Photo of Bear Biologist Lynn Rogers (left) and Naturalist Charlie Russell
This morning the sky was so clear and the birds were singing as I made my way down to the river to take in the pre – dawn splendor. Three kinds of grosbeaks were singing up the sun and hummingbirds zoomed in great arcs outside my window.
Little did I know that I would soon learn that one of the kindest and most sensitive men in the world, a truly dedicated naturalist and bear advocate had died.
In world renowned Bear Biologist’s Lynn Roger’s words taken directly from his website…
“Yesterday, May 7, bears and bear lovers lost Charlie Russell (76), my friend of many years. We learned from each other. We both learned directly from bears. He lived with bears. He fought for bears. There was nothing about bears we disagreed about. Charlie was one of the few people in the world who spent enough time with bears to really know them. It was always uplifting to talk with him or be with him. I remember the great time with him in June 2013 in the woods here with Lily (a wild bear) and the great talk he gave at Vermilion Community College that evening. I remember how he flew to Minneapolis on his own dime to defend me in the DNR hearing of 2014. We’ve talked several times since, and I’d been wanting to call him lately when I heard the news today. A (great) loss.”
(Lynn’s license to study collared bears was suspended in 2014 because his groundbreaking trust based research was changing the face of the black bear from voracious killer to a reclusive, shy, and very intelligent animal, and this dramatic shift of awareness threatened hunting, state agencies that support the killing of animals, and the NRA).
I never met Charlie but I read all of his books and watched the extraordinary documentary that Jeff and Sue Turner filmed –The Edge of Eden– so many times that I began to feel I knew this man intimately – and today, learning of his death – I am filled with grief. Charlie loved bears, allowed them to teach him how to live with them, learned to communicate with them on their own terms – not his – and demonstrated to the rest of us how compassion and care – giving towards wild animals can lead to intimate relationships between humans and non human species and at the same time allow bears (and by extension other animals) to remain free to live their lives in the ways that mattered to them, not people.
Charlie’s life was dedicated to answering his own question: How can humans learn to co -exist with wild bears in peace? He demonstrated how easily this could be done because bears by nature very sensitive, shy, and intelligent animals who want to get along with humans if only we would let them.
Charlie spent many years in Russia re-introducing captive grizzly cubs into the wilderness ‘proving’ that living with grizzlies was possible if one developed the proper trust based attitude. In every sense of the word Charlie was a devoted “bear mother” who demonstrated what could happen if humans approached bears with the respect they craved.
Like this naturalist, Charlie once naively believed that he could change the way bears were perceived. For the most part he was unsuccessful in this laudable endeavor.
(The most difficult lesson that I have learned in my own work with bears is that humans don’t want to change the story. We want and apparently need to continue to see bears as killers so that we can continue to slaughter them).
My sense about Charlie is that after having lived his entire life as a dedicated bear advocate, that in part, he may have died of a broken heart.
I also suspect that today wild bears know about Charlie’s death and are grieving because they lost such a fierce and gentle advocate and a most devoted friend.