Studying Grizzlies in Australia…?

As I was preparing to leave Canada, most of my friends and family watched on with incredulity –

So you’re going to study grizzly bears in Australia? Do they even have bears in Australia?

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The Australian “bear” I went to check out at the Rockhampton zoo. Cute as a li’l muffin, but not a real bear.

The answer to this is, of course, no. There are no bears in Australia. Koalas, although frequently referred to as koala bears, are not real bears – they just look like teddy bears and hence their name. But I’m not here to study koalas, I’m here to study grizzly bears – the symbol of Canadian wilderness.

Studying bears in Australia is no different from someone based out of the University of Alberta studying lions in Africa. I’m in Australia because the man I want to study with is here. It’s obviously not a hard ship that I have to come to Australia during the winters to do my data analysis and have face to face time with my supervisor. Hey, sometimes the Universe hands you gift, you don’t have to question it, you just have to say Thank you very much.

I didn’t think about what people in Australia would say when they learned I was studying Canadian grizzlies.

I’ve been treated with the same curiosity and incredulity, which has made me smile every time. I’ve become known on campus as the “grizzly girl”, which cracks me up because at home you could call every tenth person that. Many people have asked why I’m here and I have the same answer – my supervisor. But one person caught me completely off guard when he asked:

Grizzly bear? What is that? I don’t know what this is.

I was stumped. What is a grizzly bear? Adjectives ran through my mind:

Well it’s big, and furry, and sometimes a little scary but mostly really cool. Umm…. They’re Canada’s largest land mammal, except for polar bears. Umm…

In the end, I pulled up this picture on my lap top – this is a grizzly bear.

A bear I called "Golden Ears" from my work in the Khutzeymateen in BC during my masters research

A bear I called “Golden Ears” from my work in the Khutzeymateen in BC during my masters research

He recognized it when he saw it, but it got me thinking.

What is a grizzly bear? Why is it important?

There are a million characteristics related to biology, habitat requirements, and even human safety… but do these characteristics make up a bear? That’s the shopping list of what describes a bear, but is that what a bear is?

I ponder this daily right now. So far, all I’ve come up with is that grizzly bears are sensitive rulers of our mountain forest. They walk through the landscape with tentative confidence. Sure they’re big, but they’re also shy and maybe a little nervous. Grizzlies are always trying avoid the bigger bears, but there’s another dynamic in Alberta and interior BC they deal with daily. They never know how they are going to be treated by people – in some areas they walk close to town on their way to a berry patch and people take their photograph and nothing more, in other areas they do the exact same thing and end up being trapped and relocated. Grizzly bears know they are big and strong, but they’re not bullies. They’re not keen to attack just because they can. And so we end up taking advantage of that sometimes. Hence the tentative confidence. A grizzly bear knows he could beat you in a wrestling match, but he’s not likely to go there because violence isn’t who he is deep down – it’s not in his essence.

When you look into a bear’s eyes, there’s thought, decision-making abilities, a past, and stories that make that bear who he or she is. Not all bears will react the same way to the same stimulus. In many ways, they’re like people that way – some of them are tolerant of noise and disturbance and others aren’t. When we think about sharing a landscape with grizzly bears roaming around, it’s important that we consider that individual variation.

Lucy and her cub - the matriarchal female in the Khutzetmateen when I was there.

Lucy and her cub – the matriarchal female in the Khutzetmateen when I was there.

In the meantime, I’ve taken it upon myself to share with as many Aussies as possible the truth about our often misunderstood grizzlies.

No they’re not inherently violent.

No they aren’t just going to eat you if you go for a hike.

Yes it’s ok to hike in bear country.

I’ve realized part of my task on this academic journey is to bring the grizzly story to Australia. To share what we know about these large carnivores on the other side of the world. The give the grizzly a voice “down unda”. It’s forcing to me to take it back to basics – never a bad place to be for a refreshing perspective.

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