Alaska 'bear man' ready for his international close-up

Posted: Monday, January 28, 2008

ANCHORAGE - Alaska could have a new international celebrity: a nearly 70-year-old retired school teacher who has spent the past two decades hiding from the public eye in an effort to conceal his intimate love affair with a large gang of black and grizzly bears.

Courtesy Of Alaska Department Of Fish And Game / Anchorage Daily News
Courtesy Of Alaska Department Of Fish And Game / Anchorage Daily News

After the existence of Charlie Vandergaw's Susitna Valley bear farm was revealed in the Anchorage Daily News last spring, the former high school wrestling coach decided to come clean with his unbelievable story.

British documentary filmmaker Jon Alwen spent 51 days with Vandergaw at the farm last summer. His hour-long documentary, which aired on television in Great Britain earlier this month, provides an up-close view of Vandergaw's life with a collection of black and brown bears that are treated more like, and sometimes behave more like, family dogs than bears.

Except, of course, when the family dog puts its paws on you they usually aren't on your shoulders, and even if they are, they aren't tipped with four-inch-long, razor-sharp claws and the dog's head doesn't tower three feet above yours.

Alwen filmed a scene like this and others equally shocking. Vandergaw, however, said the young filmmaker "didn't even get the best stuff."

What Alwen got is nonetheless jaw dropping.

"The Man Who Lives with Bears" will be shown in the U.S. on ABC's "Primetime: The Outsiders," although no date has as yet been set, according to London-based Firecracker Films. There's a trailer up on YouTube.

The film appears to have both shocked and fascinated British TV critics.

"The Man Who Lives with Bears ... really does," wrote Tim Teeman of The Times. "They come into his garden, eat from his bucket and occasionally bite him. It didn't mean to be a sweet programme - the bears are quite ferocious and Charlie was a dedicated recluse - but he was fascinated by them, and (unless it was just the food) they by him. Only Kookie, a female grizzly, proved resistant to his bear-whispering ways.

"Jon Alwen's film captured the desolate Alaskan expanse as well as the sheer strangeness of Charlie playing with the bears; astonishing when there are so many murderous bear-on-human attacks. Charlie is aware that his fascination could have fatal consequences, and his naivety and adoration are tempered with life-saving common sense. I do hope Kookie comes back and they become friends."

"The Man Who Lives with Bears ... offered another glimpse ... of a man whose actions push the boundaries of sanity," observed Gerard O'Donovan of the Telegraph. "This intriguing documentary followed retired schoolteacher Charlie Vandergaw. ... How he's survived this long is anyone's guess."

In a telephone interview earlier this month, Vandergaw said he hasn't read the reviews nor seen the film as yet. What people say - good or bad - about him and what he considers his bears doesn't, at this point, matter, he added.

"Have you Googled my name?" Vandergaw asked. "Every sort of vile thing that can be said has already been said about me. A lot of folks get their jollies at that. There are lots of pissant experts out there. I don't think (the documentary) will change anything."

Indeed, to date, there has been no noticeable effect. The media hasn't staked out Vandergaw's Sand Lake-area home, nor has the state of Alaska moved to cite him for feeding bears, though the video and pictures make it clear how he has managed to tame the sometimes savage beasts.

Dog food might be even more effective as a reward in training bears than in training dogs, according to authorities on bears. And Vandergaw has been feeding them dog food in significant quantities for years in violation of state law.

"There's a law against feeding bears for a very good reason, and that is to protect people and to protect bears," said Doug Larsen, director of the Wildlife Conservation Division in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "This is clearly a violation of that law."

Vandergaw questions this, noting that a state "bear control" program this year opened Game Management Unit 16B to unlimited feeding under the guise of "bear baiting." And his bear farm is in the heart of Unit 16.

Vandergaw argues that the feeding encouraged by the state in order to draw bears out into the open to be shot is far more distasteful than what he is doing.

Still, he admits, that because the documentary shows bears in his cabin "I'm probably going to be blamed statewide for any cabin that gets marauded."

Larsen and other state wildlife biologists see that as the least of the problems. More troubling, they said, is the likelihood it will fuel the desires of others to get up close and personal with Alaska bears.

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