State investigating man who lives among wild bears

Alaska authorities are moving to put Bear Haven out of business

Posted: Monday, November 17, 2008

ANCHORAGE - Just beyond the freezing waters of the Susitna River 40 miles north of Anchorage, Bear Haven is already cloaked in the white silence of the long Alaska winter.

Gone back to their dens in the wild are the two dozens bears that visited Charlie Vandergaw's Yentna River homestead over the summer. Off to their studios across the ocean are the filmmakers who came to document the life of the retired Anchorage school teacher who has for decades chosen to spend his summers cohabitating with wild bears.

Long unhappy with Vandergaw's intimate relationship with wild Alaska bears, state authorities are moving to put Bear Haven out of business. Vandergaw has already been cited for feeding bears, but the charges levied against him next could go much farther.

"An investigation is ongoing," said Alaska assistant attorney general Andrew Peterson.

Peterson refused to reveal specifics, but the investigation appears to center around Richard Perry, an English filmmaker who was bitten in the leg by a bear while filming at Bear Haven this summer. Perry is at work on a multipart series about Vandergaw and his bears for "Animal Planet," a cable-television network.

Perry said he didn't think the bite all that significant, but it left visible teeth marks in his lower leg and required first aid. Peterson said state investigators have interviewed Perry.

Other attorneys say state prosecutors could use the attack to charge Vandergaw with reckless endangerment, a class A misdemeanor with a possible sentence of up to a year in jail, a $10,000 fine or both. State law says someone is guilty of this crime if he "recklessly engages in conduct which creates a substantial risk of serious physical injury to another person."

Vandergaw's attorney, Kevin Fitzgerald, said he has been given no hint of what action the state might take against his client. Vandergaw has offered to cooperate with the investigation, Fitzgerald said. He does not want to make trouble and, Fitzgerald added, "there are things here I would think the government would be well to consider."

Vandergaw, 70, did not return phone calls.

This summer Perry from "Animal Planet" and Australian TV's "60 Minutes" were at Bear Haven. The latter just happened to be there when Perry was bitten and subsequently posted a story and photographs of the bite on its Web site.

Aussie reporter Liam Bartlett also solicited a confession from Vandergaw about the dangers unique to his homestead.

"I've been slapped. I've been knocked unconscious. I've been T-boned by large bears and knocked to the ground and had a hard time getting up," Vandergaw told the reporter. "I've been thrown to the ground by bears, but it was in no way that any of those was an all-out attack. I guarantee I wouldn't be sitting here today if a bear had given me an all-out attack."

Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials have long lobbied to have Bear Haven shut down not only for the danger posed to Vandergaw and the visitors he invites there, but because of the bad example set.

"It's really problematic," said Anchorage area biologist Rick Sinnott. "Breaking the law is bad enough, but that fact he's gone international with it. ... and advocated it. ... that's really a bad message to get across to people."

In an interview with a Daily News reporter at Bear Haven in the summer of 2006, Vandergaw said he believes bears are mainly misunderstood. Though he admits those that visit his homestead are wild and potentially dangerous, he also sometimes slips into using the word "friend" when referring to them.

Vandergaw argues that he's just an old man living with some unorthodox friends far from anyone and hurting no one. He dismisses the idea that his bears - which not only are fed and conditioned to tolerate humans but in some cases trained to enter buildings - are any threat.

Vandergaw admitted to the Daily News that he is addicted to the bears. He told Australian television audiences he'd keep doing what he's doing even if it became deadly dangerous.

"Well, what do you want me to do?" he asked. "Say I want to die wearing a diaper in a nursing home? If I'm capable of having wonderful, exciting, happy days creating this place and playing with these bears, who's the winner? Am I like some sorry sucker who happened to work until he's 70 in an office. Is that living? No, I beg to differ with you; that's existing. I live out here. Every day is wonderful out here."

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