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May 2003

Touched By A Grizzly

Can anyone really know what lurks in the heart of a grizzly? In the wilds of Russia's Kamchatka peninsula, Charlie Russell believes he is beginning to find out.

That picture is not a vision of Eden to everyone. “What Charlie Russell is doing is foolish,” says Chuck Bartlebaugh, director of the Center for Wildlife Information, a group that educates people to keep their distance from bears and other creatures. “We’ve spent 20 years building enthusiasm for wildlife among the public without instilling the proper sense of personal responsibility for one’s safety,” says Bartlebaugh, suggesting that Russell is perpetuating that mistake. “He’s teaching people how to get mauled.”

Dr. Chuck Jonkel of the Great Bear Foundation, who has studied grizzlies in the West for more than 40 years, has more mixed feelings. He says he sometimes envies the hours of close observation Russell has experienced. “But I wouldn’t do that because I don’t want to become bear protein.” He also questions whether Russell’s findings can be put to use in places like the Rockies. “The grizzlies in Montana are far different than the coastal bears that Charlie works with,” he says. “There, they can encounter 40 bears a day and get used to contact. A Montana bear just doesn’t have the same social skills. Try that stuff around here and they’ll knock your block off.”

Russell bristles at the notion that people will hear of his work and go running across meadows in Yellowstone thinking they, too, can walk with the grizzlies. “I am not advocating anyone try that in Yellowstone or anywhere else. That would be foolish and I wouldn’t do it myself. I am simply trying to show that peace is possible.”

That, in the end, may be his greatest contribution, says Kevin Van Tighem, a biologist at Alberta’s bear-rich Jasper National Park. “Charlie and Maureen are showing us an ideal, what could be possible if we were as good as we like to think we are in managing people and bears. They’ve given us a goal to work toward.”

Russell, who was once mauled by a black bear (and saved by his 11-year-old son), says he’s not naive. Although Russell says he has never felt threatened by a bear in Kamchatka, tragedy has struck close to home. In August 1996, wildlife photographer Michio Hoshino was dragged from his tent and eaten by a bear at Kurilskoye Lake. A few days earlier, Russell had shared a tent with Hoshino on the same spot. He later learned that the 1,000-pound bear had been fed by a Russian television crew looking for close-up footage and had grown bold enough to rip apart a helicopter where food had been stored.

Russell felt his convictions challenged like never before, but he kept circling back to his deepest beliefs about bears. “I still don’t think there is anything in a bear’s nature that will make it turn on a human for no reason,” Russell says. “There’s always a reason. And with Michio’s death, there were a number of them.”

The tragedy sparked in Russell a rededication to his cause. “After what happened, I was more convinced than ever of the need to search out a way to make peace,” he says. “Our project is more important now than ever.”

With that project entering its eighth season, Russell is contemplating how and when to end the experiment. He recites its successes: evidence that cubs raised by humans may be released into the wild successfully; proof that portable electric fences are effective, nonlethal deterrents; donations of $30,000 a year to help Russian authorities curb poaching; heightened awareness of bear-human coexistence through traveling shows of paintings and photographs, and a book (Grizzly Heart); and, not least, hundreds of peaceful encounters with some of the planet’s most feared creatures.

The decision to leave won’t be easy; there are still plenty of reasons to work and worry. Biscuit is pregnant, and Russell is anxious to see how her new cubs will react to him and Enns. And they fret about the fate of the bears after they’re gone. Still, it has to end sometime. “The critics won’t be satisfied unless we live forever out here without getting eaten,” he says. “But I think we’ve proven our point.”

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