Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Living with grizzlies – Charlie Russell visits Pincher Creek

Naturalist Charlie Russell
Josh Davis - On Saturday June 4, internationally renowned naturalist Charlie Russell presented his 2007 documentary The Edge of Eden: Living with Grizzlies to a group of twelve people at the Pincher Creek Provincial Building, in the conference room there. The story, filmed and narrated by Jeff Turner, covers a small period of Russell's decade spent in the Russian wilderness of Kamchatka, where he saved 10 bears over the course of thirteen years. Russell was one of the first westerners to visit the area, which was a well-guarded military zone during the Cold War, and is now a World Heritage Site as a result of his work.

Russell grew up in Alberta in the Canadian Rockies as the son of the well known hunter, guide, film maker, and naturalist Andy Russell. Alongside his two brothers, he learned about the wilderness from his father, assisting him as cameramen. He said that he heard his first bear story at the age of six, but that it wasn't until age twenty-two that he heard his first positive story involving bears.

As the first recorded person to raise grizzly cubs in the wild, Russell doesn’t fear bears. In fact, he rescued orphan grizzlies and took on the task of mothering them, raising them to live in the wild. Russell said that he wanted to study the relationship between humans and bears. The relationship between humans and bears remained unstudied. Human contact is considered a contaminant in such studies, which seek to understand a bears “natural” behavior. Russell fed the bears, learning in the process how to feed the animals while young without creating a nuisance as they got larger. Russell kept them on a schedule, and said the cubs never became a nuisance as a result feeding. He also taught the cubs how to fish, and protected them from other bears. He found them companionable, and not dangerous to him at all. “They wanted to be social, and it was to their advantage to be social.”

"I really tried to understand what makes them trusting, and trustworthy," said Russell. He spoke out against the mindset that bears are dangerous if they aren’t afraid of humans. What he found living in the wilderness was that how a bear acts depends on how he reacts to it. He kept fear out of the equation, calming them down and assuring them that he wasn’t going to harm them. “I don’t think bears are ferocious,” said Russell in the film. “They can be aggressive. But I wouldn’t survive a day out here if they were ferocious and unpredictable.” Russell said that he believes what makes a bear dangerous is loss of respect for us, and that the loss of respect is a natural response to the way we treat them. "Of course a mother bear is going to get aggressive when you get near her cubs if all she's ever known from people is bad treatment."

When it came to feeding the bears without creating a nuisance, Russell's insight was that treating them well prevented them from being a danger. "I was good to them. My takeaway from all of my work is that if a bear likes you he won't hurt you. It flies in the face of almost all of the management of bears. But the problem with keeping them fearful is that they have to be treated roughly. Aversive conditioning... all these things that we do to them. And in my opinion that actually makes bears dangerous. I think we're creating dangerous bears with the way that we manage them." When asked if he'd ever had a bad experience he could recall when raising the bears, Russell said the worst thing that ever happened was when poachers came into Kamchatka and slew his cubs for sport.

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