Grizzly TV show horrifies experts
Put a TV soap star in a plastic box in the bear pen at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, tie a dummy alongside, turn loose the bears, roll video and what do you get?
Anchorage Daily News
ANCHORAGE — Put a TV soap star in a plastic box in the bear pen at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, tie a dummy alongside, turn loose the bears, roll video and what do you get?
A storm of it has been building since a program called "Bear Feeding Frenzy" first appeared on the Discovery Channel.
State wildlife biologists call the self-proclaimed "documentary" misleading and worse. The bear expert who worked with the filmmakers said he got snookered, and some average citizens — taken in by the show's appearance of having been filmed in the wild — are outraged that television producers would be teaching grizzlies to attack lifelike dummies, tear into tents and break into SUVs.
"I was horrified as I watched this guy sitting in a 'predator-proof' Plexiglas box ultimately train wild grizzly bears to maul a mannequin, break into a car and tear down tents while he is yelling 'hey bear ... hey bear.' What do you suppose will happen when one of these 'conditioned' bears steps out on a gravel bar with a hiker or fisherman who calmly tries to yield ground while saying, 'hey bear'?" Alaska angler Jim Hamblet said.
A regular visitor to Alaska, Hamblet was at his Jacksonville, Texas, home when he saw the show over his DirecTV satellite service Dec. 8. He had no idea he was watching three bears living in an 18-acre, fenced enclosure in Portage, Alaska. Former soap star Chris Douglas — the man in the plastic box — narrates "Bear Feeding Frenzy" as if it were happening in the wilds with many bears. Cutaways from the bears take viewers to various wild Alaska locations.
"I saw the Russian River," Hamblet said. "I saw what looked like Katmai (National Park). I've been both places."
Both have grizzly bears. Both attract tens of thousands of people every year. Both have witnessed bear attacks, but those are extremely rare.
That is not the impression left by Douglas, the former Dylan Moody from "One Life to Live," when he places "my buddy Billy outside of the predator shield" and waits for bears to come get the dummy. The lifelike Billy seems to be sitting, snoozing against the side of the plastic box the way an angler might take a nap up against a tree along an Alaska salmon stream.
"This large female seems undaunted," Douglas says as the first grizzly approaches Billy.
"There's another bear coming up," he says as the sow gets company. "We're no threat to them, and Billy's in trouble."
One of the bears rips off Billy's jeans. Douglas observes the bear's "claws are enormous."
The actor then goes bug-eyed as one of the bears starts thumping on the rib cage of Billy the Dummy before tearing him loose from his tether to the box and hauling his plastic carcass into the brush.
"There goes Billy," Douglas says.
Larry Van Daele, a Kodiak-area wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, happened to catch the video on TV with his wife one night and was shocked.
"That's not the way bears behave," said Van Daele, who oversees an area with the densest population of grizzlies in North America. He knows of no cases in which a bear came up to someone snoozing along a stream and started ripping them to pieces.
"It's bad; it's really bad," said Anchorage area wildlife biologist Rick Sinnott, with Fish and Game. He spent the summer countering bear-anoia in Anchorage after the city's first grizzly-bear attacks. The attacks injured two people, but in neither case did a bear drag anyone off to make the mess of them that was made of Billy.
"Yeah, what a stupid program," said Tom Smith, a professor of wildlife at Brigham Young University in Utah, a former bear researcher for the U.S. Geological Survey in Alaska and the man who served as the bear consultant on "Frenzy." Smith appears in the film at times with Douglas in the box.
He regrets it now.
"It seemed innocent enough, and then they put it together," Smith said. "There is some hokey stuff in there. On the one hand, you want to do some good; on the other hand, you get burned. It was kind of a bad deal."
Smith said he wrote an angry letter to the show's producers, Gurney Productions in Hollywood, after he got a look at what they had done and told them that if nothing else they needed to let people know "this was filmed at the Wildlife Conservation Center."
Letting wild bears attack lifelike dummies, or serving the animals food as "Frenzy" also does, would be "unethical if not illegal," Smith said.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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