By Elizabeth Linehan
Like most grizzly bears, Sheena and Christi weighed less than two ounces at birth.
They are twin sisters and should have topped 350 to 400 pounds as adults. Unfortunately, though, Sheena and Christi didn't get to grow up the same as most Grizzlies. Instead of wandering forested mountain ranges, combing the berry patches and ripping open rotten logs for insects, Sheena and Christi waited for scraps tossed through the bars of their cages. In the fall, when other bears gorged before the winter snows, Sheena and Christi sweltered in the east Texas sun.
That was their world for 18 years. Then, in May 2004, a representative from the U.S. Department of Agriculture told the Montana Grizzly Encounters facility near Bozeman about Sheena and Christi. "We were there two days later and brought the girls home, said Casey Anderson, one of the owners of Montana Grizzly Encounters, a two-acre wildlife preserve east of Bozeman on Interstate 90. Anderson, John Peterson and Ami Otten are the owners and in charge of this daring effort to help give grizzlies a home.
With the experience Casey, John and Ami each had in animal rescue and rehabilitation, film making and wildlife education, the three had the experience to develop the wildlife center. "We wanted to give the bears a better place to live and give people a rare opportunity to see them up-close," Anderson said. That opportunity translated into a chance for a new life for the three bears that live there. Brutus, who turned three in January, is big, muscular and carries the characteristic silver markings of a grizzly. Still very young, he gets along easily with both of the girls. Sheena and Christi, however, are typical sisters. They can't stand to be in the same playground together.
Grumpy and prematurely aged, they take turns outside, each preferring their own "dormitories" to each other's company. Perhaps they were too close together for too long. Or perhaps the difference in environment is still a bit overwhelming. Besides their own rooms, they have two acres to roam in with all the comforts they could ask for - rocks, logs, a stream and even a pond to swim in. They are making remarkable progress. Both grizzlies have gained more than 40 pounds and are much healthier than they were last spring. Swimming has developed muscles they never had before. "It's amazing to hear people say how beautiful they look now because we know what they looked like when we got them," Anderson says. Besides caring for these three bears, the chief aim of Grizzly Encounters is to educate the public about bears and teaching people how to be safe in bear country.
According to Anderson there were more than 70 new bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem in 2004, compared to the year before. And, according to his own research, thousands of new people. "It's very obvious that over time, grizzly bear/human encounters are going to be more and more common," he says. "The things that we're teaching people are very important tools in living in this area." Things like how to make yourself known and avoid surprise encounters, and what to do if that encounter happens. Anderson says lives may have already been saved by their educational work with the public. "This year I can think of four encounters that ended up being semi-violent," Anderson said.
The people involved either used bear spray or did the right thing: played dead. No lives were lost. "Those people learned that from somebody. It saved their lives and those bears are still running around being bears." The advantage of bear spray is that it's painful enough to discourage the bear, but it causes no actual harm. According to Anderson, in a violent encounter you have just 1.9 seconds to react. The burning, choking and misery inflicted lasts about an hour - and the memory lasts quite a lot longer. The bear is left alive, but less likely to have any desire to do it again. Committed advocates of bear spray, Anderson, Peterson and Otten teach not only the passing tourists, but a lot of kids, as well. In fact, educational children's groups (school classes and other organizations) are admitted free of charge.
"We love to see the kids here, learning and appreciating these animals," says Anderson. "It's becoming more and more important." As for the future of Montana Grizzly Encounters, Anderson says they're right on track with expectations. "We're making some good changes business-wise and that will benefit the whole place, so we can keep on our feet. That's all we ever hoped to do." The costs for caring for these orphaned bears comes from private donations and entrance fees. Weighing 420 pounds, Brutus eats about 25 pounds of food a day. The female bears' appetites aren't far behind. About 70 percent of that are fruits and vegetables - avocados, carrots, corn, lettuce, apples, oranges, berries, nuts and grapes. The other 30 percent is chicken, elk and beef. Much of the bears' food is donated by local grocers and a butcher in Livingston. Anderson said he would like to be able to expand the wildlife center, but it's too costly.
"We'd love to be able to rescue all of them, but at the same time, we've made a commitment to these bears," he said. "We need to give them the time and resources that they need." Although the bears have been returned to good health, they won't be turned loose in the wild. "Once they're in captivity they're stuck there," Anderson says. "These bears had no hope to ever be in the wild."
Even if they have only three bears at the center, their work educating the public is important, says Anderson. "There's not a better way to touch people and make an impact than what we're doing," he said. "I'm a fifth-generation Montanan, so I get to be back home and get to do what I love and make an impact on something that means a lot to me. That's a great thing."
Tips to be Safe in Bear Country
(note: While there is no way to guarantee safety when in bear country, the following tips can greatly improve your chances of having either no encounters or at least being able to survive if you do meet up with a bear.)
1. Bear Spray
Find a brand that is endorsed by the EPA. One that has been thoroughly tested as 100% effective against bears running through it. Keep it handy and be ready to use it if a bear becomes threatening.
2. Food Sources
Be aware of food that may attract bears and get them used to humans. Things like garbage, bird feeders, dog food, anything that can make the bear's search for his daily 6,000 calories easier to find - and to come back to. 3. Don't be sneaky Let your presence be known by sound (the human voice is very distinctive) and by scent. But avoid perfumes as they can tend to attract bears. Give the bear the chance to hear you and run away.
4. Give the bear respect
It may sound silly, but body language can make a huge difference. According to Casey Anderson, founder of Montana Grizzly Encounters, it is generally better to back slowly away from a bear than to instantly drop into a ball. "A bear will read your body language and your intentions." On the other hand, aggressive behavior like shouting and waving your arms can put the bear on the defensive, possibly causing him to attack. Passive, even submissive behavior can make a big difference. Don't run.
Running excites them and may cause the bear to pursue you, even when it otherwise would have been willing to leave. If a bear does approach and you don't have spray, then Anderson says it can be good to lie down. "Don't get in a ball, but lie flat on the ground and splay your legs a bit to prevent him from rolling you over.
They'll come over and paw and try to roll you over and sometimes even nibble on you a bit." Anderson tells of an individual in Yellowstone Park that did exactly that and survived a violent encounter. There were minor injuries requiring stitches, but he lived. "All that is, is displaying again that you're not a threat. And they'll end up just walking away."