I was channel surfing last night when I stumbled across a new Animal Planet “reality” series. I had always thought that Timothy Treadwell had an extremely bizarre relationship with bears. However, he had nothing on Charlie Vandergaw.
Six months out of the year, Charlie Vandergaw lives by himself in the Alaskan Bush. He’s a former wrestling coach and science teacher, and he’s a bit of an experienced naturalist and outdoorsman. However, while living in his cabin, he has a somewhat hazardous (and illegal) hobby.
He feeds the bears.
Now, as everyone who saw The Grizzly Man knows, Timothy Treadwell got very close to Alaskan brown bears. He often got very close to them, but he seemed to know when to back away. He also didn’t feed them.
And Vandergaw has vast swarms of black and brown bears milling around his cabin at all hours of the day. This is a disaster waiting to happen. Indeed, it is far worse than Treadwell’s case, simply because the bears are at such high densities. Further, they associate him with food-. Timothy Treadwell didn’t have that problem, and a bear killed him and partially consumed him. How Vandergaw has survived twenty years of bear feeding is beyond me.
Alaska now has very strict laws against feeding game. The most recently passed law on game feeding has penalty of a $10,000 fine and up to a year in jail for anyone whose feeding of a game species increases the risk of injury to another person. We know that feeding bears makes them associate people with food. If a person does not have food, what is to stop the bear from taking the person as food? Also, bears have very short fuses. If one becomes frustrated because it cannot have food, it is very likely to take its frustration out on a person.
Just this March, Vandergaw was cited by the Alaskan authorities on 20 counts of illegally feeding game. 20 counts.
Now, Vandergaw lives in the remote Alaskan Bush when he’s feeding these bears. How do the authorities know that he’s even feeding them?
Well, here’s the deal–Vandergaw has had film crews at his cabin. I don’t know why he thinks this is such a good thing. It’s a bit like a marijuana grower (who doesn’t live in California) having the local news crew over to show off his crop. He’s just giving the authorities reason to come down on him. And he’s likely to be found guilty.
From what I’ve seen of this man, he’s not got the Steve Irwin demeanor, but I think that deep down, he wants to be the next Steve Irwin. And if he gets a high profile case, all the animal lovers and libertarians will come to his defense. (The libertarians already have. Apparently, they don’t realize how dangerous it is for people to feed bears. This is a public safety issue.)
And he’s not the only one they have on this channel.
You have Dave Salmoni, who I call the Farley Mowat of the lions, who actually has had two series on the channel in which he interacts with a pride of wild lions outside a vehicle. He is an animal trainer who was part of the “Bengal” tiger “rewilding” project. (None of the cats was a Bengal tiger, and none of them went wild. They can be found at a for-profit, private zoo in South Africa.)
He does know the big cats and their behavior. However, I think he’s going to push his luck one of these days. Wild animals are not that predictable– especially male lions that are protecting their lionesses and cubs.
It seems that Animal Planet is in search of its next Steve Irwin. Steve Irwin taught me some interesting things– mainly Australian slang and that sometimes it is a good thing to get so filled with joy that it becomes infectious. (I noticed that Vandergaw uses Steve’s wonderful word “muck,” which is used as a replacement for f-bomb. That should tell us much.) I don’t think I could tell you the names of the lizards he’s captured or the names of all the snakes.
He also got a few things wrong. I remember one episode about introduced animals in Australia in which he claimed that feral camels were of no consequence ecologically. That simply isn’t true. They eat lots of vegetation, which causes erosion. They do have soft feet, but that does not mean that they don’t cause erosion through their movement through the deserts. They also ruin waterholes with their feces, and camels do compete with native species for water resources.
But that really doesn’t matter, I guess.
I used to turn to the only qualified biologist on that channel– Jeff Corwin. He had a show very similar to Steve Irwin’s, but unlike Irwin, Corwin actually knew what he was talking about. He was also something of a comedian. Too bad that an elephant nearly bit his arm off. If that had not happened, he probably would still have a regular show on Animal Planet.
The best program that Animal Planet ever had of this sort, though, has not been on for a very long time. I remember watching a show called The Nature Nut— a pun on the fact that the host’s name was John Acorn. This man knew what he was talking about. He was humorous (at least in my definition of humorous). And he didn’t do extreme things. And you gotta love the theme song! It was a show designed for children, but it was very educational.
I also remember another good show on the Discovery Channel called In the Wild with Harry Butler, which was kind of like Steve Irwin’s show– just without the all bombast and sometimes incorrect information. Harry Butler is still alive, and he currently does environmental consulting for petroleum and mining companies. Okay, that’s why that show isn’t on anymore. We can’t have people actually engaging industry to find solutions for environmental problems. We have to have people doing dangerous stunts with wild animals.
I remember many years ago when Marty Stouffer was found to have staged many scenes in his series called Wild America. He also did some animal fight scenes that were a bit on the edge of illegal. But at least he didn’t feed the bears or try to live with a pride of lions. He also didn’t try to “rewild” tigers that were of the typical crossbred circus variety in continent in which they were not wild. What he did was tame in comparison. I also remember reading about how all the wolf biologists threw a fit about Farley Mowat’s book Never Cry Wolf. But that book isn’t 100 percent off-base, which is more than you can say for many nature shows today.
Good nature programming is hard to come by. It’s all becoming counterfeit, but what’s bothering me is that we’re becoming used to the counterfeit. But the only reason why it’s becoming counterfeit is that the vast majority of Americans never really get to experience nature. Nature is what passes them by on the interstate as they drive from one contrived piece of concrete to another. Nature is what they see on TV and in movies. Nature is what they read about in the works of Henry David Thoreau and other romantics. The truth is nature is not something to be subdued as our European ancestors once believed. It is also not something that exists without pain and dying. Yes, we must learn to live with nature and not against, but no, we really do need to know that bears will kill us if the opportunity is right.
Update: Before spouting off about a certain tiger documentary, please read this.