Book sheds light on bear encounters

Posted: Thursday, May 22, 2003

Bears have evoked human fear and fascination since at least the last Ice Age. At the beginning of the third millennium, they are under increasing pressure from people, even in their last redoubts such as Alaska.

Stephen Stringham, who lives in Soldotna, is a scientist of bear ecology and behavior and a devotee of wildlife watching. He has written an appeal for improved diplomacy between the two domineering species in his "Beauty within the Beast," subtitled "Kinship with Bears in the Alaska Wilderness."

"I wrote 'Beauty within the Beast' both to give you an idea of what I have experienced knowing bears personally, and to help preserve the opportunity for a few of you to do the same," he writes in his epilogue.

Most of the book is a delightful adventure yarn about raising three orphan black bear cubs. It's a tale with all the charm of an old Disney nature movie, but leavened with more realism.

In 1972, the cubs' mother destroyed the cabin of a couple who had fed her earlier. When a bullet ended her rampage, Stringham extracted reluctant permission from state biologists to take on raising the cubs, a task he calls "bearenthood."

"I would raise them to live like fully wild bears, eating natural foods, not garbage or handouts. In short, I would do for these cubs what Joy and George Adamson tried to do with Elsa and other orphaned lions in Africa," he writes.

He chronicles the gradual process of winning the cubs' trust and the balance between nurturing them and teaching them to respect and avoid humans in general. The results were striking:

"After they had eaten, I lay down between them and napped with them, one arm loosely encircling each cub. Although I had initiated the contact, (the male) soon wiggled close, then kept his back or flank pressed tightly against me, head resting on my shoulder or across my upper arm.

The cubs loved snuggling as much as puppies. Like sunlight breaking through dark thunderhead clouds, their affection was beginning to warm our lives."

But not every experience was benign. He and his wife also faced down hostility from their wards and defended them from perils such as a porcupine. Teaching them to hunt, for example, proved a gruesome lesson:

"I knew all too well the violence of nature and the essential roles of predation. But knowing it intellectually and being so close that I was spattered with blood were radically different things," he writes.

"At moments like that, I hated the cruelty of nature. Indeed, I even hated this side of the cubs' nature."

After several months, the cubs gained enough competence and confidence that they left the Stringhams and took up with a wild sow that had lost two of her own cubs. It was a poignant but necessary parting.

Stringham places his experience as a surrogate mother bear in a wider context of biology and human-bear interactions. As he taught the cubs, he also learned from them nuances of behavior. Through the cubs and others, he perceives bears as complex and keenly intelligent individuals.

He is part of the late-20th century revolution in animal behavior studies, led by pioneers such as Jane Goodall, that uses meticulous, intimate observations on the animals' own turf.

In the last section of the book, Stringham discusses bear biology and implications for relations between our species. He says he hopes better knowledge of bear behavior will prevent injuries and deaths on either side when bears and people meet, including his own backcountry encounters.

"I needed to be able to anticipate whether the bear was likely to attack, either offensively or defensively, and how my own behavior might affect this likelihood," he writes.

Although he supports subsistence hunting, he is no fan of recreational hunting.

"A more enlightened perspective might place less value on producing meat, trophies, sport, and bragging rights than on producing science, education, and art from a diversity of perspectives," he writes.

" We need areas dedicated to wildlife-human companionship if not for the general public, then at least for select 'wildlife ambassadors' who have the knowledge and resources to get to know animals deeply and personally, and to convey what they have experienced to the public so that everyone can enjoy this, at least vicariously."

Stringham makes a point of telling readers that he plans future books on bears.

Not everyone will agree with his interpretations, but they are thoughtful and add depth to an already interesting narrative.

The flaws of the book are minor quibbles. The photos, like the cubs, tend to be small and fuzzy; he explains at the beginning that a house fire destroyed his best pictures. He also makes silly mistakes with names that a biologist with his credentials should know, such as misspelling Dall sheep and Karelian bear dogs.

But the book is obviously a labor of love, and Stringham writes with conviction and emotion that more than make up for lack of polish. All told, "Beauty within the Beast" is a delight for animal lovers and a valuable counterbalance to the Alaska clich of bear-attack tales.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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