A tribute to Charlie Russell

Charlie Russell "walked" among bears for 70 years of his life, and understood them well. Sadly he passed away in 2018 and I never had the honour of meeting him. He had previously been scheduled to speak at an Advancing Bear Care conference in 2011 and we were all so looking forward to meeting him but his ultra light crashed before he made it to Banff and he missed the conference.

Charlie spoke about living harmoniously with bears – understanding them and knowing how to behave around them – to keep both bears and humans safe.

Charlie fishing with Biscuit

Fear of an aggressive bear? Charlie would say this:

"I have spent my life studying how to get along with these animals and I can tell you that it doesn’t take very much effort. I can tell you for sure that any discord we have is caused by us and is not the grizzlies fault. I know that because I spent 12 years living with about 400 of them in a place where all they ever received from me and my assistants was considerate behavior towards them. For many years this was the only experience that they had to judge humans by and the results were spectacular. There was a core group that after a while we could not get hurt by them because they so generously gave you the benefit of any doubt, even if you fell over them in the dark, which happened occasionally because they would sleep so close to my cabin.

My study was about what grizzlies were capable of if they liked people and could trust us, but it has been misconstrued as a demonstration of how people should behave around bears. I am the first to tell everyone that we must be very careful around bears who have been managed out of fear, and all of our bears are managed that way, even in our national parks. Please carry bear spray when you are in bear county because the bear you might meet will probably be suspicious of your motives."


Charlie Russell's understanding of bears is breathtaking. Another of his quotes resonates deeply when he says: "Seeing what has been done to bears all these years, it's amazing that they are so restrained. Most of them are still open and willing to be friendly with humans."

We have seen with the over 600 ex-bile farm bears we have rescued in China and Vietnam that fear almost always translates into aggression. Newly rescued bears have often suffered hideously at the hands of humans and leave us in no doubt of their feelings towards us, being unable to distinguish between those who respect and love them and those who have hurt them physically and psychologically in the past.

However, a bear's intelligence and forgiveness is profound and, once they learn that their new lives are safe, without obvious threats or surprises, have bodies filled with tasty nutritious food, and enjoy days of choices and friendships, they change remarkably, and happily and peaceably adapt to their new lives of sanctuary.


Like Charlie, we have learned that a bear's individuality is key –how much trauma and for how long they have endured it often has a marked impression on how deep-rooted their fear of humans is but, as we know too, their ultimate acceptance and embracing of kindness is a remarkable testimony to their stoic, forgiving natures.

Of course, this doesn't meant that we should all blithely run into the forest to play with a bear, but it does mean that, as Gay Bradshaw has said, "the mainstream image of bears is not supported by science", and we do them a significant injustice by continuing to treat them unkindly, and by not trying to know them better, as Charlie did.

Gay Bradshaw has written a powerfully emotive book about Charlie Russell that takes your breath away with the depth of knowledge he owned about this most charismatic, wise and forgiving species - Talking with Bears

The bears have indeed lost a best friend.

Charlie Russell - Gay Bradshaw