Charlie Russell | Life among grizzlies

Unfortunately, my work has made very little impact on bear management policies—then, or now. I lectured, wrote books, had films made about my work, and still, the standard practice is to keep bears fearful and humans and bears separated.

Here in Canada I live right next to a national park, and it makes me crazy to see how the bears are managed. This was another factor that resulted in my decision to leave Kamchatka. I’d had ten years studying the bears and everything I learned convinced me that what we had was not a bear problem; it was a human problem. So I had to go back and try to convince the humans of what I learned.

People ask me all the time, “How could you leave? Don’t you miss the bears?” Well, of course I do! It was an incredible time in my life, but that’s not the important thing anymore. The important thing is changing people’s attitudes and boy, is that frustrating. We hang on to our beliefs so tightly, and so completely. It is so difficult to change our hunting culture, but I keep going at it.

The park near my home is having so many problems with the bears this year. Just two days ago a park ranger asked what I thought the problem was. I said, “It’s so obvious what the problem is! You’ve got people so fearful of bears that they panic every time they see them. They’re picnicking and a bear comes along, so they jump up and follow your instructions: get into your car if you see a bear! They’ve left all the food on the table for the bear, who helps himself. Of course, the bear thinks this is great and does it again and again.”

The other day I was paddling my kayak in the lake, and as I approached a big picnic area I heard a kafuffle and the word “bear.” So I paddled to the shore, where I could see people rushing around their picnic table, which was covered with food, and here came a bear. The people quickly locked themselves inside their car.

I got out of the kayak and got between the table and the bear, and I stopped him, which was quite easy to do. I said, “No, you can’t have this food. It is not for you,” and I sent him away. Then I encouraged the people to get out of their car and continue their picnic. They were quite reasonable, and they asked me how I was able to manage the bear so easily. I told them that bears can be dominated and told no.

When I recounted this incident to the park rangers two days ago, the head biologist started crying and said that they had killed a bear just the night before—a bear I knew—for no more reason than that. She had big tears in her eyes, but I told her, “Toughen up, Barb! You’re going to have to kill a lot more bears if you keep managing them this way.”

She stopped crying and said, “I think we’re going to finally have to listen to you, Charlie.”  That, at least, was a little bit heartening.

The MOON: Do you think they will listen?

Russell: I doubt it. They’re so fearful themselves of these animals that they can’t trust them with the tourists. They’re afraid of litigation. I tell them, “If you’re afraid of litigation, then why do you make the bears dangerous? The bears who hurt people—because there are bears who hurt people, but they are rare—don’t like people, and they don’t like them for very good reasons! People are always beating up on them so the bear only has bad experiences with people, and they’re protective of their cubs. So when someone surprises them on a trail, and they’re too close, they might hurt someone to protect their cubs. But my experience was that the bears who trusted me brought their cubs to me to babysit!

If the general atmosphere around bears is that of trust so that the bears like people, I would even trust the bears with the stupid things that the tourist might do—provided there is not meanness or disrespect associated with it. I once fell over a grizzly who was sleeping next to my cabin. It was dark, and I didn’t see it. The bear was sleeping there because it had no fear and because it probably enjoyed the proximity with humans. Therefore she didn’t take offense when I tripped over her. I told her I was sorry and continued my trip to the outhouse.

There was a retired forester living in the bush of Pennsylvania. He liked bears but did not know a lot about them and he started feeding them. This feeding eventually attracted a lot of bears and it became too expensive to feed them all, so he started inviting his friends in town to come out on weekends and bring lots of food that the bears would like. They brought outdated food like cookies, cakes, fruit and whatever. There was only one rule in what went on there: people had to be kind to the bears. There was no teasing allowed.

A biologist, Lynn Rogers, heard about it and went to investigate and take photos, which he later showed at a bear conference at Bozeman, Montana, attended by a lot of bear managers. As I said, there were no rules and the bear feeders wanted to show Lynn the party tricks they each had with the bears. One photo showed a woman lying on her back on the ground with a doughnut in her mouth. A bear would walk up over her, straddling her, while he took the doughnut carefully into his own mouth. Another guy held his one-and-a-half-year-old daughter up to a huge male bear and then banged her face gently against the nose of the bear. He asked Lynn if he got a picture of it. Lynn was so shaken, just watching, that he did not get a photo. So the guy said, “Get it this time,” and Lynn did get it the next time the child’s and the bear’s faces met.

There were lots more amazing photos, but showing them enraged many bear managers in the crowd, who angrily blamed Lynn. As bear managers, they did not trust the tourists to not do something stupid around bears and get hurt as a result. These managers were looking at images of people acting out their worst nightmare, yet not getting hurt. I pointed this out and asked them to be quiet and keep watching with that in mind. They did, but very little has changed over the years since.



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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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