Living with Grizzly Bears

SITTING IN THE COZY kitchen of their handsome post-and-frame home in the foothills country near Cochrane, Alta., Charlie Russell and Maureen Enns recall the far more cramped lodgings where they spent much of the past seven years.

Living with Grizzly Bears

SITTING IN THE COZY kitchen of their handsome post-and-frame home in the foothills country near Cochrane, Alta., Charlie Russell and Maureen Enns recall the far more cramped lodgings where they spent much of the past seven years. On the remote Kamchatka Peninsula on Russia's northeastern coast, Russell, 61, a former rancher and wilderness guide, and Enns, 53, a painter and photographer, have been conducting a bold experiment to see if humans can live at close quarters with GRIZZLY BEARS and survive to tell the tale. Home base is an isolated cabin built where no one else has lived for centuries - and where, even in summer, wind, rain and snow storms can be punishing. During the early stages of the project, Russell and Enns, who met and became a couple only a year before launching the Russian project, sometimes found themselves trapped inside together for two weeks at a stretch. "It was horrible in some ways," says Russell. "We couldn't get away from each other." Agrees Enns, with a hearty laugh: "It was definitely clash time. Aggression was felt more towards each other than with the bears."

Ah yes, the bears. The volcano-studded Kamchatka Peninsula, encompassing a land mass bigger than California, has a human population of only 350,000. But it boasts the world's highest concentration of grizzly bears, an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 animals in all. Even by the impressive standards of grizzlies, these bears are imposing: female adults weigh up to 360 kg, and males up to 675 - roughly twice the size of their central Rocky counterparts. Located 100 km from the nearest major community, Russell and Enns's cabin is in an area where hundreds of grizzlies travel each summer and fall to fish salmon-rich rivers and streams. The couple chose the spot because of how little contact the bears had with humans - or so they thought when the project began. Russell and Enns wanted to test a controversial theory. Grizzlies, they contend, are not the inherently ferocious man-killers depicted in everything from children's fairy tales to wildlife management textbooks. The bears, they say, are only as dangerous as humans make them - and, if treated with trust and respect, they will return the same.

Russell and Enns came to these beliefs separately but in a similar manner. Russell, the son of renowned Alberta naturalist and author Andy Russell, saw his first grizzly at age 7 while riding horseback at the family ranch near Waterton park. Raised in a family of hunters, the younger Russell was exposed early on to all the usual campfire tales of grizzlies as savage predators who can never be trusted around humans or domestic livestock. But it never quite squared with his own experiences. Shooting a film documentary on grizzlies with his father and brother Dick in the early 1960s, Russell found the bears instantly fled for cover whenever they approached - until the trio decided to dispense with their rifles. As if sensing the danger had eased, the animals began to come closer. Later, grizzlies were frequent visitors to the ranch Russell operated in southern Alberta for two decades. He did nothing to discourage them and they, in turn, left his cattle unharmed.

But Russell's most profound encounter came in the early 1990s while guiding bear watchers to Canada's only grizzly sanctuary in northwestern British Columbia. One day an animal Russell knew, and had dubbed the Mouse Creek Bear, approached as he was sitting on a moss-covered log. After Russell spoke to the female grizzly in the calmest voice he could muster, she sat down beside him, extended a paw and gently touched his hand. Russell touched the bear's nose and then, without thinking, slipped his fingers inside her mouth and slid them along her grinding teeth. "She could have had my hand, and the rest of me, for dinner," marvels Russell, "but she did not."

Enns grew up on a ranch in the B.C. Interior where grizzlies were frequent visitors. She was terrified of them. But in 1991, while riding the backcountry in Banff National Park, Enns came within six metres of a grizzly and her one-year-old cub. To Enns's amazement, her horse did not take flight and the bear did not attack. Instead, she was able to film as the mother bear calmly foraged. When Enns first met Russell two years later, they compared notes, and clicked. "It's no exaggeration," she says, "to say that bears brought us together."

Their initial experiences in Russia were disappointing. The bears were plentiful, but avoided contact with humans. As Russell recounts in his recently published book, Grizzly Heart: Living Without Fear Among The Brown Bears Of Kamchatka, he continued to try to soothe the bears with calm language. He once found himself down on his knees, literally begging a female grizzly not to run away, "an audition for the nuthouse in human terms," he concedes. Yet as soon as the bear caught whiff of him, she sped off.

Russell and Enns concluded that even the bears of remote Kamchatka had been conditioned to fear humans. They soon learned that, for decades, the bears had been hunted down from a nearby village. While the hunt was now illegal, poachers continued to stalk the peninsula. The couple's response was twofold. They helped establish an anti-poaching program in the region, which has proven hugely effective. And, to speed up their research, they adopted three orphaned grizzly cubs from a Russian zoo and flew them to their cabin.

The three cubs, whom the couple named Chico, Biscuit and Rosie, are the real stars of Grizzly Heart. In the early stages, Russell and Enns fed the bears bowls of sunflower seeds to supplement their diet and helped teach them how to fish for salmon. They built them an outdoor "cub pen," using electric fencing that restricted their movements to protect them from predator bears. Eventually, they lifted the fencing and stopped the feeding, forcing the grizzlies to adapt to the wild. As they did so, Russell and Enns couldn't help but feel like worried, if proud, parents. "Neither of us got a wink of sleep that night," writes Russell of the first time they let the bears roam at will.

To the couple's delight, the cubs continued to recognize and trust them, even through long periods of separation and as they grew into independent adult bears. When Russell and Enns returned after winters spent in Canada, they would be greeted by the grizzlies, who would rub their faces in the tracks of the humans, inhaling the scent, and then run circles around them excitedly. They could swim with the bears or sit quietly, gazing into their eyes. Russell and Chico have even developed their own version of a "high-five." The bear flops on her back and reaches out a forepaw; Russell then knits his fingers through her claws.

Some will argue that Russell and Enns enjoy a unique bond with the adopted bears, which has kept them from harm's way. But they point out they have befriended several wild grizzlies in the region, most notably the one they call Brandy. Through two sets of cubs, Brandy has been remarkably tolerant of the interlopers, even when they got between her and her offspring - long considered the classic trigger for bear-human conflict. Brandy's cubs, meanwhile, greet and interact with Russell and Enns with the same casual playfulness as the adopted bears.

Russell believes that with the cessation of poaching at their end of the peninsula, the grizzlies' conditioned fear of humans is rapidly changing, providing the opportunity to develop a new and healthier relationship with the animals. However, he acknowledges that it would take longer to effect the same changes among far more frequently harassed Canadian bears - and that, in the interim, it would be dangerous for individuals to try to approach the animals here in the way he and Enns do in Russia.

All the same, Russell thinks the Russian project has already helped to undermine conventional wisdom about bears. For example, it has long been thought that bears cannot be given supplementary food because, once the source is cut off, they will turn hostile - something that didn't happen with the orphaned cubs. Had that lesson been applied, says Russell, it could have prevented the carnage that saw 1,300 bears shot and killed in 1998 when drought in parts of British Columbia and Alberta forced the animals into valley bottoms in search of berries - and into instant conflict with the people who lived there. Simply feeding the bears was never considered an option.

In a similar vein, Russell would dearly love to see Canada end the legal grizzly bear hunt, which still claims more than 300 animals a year. "You can't help but view humans as your enemy if you're being shot at all the time," observes Russell. "We need to drop old prejudices long enough to reach out and start over."

Maclean's November 25, 2002