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.