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  • Louisa Willcox

Charlie Russell, Grizzly Whisperer

by Louisa Willcox

Charlie Russell had a magical way with grizzly bears. In his presence, wild grizzlies seemed to shed their wariness of humans, some even napping beside him or leaving their offspring with him to tend. In the latest Grizzly Times podcast Dr. Gay Bradshaw, author of Talking with Bears: Conversations with Charlie Russell, reminded me why bears had so much faith in Charlie. He spoke bear, and I think he was part bear himself. Perhaps too he had a tad of Saint Francis of Assisi thrown in.

Gay Bradshaw is a neuropsychologist whose conversations with Charlie shed important light on the ways modern humans traumatize bears and, as important, articulated a different way of being in the natural world -- what Charlie called “fitting in.”

Reading her book prompted me to reflect on my own conversations with Charlie over the years. I listened again to an interview I did with him in 2016 (here and here) and was amazed yet once more at his adventures -- raising orphaned grizzly bear cubs in the wild, climbing out of a treetop where he crashed his ultralight plane deep in the wilderness, and busting poachers in the Russian Far East.

Charlie was a masterful storyteller whose self-deprecating humor lulled you into believing that it was no big deal to be “press-ganged” by a wild grizzly mom into babysitting her cubs while she fished for salmon. But his message could not be more serious: grizzlies are hardly Monsters of God, but loving, playful and resourceful beings that are vulnerable to human depredations and mistreatment.

Charlie may not have graduated from high school, but he understood more about grizzly bears as individuals and sentient beings than any of the biologists I’ve met who earned a PhD.

Getting Along with Grizzlies

Born to a ranching family in southern Alberta, Charlie was both sensitive and practical. He discovered that feeding a few dead cows to grizzlies in the early spring kept bears from preying on his stock and tided them over till natural foods were abundant. In his decades of ranching, he never lost a cow to a grizzly. Neighboring ranchers eventually adopted the practice.

I had the chance to spend time with Charlie at his ranch, Hawks Nest, where I found the cabin floor strewn with parts of an ultralight plane he was assembling. Though he was a skilled pilot, flying ultralights in mountain country is hazardous business and I turned down his offer to see his habitat from the air.

We wandered instead through rustling golden aspen and meadows, Charlie ambling like a bear. In our silence -- Charlie’s way -- we listened to the primordial calls of ravens and elk in rut.

A big pile of scat lay by a huge stone bird bath near his cabin. A black bear had taken a dip a few days before, he said with delight: Casa Russell was clearly Casa Ursus too.

We stayed up late talking about bears, of course, agreeing that the biggest problem is people, not bears. Was it possible to change our collective understanding of who bears really are? How could we soften the human hostility that helped make grizzlies so aggressive?

Charlie admitted he wasn’t having much luck with nearby managers of Waterton Park who routinely shot bears with rubber bullets and fired cracker shells to scare them away from roadsides. Charlie had asked them: “Why do you people who are so fearful of litigation that bears are going to hurt somebody and then sue you for that -- why do you make them dangerous?” The question, he said, had not made him popular.

Charlie was impressed by my reports about Yellowstone Park officials who had stopped hazing and harassing grizzlies from the roadsides. Tourists have been delighted to have the chance of seeing a grizzly up close and personal. And Park rangers are doing their best to keep people from doing dumb things, with good success. No surprise to Charlie, who offered this: “Bears are amazingly capable of dealing with stupid people, providing they like us a little bit -- so we should give them some reason to like us.”

How Do You Film a Bear When He is Under Your Tripod?

Charlie took after his father Andy Russell, a famous Canadian wildlife filmmaker, naturalist, and author of Grizzly Country. Charlie, his brothers, and father filmed wildlife in Canada and Alaska, producing the first documentary about grizzlies. The work was tough. Grizzlies were heavily hunted just about everywhere and did their best to avoid people.

Charlie wondered what might happen if we showed bears more compassion. In coastal British Columbia, one grizzly he called Mouse opened his eyes to the possibilities by demonstrating extraordinary trust that led, in turn, to extraordinary intimate encounters. That experience changed his life. He said: “I just had to explore the limits of this trust and why certain bears could be trusted and why other bears couldn’t be trusted. The dynamics between humans and bears became an obsession with me.”

Charlie’s obsession led him to the land of the white Spirit Bear where he served as a guide to a BBC film crew. The Kermode bear, a white phase of black bear that lives along the British Columbia coast, are considered sacred relatives by the Kitasoo and T’simshian people.

Charlie was able to commune with these bears in ways that would not have surprised tribal people. One bear took to twining around, even under his camera tripod. Another led him up to her daybed where she proceeded to take a nap. The BBC crew was so amazed they made a short film about Charlie and his relationship with the bears. Similar films followed over the years, including one called "The Bear Man of Kamchatka.”

Most viewers were thrilled and astonished to watch this Dian Fossey of grizzlies. But mainstream managers and researchers were both jealous of all the attention that Charlie’s work got. Perhaps more important, they were threatened by any message that contested their mantra that bears, especially grizzlies, are dangerous creatures that need to be avoided and controlled.

A Grizzly World in Kamchatka Opens Up

Following his experience with Mouse, Charlie sought to deepen his understanding of bears by living with a population of grizzlies that were not hunted. But trophy hunting of grizzlies was widespread in North America, and managers bridled at his proposal. Charlie’s search led him to Kamchatka, which harbors the highest densities of grizzlies anywhere in the world.

I recall talking with Charlie about prospects for his work after I returned from a trip to Kamchatka with a group of scientists and journalists. My trip was catalyzed by meeting a Russian bear biologist named Igor Revenko at a 1992 international bear conference in Missoula, Montana. He invited me to Kamchatka, which had only recently been opened to western tourists. As is typical of me, I then went on to assemble a team of Americans I hoped would be of help in the chaos of a newly deconstructed Soviet Union.

Igor showed us geysers and snow-capped volcanoes, streams rippling with salmon, stands of stone pines thick with fat-rich seeds -- and massive well-fed grizzlies. But we also got a glimpse of the dark corrupt underbelly of post-Soviet Russia that would cast a shadow over Charlie’s experience.

For us, Igor smoothed messy logistics while sharing his mounting concerns about bear poaching that fueled a lucrative trade in bear parts, especially the gallbladders used in Chinese medicine. Igor would do far more for Charlie, becoming both friend and right-hand man. As important, he helped Charlie keep his footing on Kamchatka’s opaque and shifting political sands.

Early in Charlie’s time there, he and Igor shared in a tragedy that would become international news. It involved a bear that I had gotten to know during my trip to Kamchatka. Igor called him Stupid Bear.

A Tragic Stupid Bear

I met Stupid Bear at a cabin at Kurilskoye Lake in south Kamchatka. I watched the bear climb through a window into the cabin where we were to stay. He was reluctant to leave and even after numerous doses of pepper spray moved only a short distance away. According to Igor, tourists had been feeding him.

Bears that are used to eating human foods can be aggressive and dangerous. In Yellowstone and Canadian parks, managers had learned the hard way -- after many food-conditioned bears had been killed and numerous people mauled -- that we must not feed bears. Charlie had similar concerns as he watched Stupid Bear eating fish scraps left by fishermen near the same cabin in 1996.

As during my trip, Igor tried to manage a situation that on this occasion involved a Japanese crew that included the world-famous photographer Michio Hoshino. Charlie was part of the group, arriving from his base camp in his trusty ultra-light plane. When weather prevented Charlie from flying back to his cabin to retrieve some gas tanks, he ended up sharing a tent with Michio, who refused to sleep in the crammed cabin. They talked most of the night while Charlie clutched his bear spray and kept his ear alert for the approach of Stupid Bear.

The next day, Charlie flew back to his cabin to retrieve the gas tanks, but upon returning he found no one around. However, he did find plenty of evidence that a bear had dragged Michio out of his tent and eaten him. The perpetrator, he was convinced, was Stupid Bear.

Charlie would later learn the troubling backstory of the bear, including the poaching of his mom. His fascination with the cycle of trauma in grizzlies would eventually lead him to Gay’s doorstep, and together they would deepen our understanding of how bears become traumatized, with potentially tragic consequences for both bear and human, and how the chain of violence could be prevented.

Charlie’s Cubs

For a decade, Charlie reveled in the wilds of Kamchatka. His years there were among the richest of his life, none more so than when he served as a surrogate mom to multiple orphaned grizzly cubs that zoo managers would have killed if he had not adopted them.

He comments about the cubs are revealing: “The cubs were so much fun to be around and the joy would just sort of seep into your own bones and you couldn’t help but be happy being around these animals…. These bears were my teachers. They taught me about what life was about, and more than just about bears. They taught me a lot about how nature worked.”

In Grizzly Heart: Living Without Fear Among the Brown Bears of Kamchatka, Charlie wrote about his adventures with cubs who were able to successfully den on their own -- and ended up having a few offspring of their own. Several times he had to play the momma grizzly to protect his cubs by shooting bear spray at large male bears he feared would kill them. These were the only times Charlie used bear spray in Kamchatka.

From his plane, Charlie saw rampant fish poaching along the rivers. His reports resulted in charges being brought against a prominent local official. He also reported poachers trapping a large male bear in a snare, then leaving it to bellow and rage for days. Charlie regretted that he never carried a gun, which meant he couldn’t put the bear out of its misery. He thought about killing the poachers, but instead he raised money to pay salaries for Russian rangers to track poachers.

Charlie’s list of enemies grew.

Grizzly Crimes

One day in 2003, I was surprised to get a call from Charlie at a time when he should have been in Kamchatka. In the faintest whisper, he told me that his cubs had been killed. He discovered bear gallbladders nailed to the door of his cabin – clearly a threat intended to send him and his partner Maureen Enns packing back to Canada. The cubs were nowhere to be found. “Criminals, criminals,” he moaned.

Charlie’s family had been murdered. I could find no words.

Then I thought of Kim Murphy of the LA Times. I had just finished leading the Sierra Club’s annual grizzly bear tour in Yellowstone, where I helped connect bear experts with reporters. During the tour Kim told me she had worked for the Moscow bureau of the LA Times. I called Kim, who called Charlie.

Kim’s subsequent lengthy story did not bring Charlie’s cubs back to life, but it did put a national spotlight on the bear poaching problem in Kamchatka. She quoted Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy manager Valery Komarov as saying: “the poachers are very powerful people, and all our legislative system is available to be bought and sold. There is no real protection. Russell’s activities were in the way of this criminal structure, and he crossed their path. Maybe they just did it for revenge. It was a very cruel revenge.”

Undaunted, Charlie returned the next year, hiring more Russian rangers. Only health and funding problems would eventually prevent him from returning to Kamchatka, finally separating him from his beloved bears.

When Charlie was forced to stay closer to home, he and I had more time to chat about grizzlies and management in North America.

Of Grizzly Man

We found ourselves talking about and grieving over Timothy Treadwell, known most famously as the Grizzly Man in the film by Werner Herzog. Long before Timothy and his girlfriend Amy Hugenard were killed by a grizzly in Alaska’s Katmai Park, both of us had gotten to know Timothy.

For years I collaborated with Timothy, bringing him into schools in my Yellowstone backyard. The kids were delighted by his fabulous pictures and touching stories about bear and fox friends. The students loved Tim, a big goofy kid himself. But Tim, who lived cheek by jowl with grizzlies for 13 years, also taught them a lot about bear behavior.

Charlie and I had both tried to persuade Timothy to carry bear pepper spray and string electric fence around his tent to protect it from bears. But Tim refused to take those precautions, saying that he was in the bear’s habitat and did not want to harm them in any way.

A few months before Timothy and Amy were killed, Charlie blew up at Tim over the phone. He wrote later, “I confronted him with the possibility that his death could undo everything that he and others were trying to change in people’s attitude towards bears.”

Charlie happened to be close to where Tim and Amy were killed and flew to the spot shortly after. An aggressive, predatory bear had killed Timothy and Amy outside their tent.

Charlie told me: “I’ve seen bears like the one that killed Timothy. But I was able to stay away from them. And I also was very careful to have bear spray with me, because bear spray is proven to work…

A lot of people think I’m just lucky. But I think that the mistakes that people make that get to know bears really well is that they think they are immune to harm from the bears. And especially if you think of yourself as a bear whisperer, or something like that, then it can blind you to the possibility that there are bears out there that don’t like people and that might hurt you. Timothy fell into that group and so did Michio. That’s where I differ from these people, I never got to thinking that I was immune to harm.”

Charlie feared that Tim and Amy’s death would create a backlash and be a set-back for bear conservation, especially since Werner Herzog painted Tim as a headcase -- and Tim, who used his camera as a diary, had provided the filmmaker plenty of ammunition. But Herzog’s main point was that Timothy, by trying to get along with bears, violated his own dark Germanic view of murderous nature. In other words, according to Herzog, Tim stepped over the line and got what he deserved.

Right after the film came out, bear hunters and managers loudly trumpeted Herzog’s message, using it to bolster their case for using violence to “control” grizzlies. Charlie’s fears seemed to be coming true. Even so, my observations during the last twenty years have led me to conclude that the public is more often fascinated by rather than condemning of Tim and his bear friends, Herzog notwithstanding.

Predictably, the kind of people who trashed Timothy did the same to Charlie. Both were excoriated by managers and bear scientists, most employed by government agencies. Even conservationists feared that those who followed the example of Tim and Charlie would get themselves hurt or killed.

The point is well taken. Most of us are not Charlie Russell -- me included. I am comfortable in grizzly country, but still I would never go as far as he did with bears.

In Grizzly Heart, Charlie made his perspective clear, writing: “our goal was never to have people imitate our level of intimacy with our bears. We went to the extremes we did because we wanted to be sure about what we were finding.”

Charlie's aim was to discover the truth about grizzlies and the potential human-bear connection. In so doing, he sought to bust the myths perpetrated by a lot of hunters and wildlife managers -- myths intended to propagate fear of purportedly unpredictable and vicious grizzlies. He wanted to show by his own life and deeds that it is possible to not only accommodate but also peacefully coexist with one of the largest terrestrial carnivores we have left on Earth.

So much harm comes from our misunderstanding. At the top of the list is hunting grizzlies for sport, which is not morally or biologically justified -- nor does it build tolerance of humans among bears. (You can read Dr. David Mattson's extensive report on hunting grizzlies here). Then there is the problem of management, which is largely based on instrumentalizing wildlife and promoting alienation of humans from animals. The culture of state wildlife managers is unambiguously centered on killing rather than fostering tolerance and finding creative solutions to human-wildlife conflicts. And too many people unthinkingly contribute to destroying bears by managing human food and garbage poorly.

Campaigns to stop trophy hunting, improve coexistence and reform wildlife management are reaping modest success, including a recent court decision upholding the 2018 ruling that restored Endangered Species Act protections for Yellowstone grizzlies and prevented a bear hunt. But it is not enough. Too many grizzlies are still being killed, even in Yellowstone, and many populations are threatened by small sizes, long-term isolation and, increasingly, climate change.

Charlie believed that the answer is rooted in a change of heart. Harmony with each other, with the world, and with other sentient beings begins by taking an inner journey towards compassion and empathy. If given a chance, animals, including grizzlies, will return our love and understanding many times over, enriching our lives immeasurably. Charlies showed us through his lived example how we can live gently and peacefully among wild bruins -- the man with a tender grizzly heart.

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