Wednesday, December 1, 2010

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.

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