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.