Monday, February 1, 2021

Confessions of a Grizzly Groupie

By Madeleine Kando

It all started with an innocent article about France’s efforts to repopulate the Pyrenees with brown bears. After the last female, Cannelle, was shot dead by hunters in 2004, an attempt was made to atone for hundreds of years of bear genocide. In 1994, the French authorities decided to introduce four female brown bears and a powerhouse of a male called Piros from Slovenia into the Pyrenees. This quickly resulted in many little bears, but since there was only one papa bear in the harem, there were concerns about inbreeding.

There was talk of catching Piros and snipping off the family jewels, but since Piros was already a geriatric bear, a new male was introduced in the area to create a more varied gene pool. This new bear’s name was Goiat, which means bachelor in Catalan.

All these efforts to bring back the rightful inhabitants of the Pyrenees didn’t go without a fight. The local sheep farmers didn’t see kindly to these large, furry immigrants that liked to eat their sheep for lunch, but there are now 50 bears in the Pyrenees, thanks mostly to Piros’ virility.

My fascination with bears didn’t end there, I am afraid. Since the closest I can get to anything resembling wildness in my daily life are the squirrels and rabbits in my backyard, I got completely addicted to watching the largest carnivore in the northern hemisphere amble across my screen at the touch of a key. We do have black bears here in New England, but they look like pretend bears compared to ‘ursus arctos horribilis’, which is the real name for brown bears a.k.a. grizzlies.


Instead of spending my time mopping the floor or cleaning the toilet, I have turned in to a virtual grizzly groupie. It actually goes beyond voyeurism. I am learning that for many large carnivores, the only thing that will save them from extinction is our willingness to share our space with them. We took most of what was theirs from them, basically telling them that their life is not worth living. Now it is our responsibility to become their stewards.

The bear was once considered the king of the animal world. It was and still is the largest and strongest animal in Europe and was feared to the point where even his real name ‘Arctos’ became taboo. If you mention the "true" name of a ferocious animal, you are likely to call it forth. So, they called it ‘the brown one’. (Norse ‘björn’, Dutch ‘beer’, German ‘Bär’). The original word completely disappeared from our language. This kind of linguistic tour de force is called ‘taboo deformation’.**

In its effort to combat paganism, the Catholic Church began demonizing the bear. It portrayed it as an oversexed animal and turned it into a symbol for gluttony, anger and lust (Ursus Diabolus). This most feared and respected creature of the wild, emblazoned on coats of arms and emulated by warriors and kings, was used for entertainment at town fairs, chained and muzzled. It was made to ‘dance’ over burning ambers, torn to shreds by dogs in ‘bear baiting’ and underwent its final transformation as A.A. Milne's lovable idiot, Winnie the Pooh, a bear so dumb, that it needs to be set straight by a donkey. (See: The History of a Fallen King)

Bears have been on our planet for around 33 million years. They had a great time until we came on the scene, about 7 million years ago. Here in North America, Grizzlies once lived across much of West, until the Europeans arrived and soon shot and killed most of them. In the past 100 years, 91 humans have been killed by grizzlies and more than 200,000 grizzly bears have been killed by man. There are now approximately 200,000 bears worldwide, most of them in Russia.

On my groupie adventure, I met several fascinating ‘naturalists’, who have dedicated their life to learn about bears by living in the wild. I call them bear whisperers. Some are well known, like Timothy Treadwell, made famous by film maker Werner Herzog in his ‘Grizzly Man’. With its tragic and gruesome ending, Timothy’s story has added to the perception that grizzly’s are ferocious, dangerous and unpredictable creatures.*

But there are others who show another side of these magnificent creatures. My favorite and most admirable bear whisperer is Charlie Russell. He lived amongst bears for 30 years on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia, about as far east and as close to Alaska as you can get. The beauty of the scenery in the Documentary The Bear Man of Kamchatka is breath taking and so is the footage of the furry brown subjects.

Charlie, who died recently, was not only a bear whisperer, he was also a surrogate mama bear. He rehabilitated many orphaned cubs over the years, teaching them how to fish, how to find the right plants to eat and protected them from predator males who are known to kill cubs. If you have some spare time, I highly recommend you watch The Bear Man of Kamchatka,


in which you see Charlie stand between the cubs and an enormous alpha bear. Armed with a camera, his voice and a pepper spray (which he only uses at the very last minute), he convinces the male to move out of the way. People often criticize Charlie and others like him, for acting irresponsibly. True, there is the danger of habituation, i.e. getting a wild animal used to people by feeding them or getting too close to them, which is how bears get into trouble. But these brave men do what scientists are unwilling to do, they do field work. They might not have fancy degrees but their dedication and courage gives the rest of us and the scientific community a glimpse of what the wild still has to offer humanity.

Do we have a problem with Jane Goodall with her gorillas? Or filmmaker Craig Foster who spent a year forging a relationship with an octopus, while free diving for hours on end, reluctantly surfacing every hour or so to take a breath? (Here is a clip of My Octopus Teacher, but you can watch the whole thing on Netflix).

Thanks to them, we now know that gorillas are not monsters only fit to be killed, that octopuses are extremely sensitive, intelligent animals and that grizzlies love to play by stealing a camera’s microphone cover to get you to chase them. You can even hurt their feelings by scolding them too much.

Bears are perfectly adapted to their niche in nature. Cubs are basically born twice, once in the middle of winter, in the darkness of their den, and a second time in the spring when they first open their eyes and emerge in the daylight. In a female grizzly’s 20 years of reproductive life, only 2 cubs survive, which is one of the reasons they need extra protection.

Another bear whisperer by the name of Reno Sommerhalder puts it this way: ‘We are the top of the food chain and have been for a long long time and are way past the survival stage as a species. Bears, on the other hand are busy trying to survive on a daily basis, meaning they have different reactions to certain situations. Grizzlies don’t need us on a daily basis, but they do need us for their species’ survival.’

So, what is the final message I want to convey at the end of this convoluted post? Let our ‘natural’ fear of wild carnivores (which includes humans) subside and replace it with something more rational, which will allow us to rescue and protect the little that remains of what we have tried to destroy for most of our history.

Bears and all other wildlife species should be able to expect and deserve the same that humans take for granted: they deserve their freedom and a fulfilled life in the wild, which is exactly what the process of thousands of years of evolution had in store for them. What right do humans have to put an end to all that? Would that not be called murder in any other context? Why do we fear and kill something that does not threaten us any more?

Bears are particularly worthy of protection because they are an ‘umbrella’ species. Grizzlies, especially, require large, intact, and relatively undisturbed ecosystems and keeping the bears (and their proverbial bowel movements) in the woods, goes way beyond the bears themselves. When you keep spaces wild for grizzlies, you also save space for elk, deer, mountain goats, mountain lions, and bison. This article explains: Come On Under the Grizzly’s Umbrella.

One final note: The US has a lot of public land but that doesn’t mean it is protected. (Of all the land on earth, only 15% is protected). But the North American Continent is a good candidate for re-wilding, since almost 30% of the country is publicly owned, not privately owned. It is up to all of us to decide what to do with all this natural wealth.   leave comment here

* Charlie Russell doesn’t have many kind words for Werner Herzog and how he portrayed both Timothy Treadwell and the bears in ‘Grizzly Man’. Before his death, Timothy spent an incredible 35,000 hours living with the bears in Katmai National Park without any incidents, but Herzog insisted on portraying Treadwell as an idiot with a death-wish. Herzog’s idea of ‘the wild’ is the exact opposite of Russell’. To the filmmaker, the wild is a place where man doesn’t belong, at least not without a gun.

** Many taboo names for wild animal are ‘hunting-taboos’. Hunters apparently always have been (and still are) a superstitious lot. If you mention the "true" name of a ferocious animal, you are a) likely to call it forth when you are not prepared for it, or b) it is likely to hear its name and be warned. Another classic example is the word ‘deer’, replacing the true name of the hunted animal by a more general word. The Germanic word for 'wild animal' is ‘Tier’. (http://listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/indo-european/1999-April/001462.html)