In the spring of 2003 Russell jumped out of a Soviet helicopter onto the foggy Kamchatka tundra. Anticipating another idyllic summer, he rushed to his cabin with five months’ worth of supplies loaded on his back. But as he flung open the door, he was hit with a stomach-churning stench. Peering into the dark room, he could just make out the shape of a rotten gallbladder nailed to the wall. Poachers had killed every one of his bears.
Heartbroken, Russell (who had since been joined by Enns) fled to the familial comfort of Alberta. “It was a huge shock,” says Dick, Russell’s elder brother. “It’s like having your kids killed.” But less than a year after the massacre, Russell felt the pull of Kamchatka. So when he got a call from Canadian filmmakers Jeff and Sue Turner asking him to participate in a film about his years studying bears in Russia, he couldn’t turn them down.
But Enns did. “She said, ‘I’m not going to have any part of it,'” recalls Russell. “She was smart. God, it was hell going back there.” After four gruelling years of filming, Russell left Russia for good in 2007-but he wouldn’t leave defeated. He had footage of the extraordinary creatures he’d come to know: creatures who nuzzled noses with him after a long winter apart and who galloped beside him on his walks.
Russell knows stories like his are rarely heard. When bear attacks happen, news stories can sensationalize the danger. But the numbers don’t match the hype. Canada is home to about 380,000 black bears and 26,000 grizzlies, and in the past decade fewer than 15 people have been mauled to death. Poor treatment causes bears to turn violent, says Russell, who points to conservation officers’ dealings with bears as an example. A bear that continuously comes too close to humans will be shot at with noisemakers, rubber bullets or tranquilizers. Many are captured and released, which can be frightening for the bear, argues Russell. During what is called a “hard release,” the bear is bombarded with loud noises as it leaves the trap and heads into the forest. Dogs bark and snap at the fleeing animal. The message: Don’t come back.
“But see it from the bear’s perspective,” says Russell. “You can’t spend all day running from things and not be stressed. We make them dangerous.” To prevent bears from becoming nuisances, Russell says, the public needs to keep garbage in bear-proof bins, and parks’ staff should avoid haranguing the animals. “Bears can feel respect and they learn respect.”
But getting respect from ranchers is more easily said than done. When bears wake from their six-month hibernation, they’re looking for one thing: a meal- and fast. They search for weak or dead cattle on nearby ranches and often come up against angry, armed ranchers.
After years of observing deadly runins, Russell took action. He trucked dead cattle from his Alberta ranch to a nearby area just outside the bears’ winter homes. If they had easy access to bounty, he reasoned, they wouldn’t need to sniff around the ranches. The plan worked and bear-rancher encounters decreased. Russell even began adding his neighbours’ deceased cattle to the pile. He is happy that Alberta’s Sustainable Resource Development Ministry has since developed its own successful feeding program using roadkill. It’s not unusual to see department staff fly out to the dens each year, moose and deer carcasses swinging in the helicopter’s sling.
At the end of the night, copies of Grizzly Heart and the film sell out. The high sales indiciate to Russell that the public is receptive to his message. If only one rancher changes his habits because of his talk, the years in Kamchatka will have been worth it. “I hope I’ve helped them see these are not the horrible animals they’ve been told about,” says Russell. “Bears give us what we give them. Give them violence, we get violence back. But give them kindness and we get kindness.”
(Photo by Maureen Enns)