I also started rescuing bears from this squalid zoo that was so primitive that kids could reach right into the cage. This, of course, is a dangerous thing to do, especially when you have no guidance as to how the bear has been kept in captivity. So this zoo only kept the cubs until they got big enough to hurt someone; then they killed them. At first they told me they sent them to other zoos in Moscow, but I did the math and realized there must be thousands of bears in Moscow zoos, which of course there weren’t. They finally admitted they were lying.
So I began buying these orphaned bear cubs and returning them to the wild with me. It was actually a great boon to my study because it provided additional evidence that bears who were not fearful were not dangerous. I had to feed these cubs initially, which flew in the face of another myth about bears: that once they relied on humans for food, they would be dangerous if food was withheld. And this danger would last for life. So rescuing grizzly cubs as I was doing in Russia wasn’t even legal in North America.
There wasn’t a lot of knowledge about how to do this, however. I didn’t believe that the bears would be dangerous for life, but there was no historical evidence for me to go on. I needed to feed the bears when they were small; I had to make sure they were fat enough to den up before winter came. But then when they got old enough, I had to wean them from relying on me for food.
It worked. They got fat, they denned up. They were that resourceful, they could find a den on their own with no older bear to teach them.
The MOON: How did you stop feeding them?
Russell: I just stopped giving them food.
The MOON: And they didn’t turn aggressive?
Russell: No. I stopped at a time when there was plenty of food available for them naturally, and they didn’t argue very much. They’d come at the regular feeding time—twice a day—but I’d tell them “No, no food today,” and they’d accept that. After a few days, they’d stop coming at meal time.
Then it got complicated because the next year I’d have new cubs around that I’d have to feed, and the older bears wondered why they couldn’t be fed, as well. So it got a bit tricky.
The MOON: How did you handle it?
Russell: It took a little persuading, but it worked.
The MOON: Did you throw rocks at them, or what?
Russell: Oh no. I never abused them. The whole idea was that they had to trust me. I had extreme trust with these animals. I would talk to them and say “No.” I’d take them fishing, or we’d go on a long walk together, and I’d help them find their own food. That’s how I did it. They soon got the idea, and then they developed their own pride of independence. Some of them got to be five or six years old and they’d come back to visit, but not to eat. They weren’t demanding. We’d just visit, or go for long walks together.
There was one five-year-old female grizzly who got to be very good at understanding my communications and we’d find salmon carcasses together. There was a lake near my cabin in Kamchatka where salmon would come to spawn and die. The dead salmon provide a food source for the bears and many other species. Some years, when not many salmon made it to the lake, I would help this bear find salmon with my binoculars. I could spot the carcass of a salmon, floating belly-up, hundreds of meters away on the lake surface. I’d point or throw a rock in the direction of the fish, and the bear would start swimming toward the splash. As she swam, she’d look back so that I could correct her course, and she’d eventually end up with the salmon. We did that over and over again. It was such a stunning experience of trust and cooperation; it was like a dream it was so beautiful. Here’s this animal that is so feared and abused, and yet totally willing to be in relationship with humans.
Anyway, after ten years I was no longer able to raise sufficient money to keep going. Then, too, things in Russia got so complicated with graft and corruption; I wasn’t willing to raise money and have half of it go into someone’s pocket. Initially the authorities respected my boundaries and backed off; but when the BBC came to do a film about my work they realized they had leverage. They could deny permission if the BBC didn’t pay. They kept demanding more money, until I got fed up.
So, I had ten years of regular contact with the bears—and another three years getting involved in bear policies in Russia, so about thirteen years altogether in Russia. What I learned from my experience is that grizzly bears—even adult males—are not unpredictable, and losing their fear of humans does not make them dangerous. In fact, the more we abuse bears, the more angry and unpredictable bears become—with good reason.