Humans and bears: not so different after all
Charlie Russell set up home with grizzlies in the wild, and found himself the 'mother' to three orphaned cubs - all to prove that bears can coexist with humans
Thursday 25 May 2006
In 1913 the conservationist William T Hornaday wrote: "A Rocky Mountain without a grizzly upon it, or at least a bear of some kind, is only half a mountain - commonplace and tame." America has indeed become commonplace and tame. Two hundred years ago 50,000 grizzly bears roamed across the United States. In 1975 their numbers had been reduced to 1,000 and, in spite of being placed on the Endangered Species list that year, there are hardly any more bears 30 years on. Charlie Russell is hoping to change this.
A 64-year-old ex-rancher, Russell first became fascinated by bears when he made a film about them with his brother and father 45 years ago. He says: "I grew up listening to the stories around the campfire, about how ferocious bears were and how brave everyone was - yet what I saw when I was filming was something quite different - an animal that looked peaceful and playful."
This is not the image most people have of grizzlies, particularly after Werner Herzog's film was released earlier this year about the life and death of Timothy Treadwell, who insisted that he could live in the wild with bears. He and his girlfriend were killed and eaten by a large male.
Initially, Russell tried to encourage grizzlies on to his ranch to see if bears and people were capable of co-existing. Although other farmers lost animals to the bears, Russell never did.
"There seemed to be so much misinformation about this animal that I decided to see what were the possibilities for living with bears better than we do," he says. Unfortunately, no one in the States was going to be happy about Russell trying to mix up bears and people in one place. Finally he found one of the world's last great wildernesses - Kambalnoe Lake at the southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East. Here Russell hoped that any bears he might meet would have had no previous experience of people. He says: "I built a cabin in a place where there was a very high population of bears in a very remote area. I just wanted to live there with all these bears and figure out a way to live without conflict."
For the first seven years Russell and his partner, Maureen Enns, were undisturbed, but now that Russell has clocked up 12 years in Russia, poachers have sometimes targeted the bears. The two main theories about bears that he wanted to disprove were firstly that bears, once they lose their fear, are inherently dangerous, and that, secondly, they are unpredictable and will be ferocious for no reason.
Russell's ideas were further complicated by the adoption of three bear cubs: Biscuit, Chico and Rose. Orphaned bear cubs were often taken to a local zoo, which kept them for a season when they were small and then killed them. "Being their mother certainly sped up my understanding of how to be friends with these animals," says Russell. Bear cubs are normally born in January and are not usually weaned until they're two years old. Russell had to push his cubs on to a fast development programme so that they could be self-sufficient by the autumn in time for hibernation. By the time they were six months old, Russell wanted them to know how to fish for themselves. To begin with he'd catch fish himself and put them in a shallow pool in a small stream, then show them to the cubs. Later, when they had started finding their own food, he would call them if he spotted a weak salmon and toss a rock in the water near the dying fish. "I thought that initially I'd be the big hero and teach them all these plants that they could eat," says Russell, but the cubs quickly learnt which leaves, grasses and berries were suitable on their own. Russell simply took them out for long walks twice a day.
"I never felt threatened by any of the cubs," he says. "When they were small I did get hurt occasionally because they're so playful and strong, they'd grab you by the hand and not understand how delicate we humans are. They could have taken off my hand with one bite but they never did and became more gentle as they got older."
Most adult bears quickly learnt not to be afraid of Russell. His most memorable moment was when a female bear brought him her cubs to babysit while she went hunting. He says: "At first the cubs hated it, they wanted their mom and were very fussy but, later on, because I played with them and did my duty as a good babysitter, they enjoyed their variety of mothers."
The problem was the adult males. Although they did not threaten Russell, he always took the precaution of carrying pepper spray and ringing his cabin and his plane with electric fencing. However, the resident males were keenly interested in the cubs. Males will kill and eat cubs, so the youngsters were kept in an enclosure surrounded by an electric fence. As they grew older and wanted to explore on their own, Russell left the gate open so that they could come back into the protected area as and when they wished. After his first three cubs had grown up and left the nest, Russell took on another five. During walks with these youngsters, an adult male stalked them. "He would wait for the right moment to attempt to cut off one or all of the cubs from us, which he sometimes tried by ambushing from the side or behind a bush, or a small hill. It became absolutely nerve-racking," says Russell.
Once the male had been sprayed with pepper spray, he always retreated, but in the end he killed and ate one of the cubs. Russell then rescued another two cubs, Andy and Mallish and, this time, he witnessed Mallish being attacked by another male. It was a moonlit night in October 2005 and Russell had seen three bears race past his cabin. He ran outside and saw a large male dragging Mallish. "I screamed and charged at him flailing my walking stick and tried recklessly to get him to drop our wonderful cub, but he just kept backing up and dragging him along the trail."
Russell has set up a ranger training programme in Kamchatka. His goals now are to return to North America to prove that bears and people can co-exist. Arming oneself with pepper spray, never leaving food out or offering bears food, and ringing animals and animal feed with electric fencing is all it requires, he believes. As for the standard urban myths trotted out for any city dweller heading to bear country, Russell says don't sing, as bears find it irritating, and only play dead as a last resort if a grizzly is about to maul you. He says: "Talk to the bear with a calm, sincere voice, telling it you mean it no harm."
Sanjida O'Connell is the author of 'Sugar: the grass that changed the world', published by Virgin Books, £8.99. Charlie Russell's website is: www.cloudline.org
* In North America, bears (Ursus arctos) that live inland are usually known as grizzlies, whereas those in coastal areas are called brown bears. Coastal bears are typically larger and darker because of their fish-rich diet.
* Their grizzled, silver-tipped coat has given the bear its name.
* There are around 1,200 grizzlies in the lower 48 states in America, roughly 31,700 in Alaska, and about 25,000 in Canada.
* Brown bear males weigh about 360kg, grizzlies weigh about 145kg. Females are 60-70 per cent of a male's weight.
* During hibernation bears lose a third of more of their body weight.
* They can live up to 25 years.
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