Bear attack video raises some hackles

Wildlife biologists call grizzly 'documentary' misleading and worse

Posted: Monday, December 29, 2008

ANCHORAGE - Put a TV soap star in a plastic box in the bear pen at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, tie a dummy alongside, turn loose the bears, roll video and what do you get?

A whole lotta controversy.

A storm of it has been building since a program called "Bear Feeding Frenzy" first appeared on the Discovery Channel.

State wildlife biologists call the self-proclaimed "documentary" misleading and worse. The bear authority who worked with the filmmakers says he got snookered. And some average citizens - taken in by the show's appearance of having been filmed in the wild - are outraged that television producers would be teaching grizzlies to attack lifelike dummies, tear into tents and break into SUVs.

"I was horrified as I watched this guy sitting in a 'predator proof' Plexiglas box ultimately train wild grizzly bears to maul a mannequin, break into a car and tear down tents while he is yelling 'hey bear ... hey bear!' What do you suppose will happen when one of these 'conditioned' bears steps out on a gravel bar with a hiker or fisherman who calmly tries to yield ground while saying, 'hey bear,'" said Alaska angler Jim Hamblet.

A regular visitor to Alaska, Hamblet was back home in Jacksonville, Texas, when he saw the show over his Direct TV satellite service Dec. 8. He had no idea he was watching three bears living in an 18-acre, fenced enclosure in Portage. Former soap star Chris Douglas - the man in the plastic box - narrates "Bear Feeding Frenzy" as if it were happening in the wilds of Alaska with many bears. Cutaways from the bears take viewers to various wild Alaska locations.

"I saw the Russian River," Hamblet said. "I saw what looked like Katmai (park). I've been both places."

Both have grizzly bears. Both attract tens of thousands of people every year. Both have witnessed bear attacks, but those attacks are extremely rare.

That is not the impression left by Douglas, the former Dylan Moody from "One Life to Live," when he places "my buddy Billy outside of the predator shield," and waits for the bears to come get the dummy. The lifelike Billy seems to be sitting, snoozing against the side of the plastic box the way an angler might take a nap up against a tree along an Alaska salmon stream.

"This large female seems undaunted," Douglas says as the first grizzly approaches Billy.

"There's another bear coming up," he says as the sow gets company. "We're no threat to them, and Billy's in trouble."

One of the bears rips off Billy's jeans. Douglas observes the bear's "claws are enormous."

Then the actor goes all bug-eyed as one of the bears starts thumping on the rib cage of Billy the Dummy before tearing him loose from his tether to the box and hauling his plastic carcass off into the brush.

"There goes Billy," Douglas says.

Larry Van Daele, the Kodiak area wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, happened to catch the video on TV with his wife one night and was shocked.

"That's not the way bears behave," said Van Daele, who oversees an area with the densest population of grizzlies in North America. He knows of no cases where a bear came up to someone snoozing along a stream and started ripping them to pieces.

"It's bad; it's really bad," said Anchorage area wildlife biologist Rick Sinnott, with Fish and Game. He spent the summer countering bear-anoia in Anchorage after the city's first ever grizzly bear attacks. The attacks injured two people, but in neither case did a bear drag anyone off to make the mess of them that was made of Billy.

"Yeah, what a stupid program," said Tom Smith, a professor of wildlife at Brigham Young University in Utah, a former bear researcher for the U.S. Geological Survey in Alaska, and the man who served as the bear consultant on Frenzy. Smith appears in the film at times with Douglas in the box. He regrets it now.

"It seemed innocent enough, and then they put it together," Smith said. "There is some hokey stuff in there. On the one hand, you want to do some good; on the other hand, you get burned. It was kind of a bad deal."

Smith said he wrote an angry letter to producers of the show, Gurney Productions in Hollywood, after he got a look at what they had done and told them that if nothing else they needed to let people know "this was filmed at the Wildlife Conservation Center."

Letting wild bears attack lifelike dummies, or serving the animals food choices as Frenzy also does, would be "unethical if not illegal," Smith said.

Feeding penned bears and offering them dummies is just misleading, right down to that attack on Billy.

Mike Miller, owner of the conservation center and the bear keeper there, said he knew from the get-go what was going to happen to poor ol' Billy the Dummy. The bears were going to grab the dummy and play with it in the way they play with anything put in their enclosure. They did the same with a tent put in there with Billy the Dummy inside.

"They were (initially) afraid of the tent," Miller said. "But once they're assured it's nothing that's going to harm them, they're not afraid."

At that point, the tent just becomes another object the well-fed animals can entertain themselves with, said Miller, who was on-scene supervising the bears for all five days of the Feeding Frenzy shoot. He didn't want the bears getting hurt, and he had some concerns about the "predator shield" - as the plastic box was called.

"It was well constructed, but I was worried about it getting rolled around like a dice," Miller said. "So I was there with the tractor, and it has the loader bucket on it. I knew that if I was in there with the loader, they (the bears) would back off. They don't like vehicles."

"Bear Feeding Frenzy" never even hints at this nearby safety precaution. Instead it talks about people and bears at the Russian River, then cuts away to Douglas in the box saying he's waiting for bears to show up in the evening dimness.

"I'm on a definite bear trail right here, too," he says.

Miller said he had some reservations about the set-up for the show from the start, but Discovery is supposed to be a legitimate network, and the filmmakers had Smith on board.

"When I heard about the plastic box, that made me a little nervous," Miller said. "Most of the time, we won't film with bears and people. But as soon as I knew that Tom Smith was involved, it sort of relieved me of the idea that crazy stuff was going to happen."

Smith, who was vacationing at a summer home on an island in Skilak Lake when approached about participating in the film, said he thought he could help make the project into some sort of useful presentation on how people should deal with bears.

What got made, he said, wasn't even close to what he had in mind.

Film producer Gurney Productions in Hollywood did not return messages left with the company.



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