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Bear-ly believable

TV critics in Britain shocked, fascinated by Alaskan's lifestyle

By CRAIG MEDRED
cmedred@adn.com 

January 18th, 2008

Anchorage could have a new international celebrity: a nearly 70-year-old retired teacher who has spent the past two decades hiding from the public eye in an effort to conceal his intimate love affair with a large gang of black and grizzly bears.

After the existence of Charlie Vandergaw's Susitna Valley bear farm was revealed in the Daily News last spring, the former Dimond High School wrestling coach decided to come clean with his unbelievable story.

British documentary filmmaker Jon Alwen spent 51 days with Vandergaw at the farm last summer. His hourlong documentary, which aired on television in Great Britain two weeks ago, provides an up-close view of Vandergaw's life with a collection of black and brown bears that are treated more like, and sometimes behave more like, family dogs than bears.

Except, of course, when the family dog puts its paws on you they usually aren't on your shoulders, and even if they are, they aren't tipped with four-inch-long, razor-sharp claws and the dog's head doesn't tower three feet above yours.

Alwen filmed a scene like this and others equally shocking. Vandergaw, however, said the young filmmaker "didn't even get the best stuff."

What Alwen got is nonetheless jaw dropping.

"The Man Who Lives with Bears" will be shown in the United States on ABC's "Primetime: The Outsiders," although no date has as yet been set, according to London-based Firecracker Films. There's a trailer up on YouTube.

The film appears to have both shocked and fascinated British TV critics.

"The Man Who Lives with Bears ... really does,'' wrote Tim Teeman of The Times. "They come into his garden, eat from his bucket and occasionally bite him. It didn't mean to be a sweet programme -- the bears are quite ferocious and Charlie was a dedicated recluse -- but he was fascinated by them, and (unless it was just the food) they by him. Only Kookie, a female grizzly, proved resistant to his bear-whispering ways.

"Jon Alwen's film captured the desolate Alaskan expanse as well as the sheer strangeness of Charlie playing with the bears; astonishing when there are so many murderous bear-on-human attacks. Charlie is aware that his fascination could have fatal consequences, and his naivety and adoration are tempered with life-saving common sense. I do hope Kookie comes back and they become friends."

"The Man Who Lives with Bears ... offered another glimpse ... of a man whose actions push the boundaries of sanity," observed Gerard O'Donovan of the Telegraph. "This intriguing documentary followed retired schoolteacher Charlie Vandergaw ... How he's survived this long is anyone's guess. One look at the footage of eight-foot bears towering over him, razor-sharp claws ready to lash out, would make any sensible person quail. Certainly, anyone who's seen Werner Herzog's film "Grizzly Man," about Timothy Treadwell, who was mauled to death with his girlfriend in 2003 while also attempting to live with bears, would instantly fear for his life. But Vandergaw insisted he was safe -- despite a couple of nasty close shaves even in the short time that film-maker John Alwen (at some considerable risk to himself) spent filming him last summer."

FEEDING BEARS IS ILLEGAL

In a telephone interview earlier this month, Vandergaw said he hasn't read the reviews nor seen the film as yet. What people say -- good or bad -- about him and what he considers his bears doesn't, at this point, matter, he added.

"Have you Googled my name?" Vandergaw asked. "Every sort of vile thing that can be said has already been said about me. A lot of folks get their jollies at that. There are lots of pissant experts out there. I don't think (the documentary) will change anything."

Indeed, to date, there has been no noticeable effect. The media haven't staked out Vandergaw's Sand Lake-area home, nor has the state moved to cite him for feeding bears, though the video and pictures make it clear how he has managed to tame the sometimes savage beasts.

Dog food might be even more effective as a reward in training bears than in training dogs, according to authorities on bears. And Vandergaw has been feeding them dog food in significant quantities for years in violation of state law.

"There's a law against feeding bears for a very good reason, and that is to protect people and to protect bears,'' said Doug Larsen, director of the Wildlife Conservation Division in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "This is clearly a violation of that law."

Vandergaw questions this, noting that a state "bear control" program this year opened Game Management Unit 16B to unlimited feeding under the guise of "bear baiting." And his bear farm is in the heart of Unit 16.

"What are they going to do now?" Vandergaw asked. "Unlimited baiting? That's feeding bears. They've covered their ass by saying, 'we'll only issue a permit to hunt.' What? So they can bait and shoot sows and cubs."

Vandergaw argues that the feeding encouraged by the state in order to draw bears out into the open to be shot is far more distasteful than what he is doing.

Still, he admits, that because the documentary shows bears in his cabin, "I'm probably going to be blamed statewide for any cabin that gets marauded."

Larsen and other state wildlife biologists see that as the least of the problems. More troubling, they said, is the likelihood it will fuel the desires of others to get up close and personal with Alaska bears.

TREADWELL WAS MISGUIDED

Such contacts are what led to the deaths of Grizzly People founder Treadwell and girlfriend Amie Hugenard. The man whose bear-whispering ways got him onto "The Late Show with David Letterman" was killed and eaten by a grizzly near Hallo Bay in Western Alaska. The bear then killed his girlfriend.

Vandergaw believes the deaths happened mainly because Treadwell was a misguided fool. Vandergaw cites his own decades-long association with black and brown bears as evidence that he knows better than the shaggy-haired Californian.

One of his daughters, Terra Vandergaw, agrees. She spent part of her childhood at the bear farm, she said, and never felt in any danger with the bears. A one-time actress turned acting professor at a college in New Jersey, she has felt comfortable enough to send her children north to spend time with their grandfather at the bear farm in the summer. Dozens of other friends and acquaintances of the Vandergaws have also visited the farm over the years.

That, too, troubles the authorities, Larsen said.

"This goes beyond the individual thinking he's safe," he said. "What's even worse is when you get people coming to the site."

Find Craig Medred online at www.adn.com/contact/cmedred  or call 257-4588.

WATCH THE VIDEO: See the trailer for "The Man Who Lived With Bears," read previous Daily News stories about Charlie Vandergaw and find a link to The Sun's story and slide show at

www.adn.com/wildlife

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