Sunday, May 24, 2009

"Bear Haven"- Just My Two Cents...

OK, another Alaskan has managed to make national news and we're not talking about our media pursued governor. We all love Sarah but we do wish she would stay off of the television more.

The person I'm talking about is Charlie Vandergaw. In case you haven't heard, Charlie has been feeding wild bears out in the Timbuktoo at his remote cabin and basically making them his personal pets. Despite a state law and good sense that prohibits feeding bears or any other wildlife. He has named his property with the rather ridiculous moniker "Bear Haven". Wonderful. Another news story about an Alaskan doing something stupid in the woods. Timothy Treadwell and Chris McCandless don't really count since they weren't Alaskans- they only perished here but it colored the news for a while all the same.

Charlie has been doing this (self admittedly) for about 20 years and I first heard about him in about 2000 or 2001. Back then he was the subject of a couple of local news "human interest" reports and I believe an Anchorage newspaper article sometime around 2005 or 2006. That was about it. Charlie went off the radar for both the public and apparently for law enforcement. Alaska has a peculiar knack for turning a blind eye to the harmless, law-breaking kook as long as no one is getting hurt. The further in the boonies you go the more prevalent this attitude is. Not that law enforcement here needs any defense from me, but this is a big darn place with some folks bent on mayhem. Those folks get priority attention without argument from almost anyone.

All went well for Charlie for a few years. He or some friends would load up on Sam's Club dog food and Wal Mart stale cookies (reportedly 10,000 lbs and 800 lbs. last year; respectively), pack it all into a bush plane (owned by Charlie and a buddy) and fly it out to "Bear Haven" and give the bears a snack. For the less informed this process is called "food habituating" wildlife. Bears are incredible survivors and exceptionally intelligent. If Charlie is giving out food, they're going to accept.

Some video I saw years ago showed Charlie with bears (unusually both black and grizzly who seldom tolerate each other in their presence) milling about the cabin and getting fed dog food, some even performing "tricks" for a stale doughnut or cookie. It was a remarkable number of bears for the Interior, where bear densities run relatively low. Bears are normally solitary animals in the Interior; on the coasts during salmon runs bears will congregate around salmon streams when food is abundant. Its not really a chummy kind of affair, but rather a group of bears grudgingly getting along for the sake of getting a piece of the action. Point being this- a dozen bears in one location in the Interior is just not normal occurence.

Charlie's food bill must have been getting astronomical because this rather reclusive retired wrestling coach started taking a financial interest in the bears. One of his friends started a company that specialized in "bear imagery"- ostensibly for the commercial purpose of feeding the growing and competitive tourism market for bear photographs, videos and the like. It's an industry that's often as hungry as a bear itself for such things. Getting great bear photos shouldn't have been a problem with a dozen or so milling about in the yard.

Then came Firecracker. A British film company who showed up to do a documentary on Charlie and an Animal Planet sort of thing called "A Stranger Among Bears". Some serious money was starting to change hands now with an expense fee of $76,000 being paid at some point to Vandergaw and his pals. State law enforcement personnel were starting to sit up and take notice- what started out as a harmless kook out in the Bush with a "pet" bear (illegal but not particularly noxious in the realm of crime fighting) was starting to look a lot like an organized effort to exploit Alaskan wildlife for financial gain. Or exploit Charlie. Or both. The fallout of Treadwell's death and resulting investigation of his fundraising (often called exploitation of his wealthy celebrity donors by critics) activities to "protect" Alaskan bears from poachers in the middle of one of the most protected wilderness areas in the state makes some officials wish they'd have sent Treadwell back to California in handcuffs rather than a body bag.
A common view is that his wealthy patrons might have been harder on him than the bears. The perpetual stain left on the Alaskan psyche by having the fruity and misguided Treadwell munched upon by bears (as well as girlfriend/ companion Amy Huguenard) despite numerous warnings by ADFG/NPS to leave the bears alone is a big one. It is held by many that legal action may have preserved Treadwell's life and certainly Huguenard's (or at least prolonged it while he fought it out in court) and that was enough to ignite a response from authorities regarding Bear Haven. It has long been held as public opinion that a human death is inevitable at Bear Haven. A early Craig Medred column in ADN noted the ridiculous level of danger in such an enterprise. A common expression upon hearing of Charlie's recent warrant among locals was-"He's not bear scat yet?"

Charlie had admitted being "slapped around" by the bears on several instances in the past as well as "knocked out". But when video of a visiting cameraman being bitten by a bear surfaced, law enforcement's benignly myopic eye focused squarely on Charlie and Bear Haven. Their intent was pretty simple- shut down this ridiculous operation before someone gets killed or severly mauled. The injury at Bear Haven is reported as minor. A severe bear mauling is not- I'll leave it to your imagination and Google prowess to see the difference.

State Troopers have charged Charlie and his accomplices with 20 counts of feeding wildlife and have seized the plane used to transport the 5 tons of dog food out to the Susitna Valley in the last year. Charlie could face a $10,000 fine and land a year in jail if given the maximum sentence. His accomplices have been charged with other crimes and the future of "Bear Haven" is looking pretty grim at this point. Lest the reader think the state is going hard on Charlie, bear in mind (pun intended) that within the Anchorage area you will be cited for exactly the same crime for poorly managing your municipal garbage can whether you intend for bears to find it or not. Believe it or not ADFG and the Troopers get no pleasure for having to gack garbage bears with a twelve gauge shotgun when they take to foraging through housing developments. If you encourage that kind of thing they're going to make it pretty unpleasant for you because as cuddly as bears look, they are dangerous when attempting to cohabitate with humans.
Hell, bears don't even cohabitate that well with each other.

So the final chapter is still being written to the story but I'll give you my take. Charlie is a nut who's lived in the Bush too long. Despite the opinion of some Alaska residents that this is a case of THE MAN cracking down on poor old Charlie and killing freedom as we know it in the Great White North, I still think the whole bit was just daft. I'm not smart enough to explain anthropomorphism, but this poor guy is ripe with it. Whether it was Charlie or his buddies that first introduced the financial element into the picture, that action was purely scandalous without respect to wildlife in this author's opinion. I also think the media industry willing to pay big dollars for such patently misguided actions is partially to blame as well. It's unclear to what degree money or notoriety fueled Charlie's decisions but a national network's profit motives are pretty clear and historically encourage the less balanced among us to repeat what made someone else famous. While I don't really think jail is appropriate in this case I do hope the judge gets creative with sentencing and puts them all under the gavel hard for such a stunt. Hopefully Alaska's bears will benefit somehow.

What about the bears? Just exactly what do you do with roughly two dozen severely food habituated bears. When I say "food habituated" I mean almost tame, but only almost. Given the bears bold behavior around Charlie and his feeding program I give these bears a zero percent chance of survival in the wild. If folks in Alaska communities are approached by a bear acting like these do- the response is typically a bullet. ADFG , law enforcement and individuals kill dozens of nuisance bears every year in Alaska. Bears who, for the most part, have simply started associating humans or their residences with food and can't be dissuaded. If caught in the act early enough, "garbage" bears can be driven off and learn to avoid humans via bear spray, cracker shells or rubber buckshot. Severely food habituated bears who won't take the hint are typically killed with a rifle or shotgun. Capture and relocation of nuisance bears is costly, dangerous and since Alaska has an abundance (or over abundance in some eyes) of bears seldom attempted. Just how food habituated are "Charlie's" bears?
Well these bears aren't just associating a dumpster, garbage can, or sloppy campsite with food; these bruins are basically hand fed and are associating humans themselves directly with food. What happens when the Gravy Train (pun intended) stops and one of these bears wanders a few miles and approaches another human boldly looking for a bowl of kibble? My guess is it will involve gunpowder and end badly for the bear, the human or both. Also keep in mind these aren't some recently displaced juvenile bears making an exploratory foray into the wonderful smelling dumpster for the first time. Some of these bears were born at "Bear Haven" and have been hand fed the majority of their life. I think the chances of dissuading these bears from human interaction is terribly futile at best.

The more I think about this little Northern debacle the worse taste it leaves in my mouth. We have at least one man who has a sad and remorseful love of wild things gone terribly awry. We have at least one injured cameraman. We have at least one person (and one major network) seeking to profit from the exploitation of taming the wild and humanizing the animal. We have state resources now being funneled into what basically equates to a freaking three ring, nationally broadcast, circus. Lastly we have a couple dozen bears caught in a tough place- not tame enough to live with people and not wild enough to live without them.
Most will likely die because of it.

Thanks Charlie.
Author's note- The photo at the beginning was found using Google Images without a photo credit attached. I freely give photo credit to whoever took it. You can see more Bear Haven images and read more at


me said...

Great post. I saw a story about this only this morning. I think most of the world looks at wild animals as people with fur. Although I think people are more like animals without.

Have a great Memorial Day Weekend, or whatever is left of it.

The Suburban Bushwacker said...


Really great writing fella, the more i read of your blog the more I like it. I thought your coverage of the issues was very fair, and wittily put too, which never hurts.


tom said...

When I lived in Colorado, a bear took a liking to a rancher friend of mine's livestock and his children's pets. He actively discouraged the bear to go away.

The state relocated it THREE times and the same one came back and snacked on family pets and livestock some more. He, grudgingly, ended it with license from the state with a .300 WinMag. And this is a bear that had been actively discouraged by EVERYONE to go back to the national forests to the point of darting and physical relocation but he knew where easy food was.

I was there once at supper for a conversation Curt and wifey had with daughter one time about why she couldn't get another dog. "That dang bear is just going to come eat it anyway."

I can't imagine how big an idiot this fellow must be.

native said...

Excellent editorial and one which mirrors my exact sentiments.

Timothy Treadwell should have taught us all a little better through his very own self indulged, and delusional imagery of life with wild things better off left wild!

David Cronenwett said...

Hey Mike,

Great piece. Advocates for wildlife and wild places need to speak up about irresponsible morons like this who do nothing positive for the critters they claim to love. The fascination with bears is so deeple embedded in human culture, that it doesn't surprise me there are still Treadwell-types out there doing stupid things with them.

Episodes like this are not doing much for the image of the fine state of Alaska, either, as I'm sure you are aware! Take care.
David C

Othmar Vohringer said...

It's folks like the guy in your article that are directly responsible for human and wildlife incidents caused by gullible people believing the garbage these "animal lovers" say and write.

Hubert Hubert said...

Great, finely-written post, Hodgeman. The Treadwell film was a horror flick from start to finish and your take on this latest incident is very well stated indeed.


Anonymous said...

Great writing, but I disagree. The way I see it, man and nature should live together in harmany and thats exactly what he is doing. I know its not the smartest thing, but he knows and accepts that. If he wants to spend his life in the alaskan wild with the original settlers (being the bears) let him. I saw the documentry on animal planet and what I saw was a man doing what he liked. Kind of like having a beer with your friends, except he was going on a canoe ride with bears. Leave him alone.

Nils Lien said...

The funny thing with you Americans, is that you all too often are much more like communists than any Russian or Chinese: You just can't stand individuality, nor freedom of choice if it ventures beyond your own narrow idea of the concept. Anyone not in compliance is labeled "nut" or "crazy" and is free to be ridiculed, harassed and prosecuted. Be it individuals, groups - and even other nations.
And the "funny" thing is you think you're doing good deeds while you're at it. - As the Alaskan officials is doing in this case. It bears all the signs of classic psychopathic behavior. - Nice...

- Get well soon, with love from Norway.

hodgeman said...

I've published Nils comment but I have to wonder if its a commentary about Alaska wildlife or American foreign policy? I'll let the reader decide...