Charlie Russell, an Alberta naturalist who spent decades trying to teach people to live with bears rather than fearing them, died on Monday in hospital. He was 76.
“The bears of the world have lost their best friend,” said Mr. Russell’s brother Gord, speaking from the cabin overlooking Waterton National Park in Alberta where the two lived.
Mr. Russell, son of the renowned conservationist Andy Russell, was raised in the foothills of southern Alberta. He grew up to be rancher – until 1960, when his father took him and his brother to help shoot a documentary on bears.
“It was a big adventure for me,” he recalled in a 2013 magazine profile.
The family travelled widely in search of grizzlies. Over the course of the shoot, young Charlie discovered something important.
“Everyone thought of the bears as being ferocious and aggressive, willing to kill at any moment. But I came to see them as peace-loving animals who just wanted to get along.”
The idea of discovering more about these compelling creatures by living with them came to dominate his life.
He began experimenting with ways to co-exist on his ranch, then rented out his land to become a full-time guide for the first company in Canada to offer grizzly eco-tours.
Eventually, he raised enough money to undertake an even bolder move.
For several summers starting in the 1990s, Mr. Russell lived in Kamchatka, a peninsula in eastern Russia that is rife with bears. Living in a cabin reachable only by plane, surrounded by a lightweight electric fence, he set about living companionably among some of the most feared predators on the planet. He was accompanied by Maureen Enns, his collaborator and partner at the time.
Their experience resulted in four books as well as feature documentaries on PBS and the BBC.
“What I learned from my experience is that grizzly bears – even adult males – are not unpredictable, and losing their fear of humans does not make them dangerous,” Mr. Russell later said. “In fact, the more we abuse bears, the more angry and unpredictable bears become.”
But Mr. Russell learned a bigger lesson, said Kevin van Tighem, a long-time friend and former superintendent of Banff National Park.
“He got to know bears as individuals, as a species capable of forming relationships. Charlie was one of those few people who don’t assume that human beings are what it’s all about.
“It goes to placing humans inside nature.”
Mr. Russell’s time in Kamchatka came to an abrupt end in 2003. He showed up at his research station that spring to find spent ammunition on the ground outside and the gall bladder of a baby grizzly nailed to a wall in his kitchen, as a warning.
He searched in vain for two months for any trace of the bears he had been studying, which he believed were shot by poachers. Bears’ gall bladders are a valuable commodity in Russia and Asia.
“The bears were killed so we would go home,” he told The Globe at the time, adding, “It is a brutal ending to our research.”
Mr. Russell approached nature not as a scientist looking for data, but as an observer looking for life, said his friend Larry Simpson of the Nature Conservancy of Canada.
“He probably understood grizzly bears better than any human being who ever lived.
“He certainly changed my thinking about the depth of intellect that must be there among those animals.”
Alberta Environment Minister Shannon Phillips praised Mr. Russell’s contributions. He fought to end the grizzly hunt and for the creation of Castle Wildland Park, soon to be named for Mr. Russell’s father, Andy.
He also influenced Ms. Phillips’s recent decision to loosen restrictions on raising orphan bear cubs.
“That kind of thoughtful advocacy was very helpful to me,” she said. “He was patient, he was kind.”
Mr. Russell changed a lot of people’s thinking about living with wildlife, Mr. van Tighem said.
“I think he’s had a great influence. We can’t go back from where Charlie’s brought us. We’ve learned too much.”
And, perhaps, about more than wildlife.
“If you’re going to approach learning about bears that way, it really affects the way you’re approaching life and nature in general,” Mr. van Tighem said. “There’s a great deal to be learned from that.”
Charles Russell was born on Aug. 19, 1941, and grew up in the woods of southern Alberta. He was the second of five children in the family. His father, Andy, had been working as a backcountry guide for wealthy tourists when he married Kay Riggall, his boss’s daughter. Andy went on to become a noted author and filmmaker, whose “passionate concern for the preservation of the wilderness” was noted when he was named to the Order of Canada in 1976.
Charlie recalled in his book Grizzly Heart that his father bought him his first gun before he turned 10, and when he was a teenager he began working as a guide for hunters of big game.
“The first clue that I wasn’t cut out for it was when I started wondering how my clients would like the chase if they were the ones being hunted,” he wrote in Grizzly Heart. “I told Dad that I liked the animals more than the wealthy hunters, and ended my career as a professional guide after one year.”
Gord Russell has only one memory of his brother interacting with bears. His voice grows stronger as he describes it.
“We were sitting on the porch and the bears came to visit. We had one that would come right onto the porch, not trying to put a paw on us or anything but just being there. [Charlie was] welcoming and calm, not particularly talkative.
“They’d be here for a few minutes before they went on with earning a living. They don’t take too much time for social stuff.
“It was fantastic.”
With files from The Globe and Mail
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