The following appears in the January issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY CHRIS COCOLES
Like boxers trying to psyche out each other before meeting in the ring, they made eye contact with one another.
At one end, the 1,400-pound “king of the mountain” was calm, collected and seemingly ho-hum about what was to transpire. Twenty-two feet above, on the edge of a rickety dirt bridge and attached to a rope, is a 138-pound challenger – heart pounding, repeating, “OK. OK. I’m ready. I’m ready.”
The 1,400-pounder grabs his end of the rope and a most unlikely tug-of-war lasts 28 terrifying seconds before the smaller competitor is yanked off the bridge and dumped hard – face first – into the water.
Chrissi, a 31-year-old marathoner, Army veteran and pediatric nurse from New Jersey, emerges from the pond. She’s a bit shell-shocked, out of breath but relatively unscathed after taking on 19-year-old Bart, one of three grizzlies that were rescued as orphans and are now living in a Utah sanctuary.
If you’re curious about what would happen if human beings attempted to match up with one of the world’s apex predators, then Discovery Channel’s new series Man Vs. Bear has you covered (check out a new episode on Saturday night). The show features the three bears and the athletic Goldilocks taking on the bruins in challenges that range from the men and women pushing an 800-pound rolling log against Bart to an eating contest with a menu of typical ursine cuisine that Tank, a third bear at Doug and Lynne Seus’ sanctuary, prefers, to a makeshift obstacle course race with Honey Bump chasing from behind.
Casey Anderson, a bear biologist and filmmaker who provides analysis on the show, agreed to be a part of this project to, he hopes, educate the public.
“I’m representing the voice of the bears. I’m talking about what these bears are doing in their instinctual ways – their natural behavior. I’m giving anecdotes and analogies about what you’re seeing there and how it would apply in the wild,” Anderson says. “That’s what’s important for the show.”
THE MEN AND WOMEN – three per episode – who challenge the bears are without a doubt elite athletes who hold their own against their competitors. But make no mistake about who are the stars of Man Vs. Bear.
“Bart and Honey Bump were rescued by an Alaska State Trooper,” Anderson says. “Now they’re getting to be rock stars on the Discovery Channel. And that’s pretty cool.”
The bears’ caretakers, Doug and Lynne Seus, have a history of raising similar bears on their Utah ranch. Their first, also named Bart, was adopted in 1977 from a zoo and starred in several films, including The Great Outdoors, The Edge and Legends of the Fall.
After the original Bart died in 2000, Bart the Bear 2 and Honey Bump joined the Seus family from Alaska. The new Bart has become an A-lister in his own right, sharing the screen with Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild), Steve Carrell (Evan Almighty) and Matt Damon (We Bought a Zoo). Honey Bump and Tank also have film credits to their names.
“The original Bart the Bear was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood as far as animal actors go. And (the Seuses) brought these two siblings in, raised them, loved them like family,” Anderson says. “And they’re awesome and just having a great time doing what bears do in a unique and cool way.”
Which brings up the backlash the Discovery Channel and the showrunners were sure to get about the idea that the bears could be exploited as circus performers for the enjoyment of the audience.
“I think, first and foremost, we want to engage, surprise, and, of course, entertain the audience … but do it in a way that is uniquely Discovery,” says Joseph Boyle, senior vice president of production and development at Discovery Channel. “Discovery is always looking for ways to transport our audience into new worlds, and in many cases, help people experience and fall in love with the natural world and animals, and ultimately, learn more about them.”
Each episode starts with a disclaimer that the bears were rescued as orphaned cubs and could not survive if released in the wild. Man Vs. Bear also reminds that “Events are designed around the bears’ natural behaviors and play, and are supervised by Movie Animals Protected, providing the highest levels of animal safety and well-being.”
“In the series, we treat the bears like the stars of the show – because for us, that’s who they are,” Boyle adds. “Throughout every episode there is a ton of information about bears and bear behavior, but also information about each of the bears as individuals. Bart and Bump in particular have an amazing backstory, and all three bears have such distinct and interesting personalities. Once we started to get to know Bart, Bump and Tank and learn the things they like to do for play and exercise, it became the backbone of what the challenges would eventually be.”
That’s where the bruin expert Anderson comes in and puts the bear in Man Vs. Bear.
FROM THE TIME CASEY Anderson adopted a grizzly cub of his own shortly after graduating from college – Brutus, who was in danger of being euthanized from the wildlife park he resided at – this native Montanan has been something of a bear whisperer. He’s also spent plenty of time studying bears in Alaska, most notably when he spent two months living in a tent at Katmai National Park and Preserve.
His experiences in Alaska as a Lower 48 bear expert have taught Anderson a lot about the notion that, like you and me, all bears are not cut from the same mold.
“Part of something (different) about bears is that they’re so visual and kind of a product of how they grow up and how they experience life,” Anderson says.
“In Yellowstone (National Park), you encounter a grizzly bear and the fight or flight response of a bear is, you’re much more apt to get in a fight here. Bears are going to run away most of the time, but (in the Lower 48) they’re a little more hard-core ghetto. They’ve had a hard life and have been fighting with humans and wolves and things constantly down here.”
Contrast that with what Anderson gathered from his time spying bears in Alaska. He joked that many Alaska bears might as well be living the good life in an ursine version of Miami’s posh South Beach. “Chill” was one adjective he had for the bears’ disposition.
“They don’t have the lush salmon runs and all that stuff that some parts of Alaska do. It’s like the bears in Katmai; they are fat, happy bears and just in a different state of mind. They have an easy life,” he says. “At Katmai you can have a bear walk two feet away from you and not even give you a second look. You’re not even afraid of it. It’s because you look at it and they don’t even care about you at all.”
During his time cohosting Man Vs. Bear with play-by-play announcer and sportscaster Brandon Tierney in Utah, Anderson got to know Honey Bump, Tank and Bart. And in turn he discovered three very different personalities. “As different as you and me,” he says.
And that’s what has made his a rather extraordinary career studying these iconic predators. Anderson has been lucky enough to take visual, mental and written notes to himself in both Alaska and in areas closer to his Montana roots.
“Because they are very different in different places, you’ll see different things in Alaska than you’ll see from bears in Montana. But you’ll also see different things from bears in Denali than you would in Kodiak. You see different types of cultures. They all kind of grow up in a certain way and act a certain way. And they’ll react in specific ways for each of their cultures,” he says. “You start thinking about bears having cultures? It sounds ridiculous about something of a characteristic that we would give them. But you know what? It’s true. I guess all that does is open up your mind more to learn and realize that you’re sharing a planet with animals that are much more dynamic than we give them credit for.”
WHEN YOU WATCH THE big animals engage with their human opponents on Man Vs. Bear, it will likely dawn on you to wonder if Bart is simply playing or really firing himself up to take down that fearless man or woman on the other end of the rope.
But if you buy into what the show’s bruin savant is selling, it’s probably not a predictable answer. Like the bears themselves, it’s a complicated analysis. Take the event known as Brute Force, when the contestants attempt to roll those heavy logs as fast as they can until Bart pushes a heavier one to his personal finish line.
“I would say when (Bart’s) pushing a barrel, that is more of a playful thing, a game. He’s always kind of throwing his head around, and he knew he was going to get a reward if he could complete that course and get the barrel down the line,” says Anderson, who also noticed a bit of a change to Bart’s demeanor when yanking that rope against Chrissi, who beat the two men competing against her and has a chance to make the grand finale at the end of the season.
Bart struck a chord with Anderson when whoever was on the other end of the rope would “talk trash” and the bear began to reach for his side and started to pull.
“He would really pull hard and roar and scream. And you could see the switch in Bart; he’s like, ‘Oh, you want to play?’ And he’s gone in competition mode,” Anderson says. “It was almost this game of possession. ‘Wait a minute, dudes. This is my rope. I’m gonna take it.’ And you’d see this whole different level of energy. And you wouldn’t want to be at that end of that state of mind.”
But the bears? They’re all in for these challenges.
“Bart is representing the species. He’s 1,400 pounds and just a beast. And he’s having fun showing humans that they’re the top species of the competition,” Anderson says.
And for the humans – both the ones who take on the bears and those of us watching safely from our couches?
“For me, the only reason I signed up is I get the chance to talk to (an audience) that does not necessarily watch wildlife documentaries,” Anderson says. “And maybe they’ll learn something about bears. And that’s important. We’re not going to be preaching to the choir. We’re going to be talking to (new) people and maybe recruiting and getting them excited about wild places and wild things.” ASJ
Editor’s note: New episodes of Man Vs. Bear can be seen on Saturday nights on the Discovery Channel (check local listings). For more, check out discovery.com/shows/man-vs-bear. Follow Casey Anderson on Twitter (@GrizAnderson). The bears of Man Vs. Bear are also on Twitter (@BartTheBear3).