Russell’s journey with grizzly bears began all the way back in 1961 when he and his brother and father produced a film about the animals, when they were barely even protected.
“We have this amazing, powerful animal, especially the grizzly bear, and we’ve never done a very good job of living with them,” he explains.”What I saw was an animal that seemed like a peace loving animal; it wasn’t this ferocious animal that we tend to talk about all the time and that got my interest going.”
In all his years studying the bears, he’s come to the conclusion that if they are respected and treated as intelligent beings, they can co-exist with humans without conflict. He spent 18 years sharing his ranch on the border between Alberta and Montana with the bears, during which he says he didn’t lose a single animal to them. He then went to Kamchatka, Russia, where he aimed to disprove two myths about grizzlies: that they are unpredictable, and that they are dangerous if they ever lose their fear of humans.
“Those two questions are very problematic to the bear, because how can you really live with an animal that will just turn on you for no reason?” he asks. “This has been the death of so many bears over the years.”
He spent 12 years there in a place where he was their only interaction with humans, without interference that could skew his findings. The trust he was able to build with the animals was so strong that females felt comfortable enough to leave their cubs with him to babysit.
“They would take advantage once they learned they could trust me,” he says. “It showed that these animals that we consider the most dangerous animal in the mountains that we could meet, they aren’t naturally that way. We make them that way with our harsh treatment of them all the time.”
He argues that by hunting grizzlies, the only experience they have with humans is violent, so they can’t trust us.
Russell will be presenting his work in person at the Lido Theatre on October 15. He will focus on how humans create danger around grizzly bears, because as he says, “If we’re going to hunt them, we’ve got to accept that danger. If we don’t want that danger, then we have to change the way we treat these animals.”
He admits it won’t be easy to change the way humans think about grizzlies, but he hopes those who attend his seminar leave looking at the animal in a more open, different way to change their behaviour around them.
Russell’s talk will begin at 7 p.m. Tickets cost $10.