Home Back Forward July 27, 1998: Exploring trust with a "Ferocious" animal



Developing trust

Charlie and Chico swimming

Chico takes a rest


From Charlie:

If grizzlies are as unpredictable as man has claimed for eons, Maureen or I should have at the very least lost an arm by now. A lot of the initiative for doing this study was a result of experiences that I had had with these animals that gave me reason to believe that there was a mistake about this belief. I grew to love these animals from watching them carefully as they enjoyed their lives in the unspoiled country that I too learned to seek out, where they played with their cubs in a way that would make most of our children envious at the quality of the time they were getting. It was also not difficult to get the feeling that they would put their lives on the line for their offspring's safety. There is no question that grizzly bears are dangerous to people but even so, it is rare that that people get hurt or killed. Unlike the killer whale, who, when we look back on our violent history with them, seemed to be able to forgive the most gross injustices, grizzlies appear to have a sense of fairness that has never been appreciated by man who tends to keep score in a peculiar way. Hunting and killing 5000 to 10,000 bears, for every one of us they get is still seen as unfair and we tell our children how dangerous bears are so they and the rest of us can then live in abject fear of them.

By spending time with bears who are not hunted or harassed in the many ways that we have figured out to discourage them to be around us, one soon sees that they can be very nonchalant about carrying on their lives in a quiet manner providing one is also calm. The problem was, with me, when I finally started to get over fear and relaxed a bit, some bears become curious and started shrinking my rather tenuous comfort zone. Years ago, I discovered that I could set limits by using the word "no" when they crossed that line where ever it was. Of course they said no in a different, more subtle language which I had to learn. This became and still is, a very personal study of mine that I am doing, to clear up the misunderstanding about their truer nature, the purpose being to work out more appropriate methods of managing these animals by understanding them better. It is not a study that I want any one with less experience than I, (35 years), to attempt but when its done, my hope is that it will help people to be able to share much more habitat with bears.

One day in British Columbia, Canada, I was watching a young female grizzly who I had known for several years and who, between us, we had developed considerable trust. She would let me follow her through the rain forest to closely observe her life there. After spending a lot of time, as close as ten feet from her, I decided to let her have the final word regarding how close we could be from each other. This required as much nerve as I could find in myself because no sooner had I decided this when she hopped up on the far end of the log I was sitting on and started slowly walking to my end! I could tell she was trying to do it in a way as to not frighten me but that part wasn't working very well. Somehow I stayed put as she came up the log and sat down beside me. With my heart pounding, I reached out and ran my finger along her nose and she let me feel her teeth and reach in her mouth and run my index finger along her corrugated pallet. Back then it seemed impossible to explain why a wild grizzly would trust me enough to allow this but with this study we are shedding some light on an answer. In the year and a half that we have spent with our bears here in Kamchatka, we have only occasionally gotten a scratch or small bruise, usually when we tried to share their play, which has been a dream of mine for a long time. If I was going to be a surrogate parent, I wanted to learn how to share with them their high spirits and love of fun, and at the same time learn as much as I could about their concerns and emotions. Playing, however was a problem because they did most of it by grabbing each other with their teeth and reefing and pulling their loose hide. This just wasn't going to work until we could make them understand that we were far more delicate than a bear. But as they have gotten bigger and stronger they have also gotten gentler with us which is remarkable because they often demonstrate the power of their jaws by chomping a big salmon in half, a feat which would take a sharp ax and a hard swing for me to duplicate. They too, seemed to want to learn how to work something out, but how to do it took patience on both sides. It appears that if a bear likes and trust you, it won't hurt you and in Chico's case might even go much farther. She seems to be taking it upon herself to protect us from other bears.

The question keeps being asked: "why would you want to teach a bear to trust people when it could get them killed latter in there lives?" Of course we hope they can be safe in the South Kamchatka Sanctuary for ever. There is a huge area around our cabin that no one lives or even visits very often. We are working with the Russians on ways to make it safer for them but in the meantime we are taking a risk so they can begin demonstrating that grizzlies are different than their reputations that proceeds them would suggest. They are ambassadors to all bears, who will perhaps take some of the fun of hunting away from those who only believed what they were told about grizzly bears, and amaze and delight those who are open to new thoughts. I work with Chico mostly because she is the one who has always wanted contact by touching. They are all wonderful and we are looking forward to when they have their own cubs and we can be grand parents, probably in the year 2002.

The photos in this entry show Chico and I exploring what it means to trust.

© Lenticular Productions Ltd. 1998