One of the first rules of interacting with bears in the wild is to not get between a mother and her cub.
So what do you do when a mother grizzly drops her cubs off with you to babysit?
Charlie Russell found himself in this unlikely situation a few years ago, in Kamchatka, Russia.
“She was a very protective mother and she was very vocal about it,” he said.
“She was the scourge of the valley. She was scary.”
But even protective mothers have to put food on the table.
After seeing how Russell treated other cubs, the grizzly decided to leave hers with him for a bit while she went out to hunt.
The Canadian naturalist was in Russia conducting a study on living among grizzly bears.
He was also raising some cubs he’d rescued from a zoo.
The remote area was a sort of bear sanctuary, especially once Russell arrived and began patrolling the area in his plane.
Russell estimates that there were more than 400 grizzlies living in the park.
If you went out for a walk, you were more or less guaranteed to run into a bear.
In a normal 15-minute flight down the river during the summer, Russell would often count up to 125 bears fishing.
On one particular flight he spotted the park warden out poaching bears.
The man lost his job as a result, but it was meddling like this that ended up getting Russell kicked out of the country.
Russell first encountered bears while working at his family’s ranch just outside of Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta.
Russell’s father was fascinated with nature and brought his sons into the wild to create an amateur documentary on the grizzly.
This was back in the early 1960s and the bears weren’t protected at all – not even within national parks.
Russell was surprised to find the bears behaving quite differently from what he had expected, given their reputation.
For starters, they didn’t seem to be erratic, bloodthirsty killers.
They were quite the opposite.
The bears appeared to be “intelligent, peace loving and playful,” he said.
As Russell took over the running of the family ranch he decided to do a little experiment and let the bears wander onto his land.
It was no small ranch.
Russell had more than 300 head of cattle.
And yet not a single animal was taken by a bear.
“I started realizing that it’s not their problem, it’s our problem,” he said.
“And just by understanding them better, people can live safely with bears.
He first put this theory to the test by opening up a bear-viewing business in BC.
It was kind of like working as a hunting guide, only the guests were there to admire the animals instead of kill them.
“I was using my clients as guinea pigs I guess,” he said.
“My insurance agent was very pleased when I decided to quit.”
He quit because the Great Bear Foundation asked him to go and check out the poaching of brown bears in Russia.
Russell decided to go there to do a study.
“I wanted to live with a lot of bears and see what would happen if you were kind to them,” he said.
“I think the only reason that bears are dangerous is because of what we do to them and how we treat them.”
He wanted to answer two questions:
Are grizzly bears unpredictable?
And are they inherently dangerous if they lose their fear of people?
The assumption that the answer to these questions is yes is often used to rationalize the killing of bears that wander too close to civilization.
Fortunately for the bears, Russell found the opposite to be true.
He set up in a remote park on the Kamchatka Peninsula, in the far east of Russia, just north of Japan.
And he returned every summer for the next five years.
He also brought some friends with him.
Russell rescued cubs from a zoo in the area.
The zoo was in pretty rough shape and set up in such a way that children could actually reach in between the bars and pet the cubs.
So, once the cubs got big enough to hurt anyone, the zoo got rid of them.
At first they told Russell that they were sending the cubs to a zoo in Moscow, but a little digging revealed that the bears were being killed.
He managed a deal to buy a few of the cubs and took them south with him.
At first he helped feed the bears until they were large enough to hunt and forage themselves.
He led them to berries and down to the river to teach them how to fish.
Even without parents, the young bears managed to build their own dens for the winter.
And when Russell returned the following Spring they all trotted out towards him as if no more than a day had gone by.
Many experts told him that raising grizzly bears was extremely dangerous.
There would come an age, they said, when the bears would become unpredictable and aggressive.
But after six years, Russell experienced no problems.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be cautious.
Russell always carried bear spray with him (which he was forced to use just four times) and surrounded his cabin, plane and young cubs with electrified wire.
This is what separates Russell from Grizzly Man, Timothy Treadwell.
Russell met Treadwell and told him that he was concerned that he wasn’t taken more precautions while working with bears.
The two didn’t part on good terms.
And in 2003, Treadwell and his girlfriend were killed and eaten by a bear.
Russell is a soft-spoken man who is both very serious and matter of fact about his life with grizzlies.
But ask him if he ever named his bears and he’ll become a little more wistful.
“Oh yeah, I named some of them,” he said as a smile crept onto his face.
“The cubs all had their names. Biscuit, Chico and Rosie were the first three.”
Then came Gina, Guy, Buck, Wilder, Malish and others.
Watching him reminisce about living with the giant animals, some of them for up to six years, off and on, makes the story that follows hard to tell.
Russia was in a state of disarray after the fall of Communism, which allowed Russell to fly under the radar when he first arrived in the mid-90s.
After six years working there, he was forced to leave.
Russell came back the following spring to discover that all of his bears had been illegally killed by big game hunters.
The outfitter that operated just outside of the national park had waited until Russell left, and then snuck in a number of rich American clients.
They even used Russell’s cabin.
Being used to benevolent human contact with Russell and his assistants, the bears didn’t stand a chance.
It wasn’t just the cubs.
Russell befriended a few local bears during his time working in the park – like that protective mother.
“A lot of those bears were killed too,” said Russell.
“It was so devastating.”
Russell decided to return and film a documentary for the BBC to share his work and expose what had happened.
This film, The Edge of Eden: Living with Grizzlies, will be shown at 1 p.m. December 13 at the Westmark Hotel Ballroom.
There will be a $15 fee.
Russell now plans to work more with people then bears.
“My project was more of a sociological experiment than a biological experiment,” he said.
“I found that the reason bears are dangerous is because we’re rough with them.
“Our bear management is creating dangerous bears.”
Contact Chris Oke at firstname.lastname@example.org