Exploring Grizzly Bears with Casey Anderson

Brutus and caseyI get a lot of stuff from National Geographic (thanks Minjae!) but the day job keeps me busy and I never get to devote as much time to it as I should (note to self – do better).  A couple weeks ago, I got the screener for EXPEDITION GRIZZLY, the story of Casey Anderson living among the bears, understanding their natural habitat.  It was one of the most intriguing specials that I’ve ever watched.  This is the story of Casey Anderson, living in the habitat of the grizzly bears, learning what they do, why they do it, and just explaining, to the world, these creatures that he loves!  NAT GEO is airing a special encore presentation tonight – in honor of the show, I asked Casey, the man with the 800 lb grizzly bear best friend Brutus, just a few questions about his life, and why he wanted to do this special!

Did growing up in Montana contribute to your becoming a wildlife naturalist, as they call it?  
Growing up in the Montana wilderness, I have been fascinated with animals from the day I could walk.  My father is a mountain man, so we spent as much time in the mountains as possible.  This led to many interactions with wild animals.  I just wanted to know more and was driven to explore and learn.  All of my life, from the time I was 5 years old, I was always bringing home wild animals.  I even made a wolf cub into my pet. 

Where did the interest in the Grizzly population come from?
I have been working with wild animals professionally since I was a teenager.  I have worked with grizzly bears more exclusively for the last 15 years.  I’ve gotten to know many bears over time living in both the captive and the wild.  They are the same creature living in very different worlds.  I was tired of seeing exploitation and abuse in the captive world.  There are so many grizzly bears in the captive world that have no other option, but can have a wonderful purpose.  So it was our hope to give bears “stuck” in captivity a great home by building a sanctuary for them, and more importantly an opportunity to be ambassadors.  Just being in their presence demands attention, and once we have the public’s attention, we educate them, and help try and save the grizzlies wild cousins through appreciation and education.

People traveling or living in Yellowstone country stop in at our sanctuary to see these awesome bears.  It’s the perfect chance to teach the very people who interact with their wild cousins on a daily basis, and make a difference, and save both grizzly bear and human lives. 

How did you meet Brutus?  I’ve seen the pictures with you holding him as a baby, but don’t know much about the history / how that came to be?
Brutus was born in an overpopulated wildlife park, and had no option for release.  I rescued him from being euthanized when he was just two weeks old – he was so small, he looked like a fuzzy twinkie!  I hand raised him and bottle fed him, and later I built a sanctuary so he could live like a regular grizzly.  A natural performer, Brutus was comfortable around people, making him a perfect assistant to teach park visitors about grizzly anatomy and conservation.

Do you get a lot of “how does that work” from people who hear your best friend is an 800 lb Grizzly bear?  
Yes, absolutely.  But I treat Brutus like a grizzly bear, not a pet.  He spends 90% of his time just being a grizzly at the sanctuary, hanging out with the other four bears there – swimming and digging in the ground.  When we play and wrestle, it can “hurt”.  But it’s not vicious or harmful on purpose.  All that being said, our “play” has resulted in a few broken ribs…my ribs that is. 

Best ManI love Missi [Pyle, actress from a million different things, specifically CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY] – always nice to see her pop up in whatever role she’s playing, and your weddings pics are lovely!  I get a kick out of the fact that Brutus was your best man! Was Missi welcoming of the idea of Brutus in your life?
Her first reaction was, “how are we going to do that?”  Brutus did attend my wedding, but for obvious safety concerns, he did not walk down the aisle.  He would not have made a great ring “bearer.”  But after the ceremony, he posed for wedding photos, had a slice of the wedding cake, and was awed over by the wedding attendees.  He will always be my best man.  We have been through so much together over the years, and have learned so much from each other.

Is there a chance that Brutus (and god forbid I say this) would turn on you for any reason?  Is that a fear you have for the family?
No, because I treat him with respect and I understand him completely.  By this point, I can predict his every move – from his body language to his vocalizations.  But like I said, I treat him like a grizzly…and I’m the only one who has direct physical contact with him. 

I do not fear attack; most attacks stem from an animal feeling uncomfortable.  I never push Brutus; I never make him do something he doesn’t want to.  When people “push” a grizzly or make them feel uncomfortable, it’s usually the human that loses.  I have no interest in compromising either my or Brutus’s safety by being disrespectful to him.  

What is something that you learned in spending the year with Grizzlies that has affected your daily life going forward?
Insight from Brutus: if it is physically possible, then it is done.  If not, it isn’t.  After weighing a boulder in at one ton, we used a tractor to lift it to place a piece of salmon under it.  Soon after, Brutus caught the scent of the salmon and walked to the boulder.  In one swift move, he pushed the boulder to the side and happily devoured the salmon.   It dawned on me as I stood next to my friend: he doesn’t worry much; he is not handicapped by his mind.  If his body isn’t capable of doing it, then that is his only limitation.  He does not sit there and contemplate, or make excuses; he just does all he can.  Then goes and takes a nap in the sunshine.  How great would it be if we could all live that way?

Why is it important that people tune into a show like Expedition Grizzly?
There are so many misconceptions about grizzlies, and it’s this very thing that causes many of human-grizzly conflict.  Grizzly bears are not “blood-thirsty killers;” they mostly eat things that other animals have killed.  Bears are emotional creatures.  I have witnessed tears of joy from Brutus.  And it would be selfish to think that this emotional characteristic doesn’t exist in all of the species.  There are a few bad bears like there are bad humans, but 99 percent of these animals have no interest in harming humans.  Over 85 percent of attacks are when a mother feels threatened and is trying to protect her cubs.  They are not much different than us.

I also want people to know about the issues facing the Yellowstone ecosystem.  Development, global warming, and genetic isolation are the main culprits.  More and more each year, the island that this population lives on shrinks.  Along with this shrinking habitat, global warming is eliminating some of the grizzly bears’ important food sources at a drastic rate.  White bark pine, cut worm moths, and other populations that grizzly bears depend on are greatly affected.

Without a stop to these events, it could lead to extinction; but most certainly to hardship, that in time will only lead to more bear/human conflict. I feel that education and awareness toward these issues is a major front on combating these issues. Most people don’t even realize it is happening, so we need to spread the word, develop an understanding, and ultimately generate a passion to do something to help the grizzly bear.

Where else do your interests lie?  What other “causes” (and I use that term loosely because I don’t want to downplay the importance) are you focused on? 
Growing up in the wilderness, my dad was a mountain man and my mom ran a homeless shelter.  And now, I give homeless grizzlies a place to live!  So I guess my parents’ compassion for wildlife – and for people – rubbed off on me.  I am passionate about maintaining wild places and wild things, and helping humanity and wildlife coexist.  Whether it’s people, wildlife or habitat, I’m going to do my part to help!

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