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Eye to eye with a grizzly

Try looking in to this little muffin's eyes. What do you see?

Try looking in to this little muffin’s eyes. What do you see?

There’s something… magical about looking deep into a bear’s eyes. It’s not what you think. It’s not scary or full or fear. It’s quiet, thoughtful, and contemplative even. Of course there are times when encountering a bear can be scary and fearful, but those aren’t the moments that you’re looking deep into a bear’s eyes either. The moment that I’m talking about isn’t one that most people will ever experience but it is one that profoundly changed the way I see grizzly bears and I think it’s worth sharing.

Disclaimer: I don’t think you should ever try to hold eye contact with a grizzly bear for long, especially in a situation that could be confrontational. Maintaining eye contact can be interpreted by the bear as a sign of aggression. But there are times, when I’ve had the opportunity to look into a bear’s eyes for a few seconds and it’s amazing.

My first time

My Master’s project involved working with grizzly bears in the K’tzim-a-deen Inlet in northern BC. I was examining the potential impacts of boat-based viewing tourism on grizzly bear behaviour and visitor perceptions of impact. My field work was one of the highlights of my life so far – I basically sat in a boat and watched bears all day. When a tour boat approached, I recorded what the bear did in response. During those two summers, I came face to face with several grizzly bears. Sometimes, when we went into the estuary to see which bears were around and what they were doing, we’d end up being so close to grizzlies that I could hear them breathing, hear them chewing on the grass, and look into their eyes.

The first bear I cam eye to eye with. Isn't he gorgeous?Just saying hi.

The first bear I cam eye to eye with. Isn’t he gorgeous?Just saying hi.

A grizzly bear’s eyes seem small in comparison to the rest of their furry face, their beady brown eyes would look up at me through the long blades of grass with a calm curiosity or even disinterest. The first time I really looked into a bear’s eyes was with an adult just sitting in the willows of the estuary, water dripping from his lips after a short drink. He looked right at me with a calm curiosity. His eyes just seem to say: “Oh. Hello there. I was just chilling here on the banks. What are you up to?”

While I can’t say that there was trust there, that bear and I definitely had a mini-conversation through our eyes and came to an understanding that it was all good – we weren’t going to bother each other and so there was no point in either of us acting out and causing a scene. He held my gaze until I looked away, a few seconds later.

After that moment, I saw those bears in the K’tzim-a-deen differently. Their eyes were more kind, relaxed, and curious than I had previously assumed. They weren’t just hungry carnivores sizing up their next meal, their eyes revealed that were thinking and making decisions on how to behave and that they weren’t just automatically prone to violence at the sight of a human.

Bears in Banff

With my PhD work, I don’t ever get the opportunity to make eye contact with a grizzly bear. When I encounter one on a trail, I avert my gaze and avoid direct eye contact so it doesn’t perceive me as a threat. Most of the time though, I’m either seeing them roadside (like everyone else) or on my cameras. I don’t really get the few seconds in a safe situation to chat with a bear through eye contact.

Last week, I went into the field with Parks Canada resource conservation staff to check on their bear traps. Parks is using a few culvert traps to catch grizzly bears so they can be fitted with GPS collars. We had a bear in our first trap of the morning and I was pretty excited. My colleague approached the trap first and told me that it was a grizzly bear in the trap, but it was one they had caught a few days ago so he already had a collar on. I approached the trap slowly and quietly and for a brief second looked inside. The bear looked at me with his light brown eyes and said:

“I’m sorry. I know I was just here two days ago, but I couldn’t resist the deer leg. Thanks for coming to let me out”. (Probably in the voice of Eeor from Winny the Pooh).

"I'm sorry. I got stuck again."

“I’m sorry. I got stuck again.”

In his eyes, I saw embarrassment and maybe a little shame that he’d been caught again, as well as some gratitude that we were there to let him out. In my eyes, I tried to reflect that it was ok, we were going to let him out soon and a little gratitude for not him being too upset with us. (Whether or not the bear reads what I say in my eyes is almost immaterial. If I put out the vibe that it’s ok and this will be over soon, he can “hear” that. It’s all about body language and tone). When we opened the trap, he just sauntered off into the forest and gave us one last apologetic look over his shoulder before he disappeared into the forest.

To be honest, I was chuckling to myself all day. Here is this grizzly bear who has been caught in these traps more than once now and he just looked so sorry about it. Granted not all bears have this reaction to being in a trap and not all of them are sorry about it at all. Sometimes they can be down right upset and angry.

But my point is that there is emotion there; just as any dog or cat owner will tell you they’ve seen in their pets. In those brown eyes there is a story. It’s strange for a biologist to be writing a post like this that anthropomorphises bears in this way, but anyone who says bears don’t have feelings or aren’t thinking just hasn’t had the opportunity to look into those brown eyes for 2 seconds and say “Hi”.

With one last look over his shoulder, he disappeared into the forest. "Bye bye little guy".

With one last look over his shoulder, he disappeared into the forest. “Bye bye little guy”.

Try looking at bears differently

We often jump to conclusions with bears and these conclusions can lead us to react from a place of fear when we see one. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You too may have an opportunity to look at a bear differently. Next time you are viewing a bear on the roadside from the safety of your vehicle and you are close enough, look into its eyes for a moment. Just put your camera lens down and look at that bear. Watch is move through the area, watch is smell the bushes, look into his or her eyes. What’s his or her story? Maybe they’re just grazing dandelions in the ditch or sniffing around for some berries, but when you look into that bear’s eyes what do you see? I guarantee you’ll see a whole lot more than you expect.

The thing about bears is that they are complex beings with big brains. They think. They react. They consider. They decide. They learn. All of those things can be seen in a bear’s eyes. So take a moment, open your mind, and have a look… but don’t forget to tell the bear a little something about you too. Look into his eyes with kindness and patience and see that reflected back at you.

One of my favourite bears from the Khutz. After watching her for hours over two summer, we got to know each other little by little. In my data she was GF1 (grizzly female 1) but to me she was and will always be Scruffy.

One of my favourite bears from the Khutz. After watching her for hours over two summer, we got to know each other little by little. In my data she was GF1 (grizzly female 1) but to me she was and will always be Scruffy.

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