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.

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