Gay A. Bradshaw, an American psychologist known for her exploration of animal trauma recovery and wildlife self-determination, had a series of long conversations with Charlie Russell over 9 years that built the foundations for her book ‘Talking With Bears’.
Late Canadian naturalist Charlie Russel (19th August 1941 – 7th May 2018) spent most of his life studying bears in Kamchatka Peninsula and North America, rewilding orphaned bears and educating the public with the intent to dispel the rumours surrounding the omnivores he studied.
His experientially acquired understanding of not just bears, but nature, had him elected by a wild bear he named ‘Brandy’ to look after her cubs whilst she would run important errands and this empowered his advocacy for coexistence with bears.
Although he is discussing non-human animals, Russell’s anecdotes are laden with lessons about ourselves as individuals and our collective connection to nature and become multi-faceted in their potential for application to various aspects of our own lives. We decided to focus on a particular story Charlie tells us: the death of a Russian bear researcher Vitaly Nikolayenko.
Charlie And Vitaly
Vitaly Nikolayenko was in many regards a Russian equivalent of Charlie.
Despite coming from a non-academic background, he had copious notes detailing bear habits and behaviours that bore great significance for what we know about bears. The public, whether or not they agreed with it, also regarded him as an individual welcomed by wild bears. One particular bear he was famous for photographing was Dobrynya, whom he would sit down and dine with from time to time.
When Charlie was first introduced to Vitaly, the two got along very well and it quickly became clear to Charlie that Vitaly was an astute observer of bears. In addition to this, the unforgiving climate of Kamchatka required a ‘wilderness-canny’ mind to navigate which Vitaly had without question.
He was undoubtedly an intelligent and disciplined man. He was able to reconstruct events immediately, even if at a distance through binoculars. For example, one time the two were walking, he was able to correctly interpret bounding tracks descending a snow covered mountain and tainted with blood, as a male bear having chased and eaten someone else’s cub.
Over time, cracks in their relationship stemmed from operating on different ethical frameworks, until it finally reached a breaking point. A dramatic feud between the two erupted whilst working on a project, where Vitaly wanted a couple of cubs killed ‘because they had become dangerous from “habituation”’ until Vitaly’s boss unexpectedly arrived to override Nikolayenko’s intervention.
Charlie was convinced this was a stunt born from jealousy, an attempt to destroy the project and Charlie. The project was soon complete and everyone needed to head back home.
Nikolayenko, continued to photograph bears whilst waiting for the flight home since a few had not yet denned for hibernation. When the helicopter finally came to pick up everyone, Vitaly Nikolayenko was nowhere to be found. A search party was sent out.
Eventually, Vitaly’s corpse was found and identified. The scene consisted of an intact skeleton whose flesh had likely been picked by stellar eagles, with a broken skull. Charlie had talked to one of the investigators who’d worked on the case of Vitaly’s death at length.
Vitaly’s notes alongside various tracks, were enough to tell the full story. Vitaly was trying to get close to a bear, similar to the now deceased Dobrynya, in order to photograph it. Tracks had shown the bear had performed several bluff charges, a bear’s way to say ‘leave me alone’.
The bear tried to lose him through the alder thicket. Vitaly continued pursuing, struggling through the alder thicket into the bear’s day bed, a massive invasion of privacy. Having warned him repeatedly and running away to a personal space, the bear had bitten Vitaly’s head once and left his body (hence the lack of broken bones).
The bear had run 3-4 kilometres immediately afterwards, despite being in pre-hibernation season where energy is a valuable resource. The bear knew killing the man was wrong.
Due to the victim’s unnecessary provocation of the bear made apparent in the investigation, local authorities decided not to relocate or kill the bear.
The Books Recurring Principles
The Realisation – Understanding Vs Knowing
Charlie believed that knowing a lot about bears is one thing, but how this knowledge is used is another. Its basis distinguishes ‘knowing’ from ‘understanding’. Understanding, to Charlie, meant experiencing and appreciating the world from another’s perspective without a presupposition of superiority to the subject, enabling oneself to be transformed by this knowledge.
Charlie acknowledges that non-human animals are more acquainted with the necessity of being right (an alignment with some form of tangible truth), because being wrong often means you’re dead. The truth comes in two parts, understanding it, then accepting it.
Charlie believed Vitaly used the ‘insights for his own purposes’ and since this was his focal point, he would listen to his ego rather than the bear, neglecting the truth and therefore acting in a way nature deemed to be wrong, resulting in an otherwise avoidable death.
It would therefore be sensible for us to absorb new information with previous convictions aside, with the idea that we could be wrong being firmly intact. If a situation arises at work hindering productivity, having our suspicions as to what is causing it is ok, but we may hinder ourselves if we progress with blinkers and even when evidence suggests you are wrong, to push forward regardless.
Being Fear-Informed Vs Fear-Determined
Non-human animals can’t make the right decisions if they don’t have the appropriate information. Charlie argues that fear is one such source; being fear-informed keeps you cautious and therefore listening, allowing you to act in accordance with the circumstances that present themselves to you. On the other hand, fear can hijack your perspective into a fear-determined state of mind.
The more Charlie paid attention to Vitaly’s relationship to bears, he’d observe several off-key notes Vitaly had with bears. Firstly, when visiting Charlie, he was nervous around the young cubs and they didn’t like him much, strange given they were at ease with most people.
Secondly, and more obviously, Charlie had convinced Vitaly to swap his means of protection, from firearms to bear spray. Upon returning a year later, Vitaly had revealed 4 cans had been fully depleted. Charlie had carried but a single can and it went unused for 4 years, using it only when an encroaching male bear was threatening cubs Charlie was rewilding.
Viewing bears as mindless killing machines that kill unpredictably is refusing to acknowledge bear sentience and psychological vulnerability. This perceived image, according to Charlie, is an unfounded fear-determined view teeming with ‘wrong thoughts’, which will lead to wrong actions that create more “problem bears”.
It’s a narrative that fulfils its own prophecy and spirals in a downwards direction due to it being fear-determined. When you are unable to distinguish the useful information fear is providing from the irrational, your ego’s ambition will try to triumph them at the cost of understanding the vitality of the useful information. Obeying his ego, Vitaly had ignored what was vital, undermining all he had achieved.
Do you find yourself avoiding numerous opportunities, be it social, work, hobby or relationship related? It could be time to identify these things and confront them with an openness – to potentially understand them – to then wield the information fear can provide into progression, rather than harbouring it with unconscious obsession to your own regression.
The Relational Approach vs The Objective Approach
Although Vitaly was an intelligent man, fully capable of understanding the bear’s communications towards him, he arguably acted as if he wasn’t having an impact on the bear – a glaring contradiction to what he knew and how he acted. In ViItaly’s defence, this attitude was prevalent in the scientific community.
According to Charlie, bear biologists would manifest this ideology of an ‘objective’ approach through concerted efforts to render themselves invisible to the bears they were studying in order to have no effect on them. This resulted in poor handling of bears, using bear traps at the base of rubbing trees that grizzlies would frequent and wrestling a collar onto their later sedated selves. In Charlie’s own words “trying to do this is like standing in a room full of people with your eyes shut and saying you’re alone”.
Embracing the relational approach allows your understanding to have a function in helping a relationship come to fruition. If a child and parent were very close, who would know the child better: a scientist who has a biologically mechanical understanding of a child resembling a PhD, or the parent? Although the latter could be of some assistance, it would be difficult to argue that the former is of higher significance.
If you’re in a role with any authority or managerial elements, choosing to deny the impact your presence undoubtedly has on others, may damage your chances of understanding your team because you are likely trying to understand them through means that are inappropriate to your position.
This is all the more crucial when tasked with solving an issue that stems from your associates. Acting in an overly pally way to extract honesty and then punishing them for what it is they confess, or alternatively punishing people because no one will pipe up to communicate the issues to you directly, will both alienate the workforce against you.
They may not be comfortable expressing particular opinions to the manager, especially if they rarely see you or perceive you to be the person who can strip them of their livelihood.
The Value Of Fitting In
‘Getting along means fitting in, knowing who you are – your place – and how to live without causing a lot of trouble for everyone else’
Charlie had discovered ‘fitting in’ to be crucial in and out of the bush. He achieved a paradoxical union with bears by acknowledging that although he may be human on the outside, he was obligated to be bear-like inside. This meant he had to ditch any notion of being intrinsically superior to the individuals he wished to connect with.
He criticised the typical human attitude he’d regularly encounter, asserting that man is smarter or above nature, fortifying an illusion of being separate to it. ‘He pursued bears to get close up photos, and when he got too close, he’d use the spray’. Vitaly wouldn’t listen to the bears, he’d listen to his ego and maintain his human privilege, expecting them to give him what he wanted regardless of what they wanted.
“There needs to be mutual respect and caring for others. You can’t have a positive relationship if you want to control someone. But this doesn’t mean you have to like everyone… i can guarantee that not all bears liked me, but they were respectful”
If you’re having a dispute with your team at work, a friend, or loved one, we need to be aware of the dynamic at play. If all the problems appear to be on the other individual, then it is likely you’re not seeing consequences of your own behaviours (even if it’s one fractional) and thus you may need to contribute what it is, or how much it is you contribute to the relationship. It is also a good opportunity to analyse your intentions behind it – if you were to honestly announce your motivations to a loved one as to why it is you’re with them and you suspect it would break down the relationship, it is probably doomed unless the the intention is rewired or the relationship is sadly disposed of.
Charlie’s long life was the proof in the pudding for the principles he’d advocated for and G.A. Bradshaw related his anecdotes into an accessible format that accentuates the vast number of ways we can apply the truths he’d stumbled upon.
Perhaps you can begin to look at various aspects of your own life through everything discussed here because in realising the ways that we are inseparable from nature, we can begin to learn so much more from it, even from bears.
Please note: Any details mentioned without further explanation were to hint at Charlie’s credibility, to which we sincerely hope you feel inspired to delve into via the ‘resource’ section.
Also, nothing mentioned about Vitaly Nikolayenko is intended to libel the dead, it is from the book ‘Talking With Bears’ and aims to add a lacking perspective on the events of his death. It is recommended to read several sources on any topic mentioned.
- Charlie has been the subject of two television documentaries: Walking with Giants: The Grizzlies of Siberia (PBS, 1999) and Bear Man of Kamchatka (BBC, 2006).
- ‘Talking with Bears: Conversations With Charlie Russell’ by G.A. Bradshaw: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Talking-Bears-Conversations-Charlie-Russell/dp/1771603615
- Charlie Russell’s website: https://charlierussellbears.com/
- The Book’s author (G.A. Bradshaw): https://gabradshaw.com/
- A lecture from the man himself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fsodp_TeG24&ab_channel=CreativelyUnitedforthePlanet
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