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.