Monday, July 13, 2009

Understanding Bears

There is a wonderful documentary called The Bear Man of Kamchatka, about Charlie Russell, a man who insists that greater understanding of bears is necessary for the bears to survive in the wild. He says that people's perceptions of bears are based on fear and horrible myths that are perpetuated by those who profit from the hunting of bears. And as has been shown over and over, what man fears, he destroys.

In the documentary, we see Mr. Russell rescuing orphaned bear cubs from a zoo and preparing them to live in the wild. A sort of ursine George Adamson, if you will.

The documentary has had very limited exposure in the US and is only available on DVD in the UK. Thus, it requires you to have a region-free DVD player if you wish to view it in the US. But those who can view it will find it very worthwhile viewing (as well as remarkably inexpensive).

I would now like to quote Mr. Russell himself about his work with bears. This comes from his own web site, Added emphasis is mine.
I am a 66-year-old ex-rancher who, while ranching in grizzly country for 18 years, was interested in the question of whether grizzlies were really as much of an enemy to that industry as all the ballyhoo about them suggested....

I encouraged grizzlies to be on my ranch. Because my place borders Waterton Lakes National Park I had plenty of them to observe. In 1972, I started my own interceptive feeding program. My idea was that when the bears came out of their den, giving them a few cows that had died during the winter would take the edge off their appetite, keeping them away from my and my neighbors cows that were calving at that time of the year, further out from the mountains. Now, each spring, 34 years later, Alberta Fish & Wildlife and Parks Canada have taken over my program and bears are being fed on both sides of the park boundary for about a month every Spring.

During those ranching years it became increasingly apparent that you got back what you put into the relationship. If you made an effort to get along with the bears, they rewarded you by not causing problems for you. I never lost any cows to bears. My neighbors occasionally would, but it didn’t happen to me.

The most valuabe thing that I learned back then was that everything that decreases the fear and tensions between land managers and brown bears, which let them live on productive land, was a huge help for grizzlies. In other words, I thought that perhaps one of the best ways to create habitat for them was by understanding them better. Man can kill bears literally until the cows come home, but there is absolutely zero tolerance for bears killing us. I eventually accepted that but then wanted to understand what people could do to stay out of trouble.

I got very interested in all the possibilities for the grizzly if we could change our approach and try to get along with these animals. That is why I went to Russia for the last 11 years. There I put myself among as many bears as possible; having encounters with them virtually every time I went out the door of my cabin. Soon I understood that disharmony between bears and humans was not the bears' fault. It was a human inadequacy brought about by our fear and distrust of them.

I added to my challenges by rescuing ten brown bear cubs over the years from a zoo in Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka, bringing them to my cabin so they could live wild and free. This allowed me to understand other questions: Are they unpredictable? And are bears that did not fear people inherently dangerous? Neither of these things turned out to be true. The bears were trustworthy, but man was not.

Of course certain individual bears can become dangerous; most of these are males that are hunted or adversely conditioned and very, very rarely perhaps an individual that has no history with humans can be dangerous too, even if they are not abused. Females who feel their cubs could be hurt are very dangerous, but ones that do not feel threatened, I would go as far as describing some of them as being compassionate.

I found that virtually all dangerous situations can be avoided by a few precautions.... Three things that I found helpful:

1. It has never happened yet, but if I ever I find myself facing an angry bear, I will have pepper spray in hand. (Twice, with the use of it, I have saved one of my cubs from being killed by a male bear. These males were not angry, just hungry).

2. I always used electric fence to keep bears from messing with things that I did not want damaged.

3. I give a wide birth to any bear that show signs of not wanting me around.
Now, before anyone takes umbrage at his statement "The bears were trustworthy, but man was not", let me point out that Mr. Russell's point is that bears are among the most feared animals on Earth, and when one acts out of fear, he is unpredictable. His guidelines, above, for co-existing with bears are simple: a non-lethal, yet effective defensive weapon, a simple (you should see it) electric fence to mark territory, and paying attention to the bears themselves. Mr. Russell is then fully equipped to take on the role of mama bear for the cubs he reintroduces to the wilds of Russia, and any close encounters with the bears native to the area end well for all involved.

1 comment:

  1. I have no feelings (or had none) about big bears, but I have seen the documentary referred to, and having done so it is hard to believe that THEY are the problem. It Is a gentle, touching, yet realistic and sometimes saddening film. Kudos to you for mentioning it. It's an extraordinary film which I highly recommend.