Roaming Imagination: What the stories we tell about bears say about us

Bears hold a powerful place in the human psyche. From early cave drawings and myths as old as language itself, to modern scientific research, the family Ursidae has captivated the imaginations of humans around the world. At the heart of our obsession are contradictions: a magnetism that draws us in and fear that pushes us away. Contributing producer Molly Segal explores the stories we share about bears, what they say about us and our future.
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Listen to the full episode53:59

Bears hold a powerful place in the human psyche. From early cave drawings and myths as old as language itself, to modern scientific research, the family Ursidae has captivated the imaginations of humans around the world. At the heart of our obsession are contradictions: a magnetism that draws us in and fear that pushes us away. Contributing producer Molly Segal explores the stories we share about bears, what they say about us and our future.

**This episode originally aired November 22, 2017.

Biologist Colleen Cassady St. Clair describes the attitudes of bears by drawing a comparison to one of her close family members. 0:40

It's late June. I'm in the back of a helicopter, circling over mountains in Jasper National Park, looking for grizzly bears. A biologist and pilot sit in the front seat. We're searching for one particular female bear who has new cubs.

Over my headset, I hear the biologist directing the pilot to move in. This particular bear is fitted with a radio collar. When we get near, we hear a beep over a receiver. It means she's close. 

Molly Segal accompanied biologist Gord Stenhouse by helicopter to Cairn Pass, Jasper National Park. Stenhouse leads the grizzly bear team at Foothills Research Institute in Hinton, Alberta.

I look out my window and see her run across the rocky terrain below us. It's remarkable how quickly she moves; she is not lumbering.

We see the bear. Excitement takes over my height-induced queasiness. Then, I remember the cubs. We do not see cubs. It either means she stashed them in a tree, or that they have not survived. 

For me, this is a view of a bear I've never seen. For the biologist, this is part of the job, tracking grizzly bears and using science to learn about how the species reacts to different ways in which we, as humans, use the landscape. 

This view of Jasper National Park — and the bear below — were part of my journey to get to the bottom of a question I've been wondering for a couple years now. Why is it that we have such complex stories about bears? 

An untagged grizzly bear in Banff National Park scopes out an open-field for food. Parks Canada estimates there are a total of 65 grizzlies that live within Banff National Park. (Molly Segal)

For most of my life, my exposure to the species had been captive bears in a city zoo, or the black bears sniffing out the dump in cottage country. Otherwise, my knowledge was limited to the varied representations of the species scattered through childhood toys, stories and movies, followed by the scarier, more wild portrayals of bears. 

The first wild bear I knew was Bear 122, or "The Boss," as the grizzly is known to Alberta's Bow Valley locals. He's fathered the most cubs in Banff National Park; has eaten a black bear; and has been hit by a train and survived. Local newspapers track his adventures as if he were celebrity. 

It's a phenomenon I started noticing when I moved to the Bow Valley in 2015: we follow the local grizzly bears' adventures and misadventures, extrapolating their actions and whereabouts into characters in a way that isn't done with the local elk or big horned sheep, who remain anonymous. 

A bird’s eye view of Jasper National Park. Some biologists use helicopters to track down grizzly bears to fit them with radio collars, which track their whereabouts, providing valuable research data uses in conservation. (Molly Segal)

Yet, in a popular national park that sees millions of visitors each year, there was another story about bears simultaneously happening. Hikers on the trails fearful of a run-in with a grizzly bear. Or people out for a drive on the scenic highway, stopping to hop out of their cars and approach too closely. 

What I started to notice were complex and contradictory ideas about bears. This is the heart of my documentary Roaming Imagination. I set out to explore our shared history with bears, and how we have have represented them throughout time and across cultures and continents. 

"I think that one of the things that makes bears culturally interesting is their quite extreme combination of wildness and domesticity in our cultural imagination." — Greg Garrard, professor, UBC Okanagan 

In researching and conducting interviews for this documentary, I waded through countless stories about bears. From re-examining the familiar ones, like Winnie the Pooh or Yogi Bear, to considering representations of bears that were unfamiliar to me, such as the extent to which they have been part of religions across much of the Northern Hemisphere for thousands of years. 

Beyond spiritual representations of bears, many of the common stories we tell about bears in North America come from single experiences, popular culture or media. 

But I wanted to meet the people who interact with bears in the wild; who are actively trying to seek out the stories bears tell us through their use of landscape and interaction with their environment. 

Biologist Colleen Cassady St. Clair in Banff National Park in late June. St. Clair looks at animal behaviour to research solutions to human-wildlife conflict. (Molly Segal)

From the helicopter ride with a biologist who monitors grizzlies in and around Jasper National Park, to a ride along with a biologist in southern British Columbia, setting culvert traps to radio collar bears, I now have a much more intimate understanding of the scope of people's feelings about bears.

The one true consistency? They are all passionate. 

Molly Segal is an independent audio journalist based in Alberta's Bow Valley. 


Guests in this episode: 

  • Colleen Cassady St. Clair is a professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. She studies animal behaviour and conservation biology, using animal behaviour to help solve conservation problems.
     
  • Gord Stenhouse is a research scientist at the Foothills Research Institute in Hinton, Alberta. He's been the project leader of the FRI's grizzly bear program since it began in 1998.
     
  • Michael Proctor leads the Trans-border Grizzly Bear Project, where he looks at the movement of the South Selkirk and South Purcell grizzly bears across the U.S. – Canada border. 
     
  • ​Jon Swenson is a professor of ecology and Natural Resources Management at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. He's also a leader of the Scandinavian brown bear research project.
     
  • Courtney Hughes is a biodiversity biologist for the province of Alberta, based in Peace River. As a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta, she is examining the social context of grizzly bear conservation in Alberta.
     
  • Greg Garrard is Associate Professor of Sustainability at UBC Okanagan, where he teaches courses in ecocriticism and critical animal studies.
     
  • Morgan Wood is a consultant who has lived in across western Canada and has interacted with bears from a young age.

Further reading: 

  • Bear by Marian Engel, McClelland & Stewart, 2009.
  • The Essential Grizzly: The Mingled Fates of Men and Bears by Doug Peacock and Andrea Peacock, Lyons Press, 2006.
  • Bears: A Brief History by Bernd Brunner. Translated by Lori Lantz, Yale University Press, 2008.
     



**This episode was produced by Dave Redel.

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