Myths laid bare

(Observer Magazine, 5 January 1992)

Through the trackless pines of north Minnesota, Richard Askwith follows the bear

RA in Minnesota 1992

I AWOKE with a start. My small patch of mid-morning sun had moved on, and I had begun to feel cold. I must have been sleeping for half an hour or more.

Above, a pale northern sky; around, a ragged jungle of dark conifers and tangled undergrowth; below, a soft swamp-floor, carpeted with lime-green moss and crisscrossed with shadows and rotting logs.

On my left lay my rucksack. On my right, a foot or two away, dozed a large black bear.

I went back to sleep.

A moment later I woke again, alarmed.

It wasn’t the thought that I had been sleeping with a bear: that seemed quite natural by then. It was just that I was supposed to be observing and recording every detail of the bear’s behaviour. Sleeping on the job was a dereliction of duty.

I leant over to take Gerry’s pulse. The fat on her inner thigh made it difficult to feel her femoral artery, and I had to pinch sharply to reach it. She grunted, perhaps in protest, perhaps in connection with some bearish dream. She smelt damp and slightly doggy. I noted her pulse-rate, for the fourth time since 7am: 52 beats a minute. I counted her breaths: 44. This bear is definitely slowing down, I thought.

Then my eyes began to feel heavy again.

Such is human perversity. Two weeks earlier, nothing could have thrilled me more than to catch even the briefest glimpse of a bear in the wild. Now I took it all for granted.

With nine other holiday-makers from Britain and the US, I had travelled to the north Minnesotan semi-wilderness, to the US Forest Service’s North Central Forest Experiment Station, in the specific hope of seeing a bear. We knew within an hour of our arrival that we had come to the right place. We had deposited our belongings in the tents where we would spend the next fortnight and were sitting outside the laboratory while Dr Lynn Rogers, almost certainly the world’s leading authority on black bears, told us about his work. Then a voice said: ‘Look, there’s a bear.’ And a big, black, furry thing, two or three times the size of a large St Bernard, waddled out of the woods.

It stopped for a moment, sizing us up, then waddled nearer. ‘Hi, Gerry,’ said Dr Rogers, in his low, slow, slightly goofy voice. Gerry plodded right up to him and gave him a hefty but friendly nudge with her head. Another two plods and she would have been touching me.

This previously unimaginable proximity to such a wild and reputedly dangerous beast quickly began Io seem natural. By the lime she plodded off, an hour or so later, each of us had tried touching Gerry, feeling her coarse, clean, rug-like fur. We had also grown familiar with her physical presence: with the snuffly rhythms of her breathing, the quiet heaviness of her tread, and her almost permanent air of good-natured exhaustion. That first fierce excitement at encountering the unknown was already receding.

Some of us had tried feeling her pulse.

Others, including me, had discovered her penchant for play. which meant cuffing, clawing, wrestling and. occasionally, biting (on her part, not mine). But we were not there to play, whatever Gerry felt about it. This was an Earthwatch holiday, and Earthwatch holidays are about work.

Earthwatch is a 20-year-old environmental group dedicated to saving the planet. It does so by arranging for the green middle classes of America, Australia and Europe to work as menial assistants on planet-saving scientific projects: not as paid assistants, nor even as unpaid assistants, but as paying assistants. The Earthwatch volunteer is charged, typically. between £500 and £1,000 for two weeks’ work (my two weeks cost £670).

Roughly half goes on administrative costs; the rest goes to the scientific project. (Dr Rogers’s project received more than 170 volunteer-weeks of work and an $80,000 injection of cash as a result of his Earthwatch involvement last year.) There are more than 70 projects in the current Earthwatch catalogue, with subjects ranging from archaeology to botany.

Each addresses, in some small way, an environmental problem. We were studying bears, according to Dr Rogers, ‘so that people and bears can better co-exist.’

Black bears are a long way from extinction: there are currently around 450,000 of them in north America, including 10,000 in Minnesota. But civilisation is eating away at their habitat and their privacy. Dr Rogers listed three particular areas of concern: the interaction between bears and the growing number of Americans who now live in bear country; the interaction between bears and the much larger number of Americans who come to bear country for recreational purposes; and the effect on bears of forest management policies. His work was progressing towards a variety of solutions: dispelling myths about black bears’ ferocity, teaching home-owners and campers to be more thoughtful about where they put food and rubbish, using aversion therapy to keep bears away from camp sites (‘teaching wayward bears to become good bears’), and amending forestry policy to preserve the habitats that bears need. The overriding objective, though, essential to all these, was to find out more about bears.

Dr Rogers, a big, fit, shabbily dressed 52-year-old, has been finding out about Minnesotan black bears since 1969. Initially he studied them in the standard way in which people study wide-ranging animals that avoid man: trapping, tranquillising and radio-tagging, then monitoring their movements from a distance. This taught him many things and made him one of America’s most respected wildlife biologists. Then he made the breakthrough that brought him international celebrity.

Like all Americans, he had been brought up to believe that bears are dangerous. After 10 years of tracking them, the first faint suspicions began to arise that the bears in these woods, at least – an area about 50 miles in diameter in the Boundary Waters wilderness between Lake Superior and the Canadian border – might not be as black as they had been painted. After 15 years, this was becoming a serious hypothesis. Countless black bears had launched ferocious-looking charges; none had actually attacked him.

Perhaps, like a gorilla’s thumping of its chest, the charge was a sign not of aggression, but of nervousness, a way of saying, ‘I feel uneasy with you’. Armed with this interpretation of the ‘bluff charge’, and with the realisation that the black bear is on the whole a timid creature, he began to learn ‘how to be sensitive to a bear’s emotions and how to show good bear manners’. Bears began to trust him.

In 1985, he first began to ‘walk with the bears’, à la Dian Fossey, following them around all day as they went about their normal daily business. Within a year or two there were several bears in the area who were fully habituated to humans.

Assistants who learnt from Rogers could walk with them too, and stay within a few feet of them for up to 48 hours at a time.

The effect on Dr Rogers’s work was shattering. It was as if he had discovered the bear scientist’s equivalent of the microscope or the X-ray: suddenly he could see things that had hitherto been invisible. Reference to the previous 16 years’ work (and to the work of other bear experts) showed that following the bears produced no significant changes in their behaviour. They still foraged in the same places, slept in the same places, got up at the same time (about half an hour before sunrise), went to bed at the same time (about an hour after sunset), and so on.

But now humans could watch and listen to things which previously they had only inferred from radio signals, tracks, droppings (‘scats’) and chance sightings. A whole new universe of data had become accessible. All that remained was to collect it. Hence the need for volunteers.

Our job was – or sounded – simple. Working in teams of two and shifts of five or six hours each, we had to watch the bears around the clock and write down everything they did. For example, at 12.59 on 13 September (according to my notes), Gerry walked in a direct manner (‘WD’ in bear-watchers’ code, as opposed to ‘WM’, which denotes ‘walking/meandering’) to a patch of clover. She took six bites of clover (eating only the flowers), then stopped, sat and groomed (scratched) her head for 10 seconds. Then she took another 28 bites of clover (still eating just the flowers), then walked away to a nearby white pine. She rubbed her side against the white pine for 30 seconds, then groomed her head for another 10 seconds, sat at the base of the tree for 30 seconds with her front paws wrapped around it, groomed her head for five seconds, got up, shook herself, sniffed, and walked/meandered away (by which time it was 13.06).

Multiply that by 50 and you will have some idea of the volume of data we could collect in just one shift. In theory we could have kept watch on anything up to 100 bears: there are probably that many in that neck of the woods, none of which should be impossible to habituate. But the volume of data produced would have been unmanageable. So for the time being there were just three bears to be watched: Terri, a six-year-old female with two male cubs (Jake and Charlie); Mary, Terri’s two-year-old daughter; and Gerry, Terri’s two-year-old adopted daughter.

This was more than enough to keep us busy. Walking with bears is hard work. The forests in the area are as thick as jungles. There are no paths, rarely even a hint of a path; even when there is one, the bear is unlikely to use it. The trees tangle together – aspens, spruce, balsam firs, red pines, white pines, oaks, birches – into a series of giant thickets. A bear, scarcely three foot high with its nose to the ground, moves swiftly and softly beneath the branches. A human, encumbered with rucksack and, often, the telemetric antenna needed for locating the bear in the first place, has to fight every inch of the way. If the bear keeps on the move all the time, a six-hour shift can be nearly as tiring as, say, six hours of hill-walking. And you are supposed to be taking constant notes as you go, either of the bear’s behaviour or (you take it in turns) of the directions you go in. (The forest is so thick that you can only keep track of your position with a compass, and unless you keep a record of your meanderings you are lost.) And it is probably raining.

Fortunately, bears rarely spend all day on the move. They slow down to eat and, sometimes, to rest. When I was there, quite late in the year, they were travelling further and faster in search of food, which was growing scarce, but they were also slowing down metabolically, especially in the second week, as the time drew near to start hibernating. By the time of mv last bear-watching session, Gerry was sleeping for hours at a time, then getting up and waddling a few yards, then sleeping a few hours more. That was when I dozed off.

Each bear offered its own distinct bear-watching experience. Terri was fast-moving and aloof, with a tendency to launch bluff charges when followers approached too close. The best thing about following her was the chance to watch her grooming, teaching and playing with her cubs. Mary was shy and elusive, often roaming miles beyond her usual territory in search of food. Sometimes we could not find her at all. Gerry was different. An orphan, she had been reared by humans for a crucial four-week period before being adopted by Terri and, as a result, actually liked people. That was why we could play and wrestle with her. During bear-watching hours we tried to discourage her playful instincts, but we could never be sure that she was behaving in a completely natural way, and in general she was more useful as a source of physiological data than as a source of behavioural data.

Our days ranged from the tedious to the unpleasant to the exhilarating.

Tedious meant driving for hours on roads and mud tracks, dangling an antenna out of the truck window, trying to locate a missing bear (usually Mary) by its radio collar; or just watching a bear doing nothing remotely noteworthy for hours at a time. Unpleasant meant picking up fresh scats (yes, bears do crap in the woods), putting them in bags and, later, weighing and analysing them. (Some people also disliked the cold nights, early mornings and cold, wet, exhausting bear-watching sessions.) Exhilarating meant watching Terri playing with her cubs, or witnessing from just a few feet away the elaborate display of aggression by which Terri drove Gerry from a disputed area of territory, or standing beneath a tree while two unknown cubs in its branches bleated like lambs for their mother (who ignored them), or heaving and hustling Gerry out of the laboratory’s kitchen on the various occasions when she broke in, or wrestling with her for fun on the grass outside, or watching an innocent Earthwatcher being felled from behind by Gerry’s flying rugby tackle when she was in one of her ‘devil bear’ moods.

Or it could just mean listening to the reassuring sound of a bear breathing, or paddling down the Kawishiwi river in the evening to see the beavers and their kits, or lying in the tent on a wintry, moonlit night, thinking about the bears nearby and listening to the wolves howl.

Even the dull bits had their compensations. Dr Rogers and his assistants were always sharing their knowledge and experience with us. No question was too obscure or too trivial to elicit some sort of answer (even though, according to Dr Rogers, ‘The three words I most often used were “I don’t know”‘), and most spare moments were filled with questions and answers. They taught us about the trees, the plants, the other wildlife in the woods; about orienteering and telemetry; about the principles of data collection and the methodology of wildlife biology; and, above all, inexhaustibly, about bears.

This was just as well. The more we were taught, the more chance there was that the data we collected could be used – an important consideration. Not all of the year’s 86 Earthwatchers had made lasting contributions to bear science, as a look through their notes confirmed. Some had proved incapable of keeping up with the bears (Earthwatch holidays don’t seem to attract as many outdoor types as you might expect). Others had proved incapable of obeying simple instructions to note specific, quantifiable information in a coherent way (Earthwatch holidays do seem to attract more than their fair share of woolly-minded animal sentimentalists and animal rights enthusiasts). None the less, even when the duds had been discarded, that still left an impressive volume of valuable data.

‘We’re right on the verge of cranking through the computer a lot of stuff,’ said Dr Rogers, with obvious satisfaction. ‘In a year’s time, I’m going to know a lot about bears.’

I came away knowing more about bears than years of biology lessons at school had taught me about the whole of the rest of the animal kingdom. I also came away feeling privileged: privileged to have watched such a remarkable scientist in action – a scientist whose success owes as much to his physical hardiness, woodcraft and good bear-side manner as to his intellectual capabilities; and privileged to have been so close to such a remarkable and likeable species. The psychology of bears remained – for us and probably for Dr Rogers as well – a mystery: no matter how much we looked into their dark eyes, we could not tell what lay beneath. But it seemed an attractive mystery.

My overall impression was that black bears are contented creatures – one reason why they make such good company. Their extraordinary physiology (which is attracting increasing interest from scientists concerned with human health) allows them an easy life. In harsh environments like Minnesota they have half the year off, hibernating from early October to early April. And all they have to do in the other half is plod around the forest during daylight hours and eat (which is what they like doing best), with frequent breaks for dozing. Cubs, which are born in January (during hibernation), are tended and taught by their mothers until they are 17 months old and devote much of that time to playing; bears of all ages seem to retain a playful spirit. Adult bears sometimes exchange threats and growls with other bears of the same sex, when they bump into them, but actual fights are rare. Though they are wary of other bears, their only real enemies are humans, who kill them both accidentally (by destroying their habitat or by running them over with cars) and deliberately. Bullets account for more than 95 per cent of adult black bear deaths.

In British folklore, bears are as likely to be cuddly as ferocious. In American folklore they are almost exclusively ferocious. This is because American folklore makes little or no distinction between grizzly bears – big, short-tempered predators which live, in ever decreasing numbers, in open, mountainous country in the wilder western states – and the smaller, more timid, more numerous black bears, which live in wooded country in most parts of north America.

Few Britons have ever considered what might be the best way to react in an encounter with a bear. Most rural Americans, on the other hand, have been taught that all bears are dangerous and untrustworthy and that the best thing to do if you meet one is to shoot it. Administrators of national parks, terrified of liability problems, go out of their way to emphasise the possible dangers of close encounters with hears. And thousands of macho hunters have further spread the myth that black bears arc fearsome beasts.

The truth is that black bears are timid animals who pose scarcely more threat to hunters than grouse do to grouse-shooters. In some respects their timidity is touching. One of Lynn Rogers’s more surprising, discoveries, for example, is that black bears always try to stay within scampering distance of white pines, which, because they are firm-barked and easy to climb, they treat as security trees – rather like security blankets. At the slightest hint of perceived danger (which usually means another bear), up they go.

Like all animals, black bears need respect. The most placid domestic dog will snap if sufficiently goaded, and so will a bothered bear, with more spectacular results. But in at least 99 cases out of 100 any bear that was able to would run away from a potential conflict with a human being rather than fight. Sadly, few Americans believe this, and all too many black bears are still being gunned down in a spurious ‘self-defence’.

The basic good nature of black bears was vividly illustrated when a group of mildly inebriated Earthwatchers, celebrating the end of their stay, bundled what they took to be Gerry out of the laboratory kitchen late one night. One of the girls followed the bear out and spent several minutes playing and wrestling with it: at which point she noticed that it had no radio collar. Far from being Gerry, it was a perfectly ordinary, wild, non-habituated bear – and none the less friendly and playful for that.

The slightly less appealing qualities of human nature were equally vividly illustrated by a piece of news that reached me shortly after my return to England. Just a week or two before going into hibernation, and just five miles outside her usual territory, Terri was shot. The hunter claimed that he had not seen her radio collar. Jake and Charlie, who do not wear radio collars (since they were always with their mother, they didn’t need to), disappeared and have not been seen since. Dr Rogers hopes that they may turn up at the laboratory later this year. Whether they will make it through the winter, though, without a mother to show them how to hibernate, is anybody’s guess.

© The Observer 1992