Charlie Russell, a Canadian naturalist who lived among wild bears in the hopes of demonstrating that they are not aggressive and unpredictable creatures, has died at the age of 76. His brother Gordon tells Neil Genzlinger of the New York Times that the cause of death was complications following surgery.
For more than a decade, Russell and his then-partner Maureen Enns spent several months each year in a cabin on the Kamchatka Peninsula, a remote part of eastern Russia. The bears there came to know the couple, reportedly stopping by their cabin to see if they wanted to go for a stroll.
“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,” Russell told Moon Magazine in 2013. “In fact, the more we abuse bears, the more angry and unpredictable bears become—with good reason.”
Russell was born in Alberta, Canada in 1941. His father, Andy Russell, was a prominent conservationist, according to Bob Weber of the CBC. In 1960, Russell and his brother accompanied their father to shoot a documentary about a white subspecies of black bears in British Columbia. As Genzlinger reports, the bears largely ran away from the trio—until they decided to leave their rifles at home during filming. Russell came to believe that the animals realized he and his family members were not threats when they did not have their guns.
“Everyone thought of the bears as being ferocious and aggressive, willing to kill at any moment,” Russell said in his interview with Moon Magazine. “But I came to see them as peace-loving animals who just wanted to get along.
“This, of course, wasn’t the normal response to the bears. Then, and now, we live in a hunting culture that pretty much requires vilifying grizzlies. We don’t kill them for food, so we have to justify killing them indiscriminately.”
In the hopes of testing these theories, Russell sought to find a secluded location where bears had historically been isolated from humans. Kamchatka, which had been blocked off to civilians during the Cold War, offered the perfect spot. Starting in 1996, Russell and Enns would fly to Kamchatka and live there for several months in a cabin surrounded by a light electric fence.
There, the couple began to form relationships with individual bears. Russell told Moon Magazine that he and one female, for instance, used to go salmon fishing together.
“I would help this bear find salmon with my binoculars,” he said. “I could spot the carcass of a salmon, floating belly-up, hundreds of meters away on the lake surface. I’d point or throw a rock in the direction of the fish, and the bear would start swimming toward the splash. As she swam, she’d look back so that I could correct her course, and she’d eventually end up with the salmon. We did that over and over again. It was such a stunning experience of trust and cooperation; it was like a dream it was so beautiful.”
Documentary footage of Russell shows the naturalist lounging next to bears, calling them to his side, and playing with them.
Some wildlife officials criticized Russell’s methods, saying that he was encouraging people to behave recklessly around dangerous animals. In the CBC documentary The Edge of Eden, Russell acknowledged that there is “no question that these animals are dangerous.” But he believed his research proved that bears want to get along with humans, and are pushed to aggression by violence perpetrated against them.
“If you live a long life like they do, 25 years of negative experiences with humans, eventually they don’t like you very much,” he told Shaw TV Nanaimo in 2013.
Unfortunately, Russell’s time in Russia ended in tragedy. In 2003, Russell and Enns arrived in Kamchatka to find that most of the bears they had formed relationships with were gone, presumably slaughtered. According to Andrew Meier of Outside, a bear gallbladder, which is consumed in some countries as a health remedy, had been tacked to the wall of the couple’s cabin—a warning sign that, as Genzlinger of the Times reports, Russell had run “afoul of criminal elements and corrupt politicians tied to bear poaching” in Russia.
Russell was devastated by the incident, fearing that he had made the bears easier targets by teaching them to trust humans. But Larry Simpson of the Nature Conservancy of Canada tells the CBC’s Weber that Russell’s work in Kamchatka has led to a more profound, nuanced appreciation for bears’ complex character.
“He probably understood grizzly bears better than any human being who ever lived,” Simpson says. “He certainly changed my thinking about the depth of intellect that must be there among those animals.”