Alberta’s bear whisperer says society has it wrong

For 10 years, Charlie Russell lived the majority of his life with the big-pawed, thick-necked kings of the forest.

For 10 years, Charlie Russell lived the majority of his life with the big-pawed, thick-necked kings of the forest.

He’s gone fishing side by side with a Kermode bear, run his hands through the hairs of Russian brown bears, one of the world’s largest bear species, and been left in charge of a handful of their cubs.

Now the Albertan bear whisperer is coming to Red Deer to share his story and open up a dialogue about the creatures he says society has got all wrong.

“We’ve been told they’re unpredictable and they’re dangerous if they lose fear of people. I didn’t think this was true … to me they have always seemed to be a peace-loving animal,” said Russell, 72, who lives on his family ranch overlooking Waterton Lakes National Park in Southern Alberta.

An author, photographer and naturalist, Russell will be speaking in Red Deer on Saturday at Carnival Cinemas about his 50 years of studying grizzly bears and details about the recent return of grizzlies to Southern Alberta after a 125-year absence.

He is widely known for his extensive fieldwork in Kamchatka, in Russia’s far east, where he spent 10 summers living in near isolation with only the hundreds of surrounding bears for company. There he later taught local guides how to lead bear-viewing tours and adopted orphaned cubs from zoos slated to be killed, helping them integrate into the wilderness. All the while, he was collecting research to help prove bears and humans can co-exist in an environment of trust versus terror.

“The females would bring me their cubs to babysit when they saw me. This was never thought of as a possibility. … It was amazing; I felt protected,” he said. “To have an adult bear spot you about 400 metres away and recognize you and come running hard straight at you, not to attack you but to say hello and lay down with you was incredible because here was an animal with all this bad press and yet they can behave this way.”

In 1994, when Russell first built his cabin in Russia to begin his research, these bears had very limited contact with people, he said. It allowed him to create a unique culture of trust that is nearly impossible to do in North America.

When bears do turn on people, there is a reason and it’s connected to the way we manage them, Russell said.

“We manage them to be fearful of us. We tend to be very rough with them in the park … shooting them with rubber bullets and other ways to keep them fearful and stay away from us. That fear creates danger.”

As such, Russell said he does carry pepper spray around with him on his ranch but that it doesn’t have to be this way.

“It’s going to be a long process but I want people to have a different understanding of bears than what is handed to them in a park brochure, that there is the potential of trust there and my photos show that,” he said. “It’s a hard struggle getting people to change their minds about bears but I’m not going to quit.”

His fascination with the large, snout-nosed animals began in 1967 when his father, a fellow well-known hunter and naturalist, Andy Russell, started producing a documentary about grizzlies.

“I became more and more interested. When I started ranching, there were a lot of bears because we’re right by the national park. I let them roam and feel welcome on the place and I don’t think I lost one animal in my 18 years ranching in the 1970s and ’80s — that’s not to say they don’t kill animals. … The cattle I find are more scared of me on my horse than the bears nearby,” he said.

Russell has also been featured in two documentaries regarding his findings, Walking with Giants: The Grizzlies of Siberia in 1999 and Bear Man of Kamchatka in 2006. He’s also helped numerous films get up close and personal with bears, most recently working with crews from The Nature of Things with David Suzuki on a grizzlies segment for the Wild Canada series, which aired last Thursday.

Tickets to Russell’s presentation are $25 each. The door open at noon with the discussion starting at 1 p.m. For more information, call 403-346-1300.

rfrancoeur@bprda.wpengine.com

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