fear or aggression. Russell realized that the wind was blowing his scent away from her and so he moved from the area. She automatically went to the spot where he'd been sitting and inhaled his scent. Observing her, Russell said that a visible shudder ran through her body and she began to tremble, then bolted for the cover of the trees, leaving her cubs behind in her hurry to escape. It seems clear that the grizzly had gotten the human scent from somewhere - considering the isolation of this area it would have to have been from the corpse of a bear killed and harvested by poachers - but had never actually seen a man and did not recognize Charlie as something dangerous by sight (there was certainly no natural-born fear at work here). The scent of man was recognized, however, and was recognized as something terrible.

As Russell's work continued, he befriended a different mother grizzly - and in this instance, the friendship was initiated by the bear - and successfully rescued three condemned cubs from a zoo and raised them to be independent wild animals. At no point did any of those ever display a natural fear of man, not while they were young and not after they'd grown, nor did their interactions with Charlie make them more aggressive towards people. Again, evidence that there is no natural-born fear of man, that it's something that must be learned!

So what does this say about the longheld belief that bears must be hunted to ensure that they don't lose their "natural fear of man"? What does this say about the practice of using air horns, rubber bullets, etc., to keep the bears afraid of us? Wouldn't this be intimidating them, angering them, ultimately doing more harm than good? Slowly and reluctantly, a number of bear researchers are opening up to the possibility that our attempts to provoke fear in bears could be a major contributing factor in bear attacks on humans. We've shown ourselves to be a dangerous threat to an animal that is hard-wired and programmed to remove threats, to eliminate danger. Yet with every attack, we respond by hunting and killing even more bears, convinced that they haven't gotten the message. Truth is, maybe we are the ones who haven't gotten the message!

I would love to get my hands on bear attack statistics and compare them with hunting and poaching statistics and see if they correlate, but it's been difficult to find anything relevant. So far, Scott McMillion's Mark of the Grizzly is the only book that I've read that provides some of these details. In it, he shows how dramatically bear attacks in Yellowstone have dropped off after bear hunting in the park was made illegal, yet how the number of attacks in Alaska have increased as the hunting has increased. Curiously, more than half of the people attacked by bears in Alaska since the 1970's have been either hunters or hikers and campers with guns. If any of this is true and we have turned the bears against us, then is peaceful co-existence with the grizzly even a possibility anymore?

Let's go now to McNeil River Falls in Alaska's Katmai National Park, one of the most remarkable places on earth. Remarkable because it's a place where peaceful co-existence with the grizzly is not only possible but is an everyday reality. Thousands of people flock here every year to observe wild grizzlies up close and personal as they hunt, play, and often nurse their young within only a few feet of the awe-struck spectators. This has been the case here for over 30 years and the bears have never behaved aggressively or threateningly towards visitors. But in 2007, a dark cloud fell over these idyllic encounters when it was made legal for bears in the area to be killed by trophy hunters in the off-season to ensure that they would not lose their "natural fear of man". In response, state of Alaska game managers received over 10,000 outraged letters and petitions from all over the world - many of them citing the unfairness of hunting bears that trust people, essentially stabbing them in the back and taking away their trust - and the board miraculously reversed its decision and banned all hunting. Unfortunately, some bears had already been killed, but the damage that was done was minor compared to the damage that could have been done.

A stunning victory, though probably only a temporary one. Man's fear will always win out in the end. It's our fear of the monster in the dark that almost led to a slaughter at McNeil River, one of the safest places on earth to view wild bears, but it's the slaughter that, in some way or another, always creates the very monster that we are most frightened of. Bears are senselessly destroyed every day for no reason other than that we are afraid of them. Charlie Russell's bears were hunted down and killed by poachers - their gall bladders nailed to the walls of his cabin - partly to spite Russell for bringing down their operation and partly because of the fear that his interactions with the bears would make them dangerous. No, bears aren't the ones that are afraid. We are.


For the past several days, I've been working on the intro post for this blog, trying to sum up my interest in bears and how my fear of them instead became a passion for them. I wrote, re-wrote, and re-organized this post over and over and over. Two thousand words later, with no end in sight, I finally hit the wall. I realized that if I actually finished that rambling diatribe and posted it, the existence of this blog would become irrelevant, because within that unstoppable intro I had covered everything, every minor detail that I had learned about bears and how that changed my opinions of them, every single piece of information that I created this blog to discuss, and I had to ask myself whose story I was here to tell, mine or the bears. Re-thinking things I've put together a much better intro with a more clearly-defined hook to get things rolling and an appropriate lack of information so that I'll actually have something to talk about later. As we progress through this thing, my side of the story will be told one piece at a time.
In my honest opinion, the study of bears is one of the most narrow-minded and ignorant fields of research that one could ever become involved with simply because our understanding of them is so limited, as is our willingness to accept new thoughts and ideas about them. Over the course of the last decade, however, we have had no choice. Our understanding of them is changing dramatically and we are being forced to change our ideas about them as a result, as a wealth of invaluable information is opening up to us, information that stands to alter our preconceived notions of bears as sharply and as dramatically as our preconceptions about gorillas have been altered. The purpose of this blog will be to present this information, provide reviews of the best and most informative books on the subject, and hopefully correspondence with some of the top experts in the field will be possible later on. My hope is that the information posted here will be educational, eye-opening, and inspiring to you and that hopefully you'll understand that things need to change and why they need to change. Comments, questions, thoughts, and theories are encouraged and necessary for this blog to serve its purpose, so don't be shy.
In the meantime sit back, relax, and let's begin....