Bear Kinship

Bear Spirit


"The Man Who Lives With Bears" - Responses

RE: The Man Who Lives With Bears, the story of Charlie Vandergraw

Response By John Teel


I think what this video shows is the immense tolerance of bears. It also shows that bears simply do not see humans as a food source. His story, like Treadwell's, makes it seem like bears are really dangerous and being safe around them takes a special skill and years of experience. That's completely untrue! Lets give credit where it's due, and that is to the bears. Having spent considerable time myself in close to proximity to grizzlies I can attest to the fact that its the tolerance of the bears that make this possible and not some special talent or years of experience.

I won't even get started how I feel about him actually being a bear hunter at one time! I can't comprehend the mind of someone who could EVER kill a bear for pleasure. Of course, I think its absurd that he feeds wild bears and I can't imagine what he hopes to accomplish. It's most unfortunate that his first name is Charlie because I would hate for people to confuse his work with that of Charlie Russell.

Bears don't need our food they need our protection and tolerance!

It's an interesting video but personally I don't care for its message: That bears are dangerous and that it takes years of experience to coexist with them. Anyone can learn to peacefully coexist with bears. The National Park Service spends 20 minutes educating tourists about bear safety in Brooks (Katmai) before allowing them to walk freely with wild grizzlies wondering every where. They've never had a single injury so it must be sufficient training.

Its most unfortunate that bears always seem to attract people like Treadwell and this guy.

John Teel 

Reply by Steve Stringham

John has some interesting ideas. Are they universally valid, or only under special circumstances?

They are definitely accurate currently in certain areas of the Katmai Coast such as Hallo Bay and the tidal area of Geographic Harbor.

But behavior of bears in those areas is vastly different today than it was 36 years ago when I began observations there. And it is vastly different in other areas even today. Hallo Bay, Swikshak, and a few other areas along the coast have huge meadows where bears can usually see people at long distances, minimizing risk of surprise close encounters. Nearly all people encountered by the bears are viewers who want to watch them peacefully. Those bears have thus lost their fear of aggression by people. And they have retained some respect for people, if only because most visitors are in groups of at least 4-6 individuals -- which makes bears more cautious toward people and makes people more confident. Furthermore, those bears have plenty of meat and other food during the period when most visitors come to Katmai. Also, few visitors carry food that is highly attractive to bears, which would otherwise make some bears more assertive, leading to some people acting more timidly, which can quickly erode ursine respect for people. Under those circumstances, John is right that little skill is required to observe them at relatively close range.

However, in areas where bears have not learned to trust people, or where they have little respect for people, or where people have food they want, bear-human relations tend to be vastly different. Even worse are areas where bears have little access to meat except for occasional predation or scavenging on ungulates such as moose or caribou. Trying to observe bears in the Arctic the way we do at Katmai is far far riskier.

When I began observation of bears at Katmai in 1972, most of the bears I encountered were very disturbed at encountering people, provoking intensive defensive threats (jaw popping, huffing, lunge-swat threats, rush-threats, etc.). So too, when they encountered anglers carrying fish, the bears were very bold and demanding of the fish, which scared most anglers into dropping their fish. No one was injured, but I don't know anyone who wouldn't be very frightened by the experience; and doing the wrong thing could have had terrible consequences.

The only people seriously injured, much less killed by a bear at Katmai have been Treadwell and his lady. Contrary to the official view, I doubt the bear that killed them was initially predatory. Rather, Tim emerging from his tent in an aggressive mood likely triggered the attack. Once a bear is chewing on a person, it sometimes shifts from disciplining the victim to eating him/her. Tim had a fair understanding of bear behavior under Katmai conditions. And he got away with a lot of aggression toward bears until he ran into some big boars that had little tolerance for his rudeness.

Risk tends to be much higher in the vicinity of salmon streams where people and bears walk through thick vegetation looking for fish and where surprise close encounters are common -- as on the Russian River on the Kenai Peninsula.

Skill in bear-human encounters is lowest where and when bears are most tolerant. But skill and judgment can be essential in other circumstances -- even at Hallo Bay or Swikshak during the rut. During that season, there is intense competition for status among bears. Big boars initiate most of the competition toward one another. Losers then redirect their aggression toward lower-ranking bears, sometimes including adult females or adolescents of either sex. And so on down the line, like dominos. Some bears then try bullying people the same way they bully other bears. People who are alone or occasionally who are in pairs, are fair game. The same bears that act like giant teddy bears under other circumstances can be quite unpleasant during the rut. Dealing with these encounters successfully can indeed require considerable skill.

As much as I enjoy guiding viewers at Katmai, I am always disturbed by the way many viewers jump to the conclusion that what they see is typical of bears, and that they can expect similar encounters any place they meet a bear. Anyone who closely studies the history of bear attacks can quickly verify that not all attacks are the result low tolerance for people.

Safe bear-human coexistence requires
* high tolerance of bears for people and vice versa
* people acting so as to maximize trust and respect for people
* people understanding that bullying bears is not the best way to maximize respect, much less trust
* people knowing how to defuse tense encounters -- which in turn depends on accurate assessment of a bear's mood and intentions.

Basic techniques are detailed in the book ALASKA MAGNUM BEAR SAFETY MANUAL which is available at Books & Videos or on

More advanced techniques are detailed in WHEN BEARS WHISPER, DO YOU LISTEN? NEGOTIATING CLOSE ENCOUNTERS WITH WILD BRUINS which is in press and should be out later this year.

As to Charlie Vandergaw: he does have considerable skill with bears. Yes, his success does depend on ursine tolerance. It's achieving that level of tolerance which requires great skill, coupled with years of interaction with the same individual bears. Whatever else Charlie has done, he has opened a window into seeing aspects of bear-human relations above and beyond what anyone else has done, including Lynn Rogers, Terry DeBruyn, Ben Killham, Charlie Russell or myself.

Steve Stringham

Reply by Brenden Garrett

I think you're both making good points; what the program implied was that bears are dangerous and deadly and that you somehow have "years of experience" in carefully knowing how to interact with them in order to not get killed, and as you have both indicated, it's not about some sort of level of high merit or experience, it's about the bears and the human being on level grounds of tolerance.

Now as John said it's not about the human having to have some sort of "magic touch" resulting from years of rigorous experience with bears; it's just required that he have tolerance for them and know a few simple key social etiquette rules understood; things that are intuitive and logical and not requiring years of learning; but only a few minutes or hours.

Now as Steve makes clear this is only half important; as the bear has to have tolerance for the human as well; and clearly not all bears in all areas have the same attitudes and tolerance towards human beings; some interact peacefully with them while some are accustomed to humans being a source of easy food; or see them as weak; fearful pushovers or aggressive and cruel enemies.

But I do think this means it pretty much comes down to how the bears learn to see people in the first place; when they only have peaceful; kind experience from the human as Charlie has demonstrated in Kamchatka the relationship between our species can be quite eden-ic.

Brenden Garrett

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