Recently my inbox has been flooded with folks sending me links to a very disturbing story, one which which makes bear lovers, like myself, cringe. Apparently, a man by the name of Larry Griffith from New Mexico filmed a bear running down a river towards his group of 10 bear viewers. He proceeded to exaggerate and misinterpret the circumstances, making himself a ripe pick for the media and all its self-perpetuated, spiraling sagas. As his account is doing the bears no favors, I feel motivated to clear up this controversy for both bears and honest bear viewing guides out there. I’ve made a career of guiding on the Katmai coast, so for what it’s worth, here’s my two cents.
Initially, I would like to preface the following by stating that viewing wildlife, at times, is just that – WILD. Experiencing bears running in your direction is a common occurrence when seated in their habitat. It’s what they do. They run from bears, they run for fish and sometimes they just run. It looks to me like the people got exactly what they were after- an exhilarating glimpse into the daily life of the giant Alaskan brown (coastal grizzly) bear. If one needs a 100% risk free bear experience, they should visit a zoo, although there have many more animal attacks in zoos than in Katmai National Park!
First, here are two links you can view to see the story. The first is from MSNBC (sorry for the annoying pre-commercial).
This one is from a dubious online site from across the pond. CLICK HERE
Ok, so now that you have seen the video and the article, let me explain. First of all, this was not one of my groups, and I have never met Larry Griffith. If I was guiding this group, no one would have been “frozen with fear,” because I would have talked them through the whole scenario. From what I can tell, the bear was startled by another bear upriver or in the brush- it happens all the time- and ran downriver to get some space. The bear was not charging the group, and the group was in no danger. I am quite sure the guide explained this to the folks, and prepped them for such possible scenarios before they hit the beach. I think what really happened is that Larry Griffith either wasn’t listening, or more likely, ignored the facts to make a sellable news story, and the media did what they do best- sensationalized and exaggerated reality to the maximum.
After seeing the first few seconds of video, I knew exactly where this happened, because I have guided here hundreds of times. This is a bay called Geographic Harbor, on the coast of Katmai, and it is a spectacular place to watch bears fishing, and is among the safest places to view bears in the wild. Groups have been guided to see bears here for over twenty years , and the trust and comfort level between bears and people is as high as anywhere on earth. What the Griffiths experienced was an amazing result of decades of responsible actions by a small number of dedicated, respectful outfitters, and the predictable, non-confrontational nature of the bears. This is a wildlife encounter that equals the intensity and intimacy of sitting with gorillas in Uganda , and has an equally clean safety record.
The bear viewing industry has done wonders in the state of Alaska for bear support and conservation. Each summer thousands of visitors learn that bears are not the monsters of myth, legend and media. They are beautiful, intelligent and awesome creatures which are worth much more alive than dead, both as stewards of their own habitat, and as cornerstones of the Alaskan economy. Larry Griffith and the dozens of media sites carrying this story should be ashamed.
What? You mean that I can’t believe what I see on Fox News? That is, if I ever actually turned on Fox News, which is highly unlikely!
I was made aware of the video by another operator (you know who!) and quite clearly, both his, yours and my interpretation of the video was that the bear running through the water was most definitely not a charge aimed at the “frozen with fear” tourists! Most likely the bear was startled by another upstream or even a gull – I’ve seen bears startled by a gull that they had not accounted for. It’s pretty tough to correct such a misinterpretation once it has gotten out on the internet and it’s also a warning for the uninitiated to bear view with someone who IS knowledgeable about bear behavior.
spoken well larry, I knew you would be all over this. great to hear from you!
Brad: Having done some bear viewing (with you) in Katmai and remembering back to that experience, it’s clear from the video that the bear:
1) was startled by something
2) was running from something, not toward the group of people
3) looked over its shoulder a couple of times when it slowed to a walk again
It was probably the ghost of Timothy Treadwell whispering sweet nothings in its ear that scared the bear. Ya’ know, I am gripped with fear and paralyzed by the mainstream news media and their talking heads charging at me. Can I submit a video of that?
Owner, down2earth adventures
In watching the video, all this confirms to me, that when you go to see bears in there play ground, if your lucky enough, that’s what you get to see, this bear was not even CLOSE to charging the people that were watching and enjoying. I’ve been lucky enough to be on a few bear trips in this area, it’s a WILD play ground, you go to see wild life where they live, they eat, play and sleep there. We get to watch them doing so, what you see is a Bear running through the water , just like when we were kids, nothing more. Sorry Charlie, opps I mean Larry Griffith .
Playing isn’t CHARGING .
I’m not a bear expert and haven’t been to Alaska (yet…it’s on my “to do” list:) but I have seen quite a few grizzlies in Glacier National Park while hiking and driving. I’ve come to respect them and love to watch them. I can tell just by the first part of this video where the bear stops, turns and runs – then pays no attention to the turists, that it is by no means “charging” them.
I plan to “share” this on Facebook to help spread your great article. Maybe some that saw this on the news will see the true story.
I too have received this one several times…. what a frustration –
Thanks Brad for the nice article of explanation. Good Job!
Geographic is such a wonderful place..
Excellently debunked. It is a shame people hype up an experience like this and mislead the public. Thanks for clearly explaining what was going on.
well put, brad.
the media does thrives on
sensationalist fodder. the
“news” is never really “news”
these days, as its all denigrated
into an “opinion”. people are better
off reading MAD magazine….
As both a member of the media (I freelance for many airline and hotel magazines), an avid traveler (I’m going to Churchill with NatHab later this year) and a die-hard lover of bears, it sickens me to see this kind of sensationalism. I’m no expert, but even I could immediately tell that this was no real charge, and that the bear in fact seemed more fearful of something behind him than fearsome to the people in front. At some point, it would be great if humans would learn to understand and appreciate wildlife for what it is– wild– but I’m not holding my breath. I am, however, using my website to try to educate…
Thank you Brad.
I fight also in Italy against this press.. It make more audience the news of a bad beast that the true.. Also here sometimes press write about a bear or a wolf attack but never it happen.. Sometimes there are a trekker that has a near encounter with a bear and wolf and always animal run away but press write about attack.. All world is the same..
See you in July…
Bye from Italy
Well put Brad. I suggest that several of us guides and biologists team up to write a letter to the NPS giving our interpretation of this event. The following is a link to a paper I published recently on aggressive body language by bears. It does not describe exactly this kind of event, but it does point out numerous ways in which bear behavior is often misinterpreted.
There are 3 articles in the series relating to “habituated” bears. The first is by Lynn Rogers; the second by me; and the third by Val Geist. I am writing a reply to Geist’s article which will come out next fall. This spring the same journal will print my article on liability of managers (and guides) in case someone is ever injured by a bear.
The fact that this bear looked back over its shoulder may or may not have had anything to do with looking for something behind it. It was clearly ambivalence about going forward or turning back, which it clearly did not want to do. Heavy salivation is indicative of strong stress, but is not diagnostic of offense or defense. The most diagnostic feature of this instance was that the bear did not slam its hands (paws) on the ground or make any other kind of threat directly toward the people.
If a bear is very uncomfortable being near people, it will sometimes suddenly snap and charge toward them a short distance, whereupon it usually slams the ground or a handy tree. That is analogous to a person being irritated by having a bear hanging around near camp, and suddenly running at the bear, yelling at it. It says “move off”, give me space. Whether it is a bear or a human doing this, it is motivated by a desire to be left alone, not a desire for combat. In any event, I saw no indication that this was such a case.
One puzzling facet of this case was that the bear did not run into the brush for security from whatever disturbed it. Perhaps it wanted to stay on the river and continue fishing.
I would like to know what the bear did after it quit investigating the people.
For more info on bear body language etc. visit the Bear Viewing Assoc website
Thanks for your support of bears and bear viewing.
well done steve. Your article with Dr Rogers is as good as any article I have read. great work. Thanks Steve.
Oops, wrong link. Try this one
I’m just so glad that these people weren’t sitting in that spot when mom and cub were enjoying a swimming lesson, with her even trying to nurse in the water–it would have been so wasted on them! I guess they were simply unable to be satisified with an awesome experience, they needed to present themselves as “heroes”. Ugh. Thank you, Brad, and no, you didn’t come across as too angry at all.
It’s me again. I just started reading the article by Dr. Lynn Rogers that Stephen posted the link to above, and I simply had to share this quote: “In my decades of experience, habituated bears have proven to be less of a danger than taking a walk through the woods or doing home repairs.” So true. I for one would rather sit among the bears of Katmai any day than waiting for my train around midnight on a Saturday at Zurich main station.
What a shame that this pathetic interpretation was portrayed to the public, via the media.
This kind of thing will hurt the bears. Brad, why don’t you write to the NPS explaining what really was going on there. It hurts my heart that this false description of the situation has been reported! How sad!
Thanks for stepping up, Brad. Someone with your creds needed to debunk the ridiculous, sensationalized story. Our Katmai trip included two days in Geographic Harbor as well as 4 more days in three other bays on Katmai’s beautiful coast. There were bears running everywhere in every direction. Away from us, toward us, along the river/stream where we were perched. Our guide, Mitch, had prepared us for their behavior and we never felt threatened and the bears never displayed bear aggressive behavior. All they are interested in is salmon and fattening up for winter. You can’t get this experience in a zoo. Keep ’em straight!
You certainly don’t expect Fox News to determine the facts before they run a story, do you?
Hi Brad! I think I know exactly your feelings when you watched this video….! The same happened to me, as well as all the times there is a misrepresentation of reality, something that happens so often we’re all used to! But you know that for someone is difficult to resist the temptation of creating an adventorous version of his own experience, and this version is obviously much more interesting for the public to be seen….. Of course, if you think this could in some way affect bear viewing tourism, I’m with you to share your professional point of view and make it clear. Unfortunately I already know that the REAL version is much less exciting and will not have the same audience……
Hope to meet you again in the field Brad!
Hi, Brad! Great commentary on this whole thing! I wish there was some outlet through which you could share your explanation so as to combat the damage that is being done by Larry Griffith and his misguided interpretation of the actual facts. Any way to get it to the news media??? I hope you try….
Thanks for all you do and for your knowledgeable insight, Brad. Keep it up!
This is much needed clarification, Brad. Thank you for putting the true story out there.
Hey Brad, thanks for this article. This has definitely gotten blown way out of proportion, and I can’t even believe the media even covered it. It’s a clip of a normal day in Katmai. I completely agree that it seems like he got startled and just did a quick sprint in the exact 180 degree opposite direction he had been facing. If this were a bluff charge, he would have been staring at the viewers and exhibiting signs of stress for many seconds beforehand, not flipping around in a 180.
Kudos for speaking out!
As you know I have spent quite sometime around bears (approx 80 trips now), and I continue to maintain a very healthy respect for the animals. I believe our first responsibilty lies with the welfare of the wildlife. We are in effect educators and stewards for both the wildlife and photography profession. And, we must lead by example.
Be well my friend,