Charlie Russell | Life among grizzlies

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.

Charlie Russell with Biscuit

Photo: Maureen Enns

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.



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13 Responses to Charlie Russell | Life among grizzlies

  1. Debbie Peacock September 11, 2013 at 7:17 pm #

    I think this man had stunning intuition and I think a lot can br learnt from hid intelligent mindset. I believe his theory would work on most wild animals.

  2. LINDA LANDERS September 12, 2013 at 3:56 am #


  3. Vivienne Rundle September 12, 2013 at 4:00 am #

    What a splendid article……..
    I am in the UK and came to you from a link on the North American Bear Center page.
    Even though we don’t have bears in the UK I have been following the daily updates from NABC for two or three years now and even did some den cam watching research for them, grieved over the loss of ‘Hope’ and read your article with quite some emotion.
    The BBC showed a documentary on Timothy Treadwell and I think he came across as an egotistic, idiot who was heading for trouble but, as you say, the real tragedy was that his death has set back public opinion by years. It didn’t make sense, but even I wondered if there was any difference between the Grizzly behaviour and that of the Black Bear.
    I won’t go on, but thank you for the article, I wish you all the very best and hope passionately that your and Lynn Roger’s views will soon gain recognition for the benefit of all of us.
    Sincerely, Vivienne Rundle

    • christine September 13, 2013 at 7:27 am #

      I am leaving this as a reply to Vivienne’s mail as hers could so easily have been mine! I too live in the UK and came to the article via the NABC website which I have been following since the BBC programme my bear family and me – agree with everything you say Vivienne and add my thanks to you Charlie for such an enlightening article.
      I too hope and pray that people become more aware of the work you and Lynn Rogers and his team are doing and that these beautiful creatures can be left in peace without risking being shot at every turn.

  4. nora September 12, 2013 at 7:14 am #

    I am so grateful for this article and to Charlie Russell for his courageous and passionate life. I have been waiting for this information. Thank you.

  5. judy September 12, 2013 at 3:58 pm #

    I am so impressed. I only wish that humans were not so closed minded. I so respect what you have done, the insight in your evaluation of bears, and knowledge that there are mean humans and not just mean bears. I hope and pray that we can learn from your experiences and live peacefully with nature. Thank you.

  6. Ken King October 19, 2013 at 12:34 pm #

    This article does a great job of showing the kind nature and dedication to our positive future with bears that is Charlie Russell. I have had the very great pleasure of working with black bears on a golf course quite near to where Charlie lives. Over my ten year tenure at the course, I noticed that when I started the expected procedure was to use loud noises and fast golf carts to chase the bears off of the course with the result we worked with bears who were not comfortable and so bluff charged quite often. As we decreased the confrontational ways to deal with the bears to the point where many of out golfers simply played through the bears, leaving them in place and giving them good room as they moved around the course, we achieved the result one would expect if one understands Charlies message from the above interview. We had far fewer negative interactions with the bears. I truly hope that as time goes by, the course will continue to deal with our furry friends in a respectful manner and part of Mr. Russell’s message will provide a living example for Parks Canada in their own back yard.

  7. Marc Severson December 3, 2013 at 7:58 pm #

    This world does not belong to us and if we do not find a way to coexist with other species here it will be our loss. Charlie Russell appears to understand this.

  8. Mark March 22, 2016 at 11:50 pm #

    This guy is GREAT! Spread the word, Charlie is GREAT!

  9. Brenda Gentile April 27, 2016 at 6:24 am #

    Dear Charliie, I bought and enjoyed your book, “Grizzly Heart.” I support wildlife. I agree with this book.
    I feel like I lived in Kamchatka with you and Maureen. Thank you for your research and for the kind and caring hearts of both you and Maureen. My squirrels, birds, and pet cats mean the world to me – I talk to them and am ever surprised at the fact they – even birds – have varying personalities. You captured the personalities of the bears in a beautiful way — and the beauty to be found in Russia, despite a cold and often unforgiving climate. I am 73 and live in KY.

  10. Robyn October 22, 2017 at 11:01 am #

    I’m so moved by this article, and Charlie’s incredible odyssey with the bears. I watched the BBC documentary about this work in Russia; it was beautifully made. He’s so right, too, about Tim Treadwell. The bears are also paying the ultimate price for human ego. Goodness knows what the future holds.


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