Den visits

Den visits

Update March 4, 2010 – 6:16 PM CST

Two den visits, and we have yet to see the cub.

Sue and I visited Lily’s den on March 2 when we saw on the den cam that Hope’s eyes were open.  Lily continued her motherly duties but kept an eye on me standing above her and on Sue leaning over her big camera.  Not a glimpse of the cub.

When Lily saw Sue’s ‘big-eye’ camera coming toward the den, she made a long, anxious nose, but calmed down when we spoke.  Without our speaking, Lily might not immediately recognize us from down in the den.  Our warm smell probably drifts upward, and our outerwear changes from day to day.

When Sue started video-taping the nursing sounds, I had to be quiet.  She was using a wide angle lens with the camera close to the entrance next to the den cam.  With Hope nursing, Lily couldn’t move, of course, but she looked at us periodically as we remained silent.  So each time she looked, I held out my hand as a friendly gesture, and each time she relaxed.  We want Lily and Hope to eventually ignore us.  We are still early in the process.

Yesterday, March 3, I continued that process.  I quietly video-taped for 40 minutes, lying where tracks showed the dog had barked at her a few days ago.  Lily looked at me with little anxiety.  I think she was mainly wondering if I brought grapes.  Hope nursed nearly the whole time but didn’t show.  You all might have seen her, but I was at the wrong angle.  When the nursing ended, Lily was free to move.  About that time, I turned off the video camera and moved to the den cam to pull it back a few inches for a wider picture.

As I loosened the duct tape, the PVC tube scraped in the snow, and the big reflective eye that lives in the tube caught Lily’s attention.  She immediately started to come out toward me, looking at me with a calm, trusting face.  I didn’t know if she was coming out because I moved the den cam or to see if I had grapes.  It was above freezing, but I was still surprised she came out.  She was maybe two feet away.  I showed her the grapes, and then placed six off to the side, hoping to then move in behind her for a video shot of the cub.  She went straight for the grapes but ate only two and moved on.  It was obviously not the grapes that had brought her out.

I wondered how badly the den cam had scared her and where she was heading.  Although she hardly paid attention to me outside the den, I wondered if I was contributing to any anxiety she might feel after the den cam disturbance.  I prematurely decided to leave as she stepped over the big log her den is under and walked around behind the den.  I should have re-evaluated and sat down with the video camera when she made a couple sweet grunts.  The grunts meant she was thinking mainly about Hope and would shortly go back in.  She looked down at Hope through a hole in the top of the den and accidentally knocked a little snow in.  I threw a couple unnecessary grapes in the den and started away, thinking it unusual for her to be outside the den and I didn’t want to disturb her further.  A few steps away, I looked back, and she was already back in.  In that short time, she hadn’t had time to urinate, defecate, or eat snow.

Sometimes it’s hard to understand the timid, wild mind of the black bear.  This was not the first time I’ve erred on the side of my worries.  When I got back to the Research Station, I saw the reunion recorded from the den cam.

I also saw your comments.  So many of you were right on with your assessments, especially those of you who have had extensive, close-up bear experiences of your own.  The astute sensitivity of your observations make me think the dedicated Facebook fans tend to be people with special sensitivities to animals.

Someone asked if I carry a gun or pepper spray.  No.  We don’t even think about being attacked.  Working closely with black bears, we have learned they are basically timid.  Our focus is building trust.  As Carl Adkins rightly pointed out in one of his posts, each new situation shows their timid nature.  We see that, too, so we give fresh assurance to them as new situations arise, such as our visits to Lily’s den.  Treats such as grapes are a universal currency.  Touch is a universal language, although we haven’t used that yet at her den.

How dangerous has all this proven to be?  I have been pushing the envelope for 43 years and have never had a bear come after me and hurt me.  A problem for me has been that I let my cautious nature keep me from realizing the truth about black bears far sooner than I did.  I’m embarrassed how long it took me to stop listening to experts who never spent time with wild bears and to see them with an open mind not clouded by fear.

At some point one to two decades into the research, I realized it was not all about me.  I began interpreting blustery encounters in terms of the bears’ fear rather than my fear.

Eventually, if a bear was blustery, I lay down, spoke gently, and watched their fear abate, especially at night when some bears have more confidence.  I remember an early meeting with cautious Shadow, the matriarch of the clan we study.  She was up a tree with her cubs, scared, for several hours before dark.  When she came down in the darkness and found me lying there with sunflower seeds, she cautiously approached.  Within minutes, from my prone position, I was stroking her head, neck, forelegs, and as high onto her shoulders as I could reach.  Shadow turned 20 in January.  Similarly, cautious old males weighing 500-700 pounds tend to be unusually trusting once they accept us.  Several of them tolerate us lying beside them and probing with stethoscopes to get heart rates.  So much of what we see is counter to most people’s expectations.

These males, and our research bears in general, have far higher survival in hunting season than one would expect in a statewide population where the average age in the hunting kill is 2 for males and 3 for females.

When we decided to let people see Lily and get a glimpse of our research methods, we knew many would be skeptical.  There is such a gulf between common knowledge and what we have found.  We realize it will be years before most people accept what you are seeing.  Acceptance will be especially slow in our litigious society where warnings about bears are legally safer than the more complicated truth.  As a step in that direction, though, the TV special and upcoming series on “Bear Whisperer” Steve Searles is worth watching on Animal Planet.

We know bears have killed people.  We knew Timothy Treadwell and have talked with Charlie Vandergaw (A Stranger Among Bears) and one of these days may discuss some of that and share our experiences with grizzly and polar bears.

As a final note, there’s a lot more to say.  Bear personalities differ.  Close contact with bears can be dangerous.  We don’t encourage people to feed bears, approach them, or do what we do, but in our experience, for research, our record speaks for itself.  Black bears are not the ferocious animals they are usually portrayed.  In our experience, that also goes for grizzly and polar bears, which we can discuss another time.

Thank you again for your contributions and help.  Special thanks to Amy Coker for sponsoring a picture for $1,500.  The plaque will read “Photo sponsored in memory of Linda R. Coker of Spartanburg, SC.”

—Lynn Rogers, Biologist, North American Bear Center