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Fact versus Frenzy
Bear Program Burns Biologists
“Bear Feeding Frenzy,” a new television wildlife documentary, presents Alaska bears as aggressive man-killers hungry for trouble.
Grizzly bears are unpredictable and will eat anything from human food to human flesh, says host Chris Douglas in the show's introduction, adding that black bears are smaller, but equally dangerous. “We’ll learn why humans sometimes appear on the menu,” he says.
In the program, bears smash a tent, break into a vehicle and rip it up, and dismember a life-like mannequin dressed as an outdoorsman. Douglas plays up the violence, describing the scenes as, “A series of unprecedented and dangerous experiments.”
The program undermines years of public education and fuels prejudices and myths that ultimately hurt bears, say wildlife biologists.
“This feeds on the man-eating bear paranoia we’ve spent the last 30 years as an agency trying to debunk,” said state wildlife biologist Larry Van Daele.
Wildlife biologist Tom Smith worked on the script and appears in the show. He said he was shocked when he saw final product and now regrets his participation. The show delivers the message that it is given you will be hurt if you camp in bear country, he said.
Does it matter? Wildlife biologists say it does. Depicting bears as aggressive man-killers reduces public respect and tolerance for bears. Exaggerating the risk of bear attacks makes people overly defensive and more likely to use guns against bears. Staging and misrepresenting bear behavior undermines appropriate responses to bear encounters. And portraying captive bears as if they are wild bears, as the show does, is dishonest – captive bears simply don’t behave like wild bears.
Many viewers came away from “Bear Feeding Frenzy” confused. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game received complaints about the show from viewers concerned about law violations and mistreatment of animals.
This is because it was not clear to many viewers that most of “Bear Feeding Frenzy” was staged with captive bears. Ann Schmid of Juneau thought the program was filmed in the wild with wild bears. She was shocked by one “experiment” where bears are fed muffins and candy. “I thought it was illegal to feed bears, and I couldn’t see how they were getting away with this,” she said.
“Bear Feeding Frenzy” was filmed with captive bears at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center southeast of Anchorage. But the commentary, coupled with director Scott Gurney’s frequent cut-away shots to other locations, led viewers to believe that many scenes take place on the Russian River and in the wild. Douglas says he’s going to “set up in the middle of bear country” as he puts up a tent inside the center’s 18-acre bear enclosure. When bears leave the “camp” he says they’re going back “into the woods.” Douglas narrates much of the show crouched inside his “predator shield,” a playpen-size clear-plastic box that he claims is set up “on a definite bear trail.”
Douglas is not a biologist – he’s a model and actor known for his role as Dylan Moody in the soap opera, “One Life to Live,” and he’s appeared on “The Young and the Restless,” and “Passions.”
Gurney Productions made “Bear Feeding Frenzy,” which has broadcast a total of 12 times on the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet networks since mid-November. Gurney Productions, based in Hollywood, is owned by Scott and Deirdre Gurney. Gurney Productions also made episodes of “America’s Next Top Model,” as well as the shows “Shark Feeding Frenzy,” “Crocodile Feeding Frenzy” and “Feeding Frenzy: Lions,” which Douglas also hosted.
Deirdre Gurney said the program has been unfairly mischaracterized. “The location is credited at the end, just like any show credits the location,” she said, just like movies that are set in one city but filmed in another.
The words, “location provided AWCC” flash on the screen for a fraction of second at the end of the program, as one of a dozen credits.
“Very few documentaries are not shot in theme parks or game parks,” she added.
Discovery Channel executives said they realized shortly after the show began airing in November that the brief credit at the end was insufficient.
“We realized it was not clear enough,” said Brooke Runnette, who served as the Discovery Channel’s network executive producer on the project. “We realized that people who live in Alaska were upset that these bears would be allowed to get free. We wanted people to know that this was done in a controlled environment. These bears won’t be going through your garbage after the show.”
In addition to the existing disclaimer: “Due to the graphic nature of this program, viewer discretion is advised,” the following was added at the beginning. “The following program was shot at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. Bears used in the making of this film are not free-ranging bears and will not have opportunities to interact with real people, vehicles, or tents.” This preceded all broadcasts on Animal Planet, and most broadcasts on the Discovery Channel.
“It’s much more fair to the viewer to put that at the top,” Runnette said.
In one scene, the mannequin they call Billy sits against the plastic predator shield and is “attacked” by the bears. Douglas comments on the “mauling” from inside the box, highlighting the size of the claws and the rib-crushing ferocity of the bears as they dismember Billy. He later inspects the mutilated mannequin.
“If he wasn’t plastic, his legs would be a bloody ruin,” Douglas says.
Douglas asserts that the “attack” on the dummy is a good example of what might happen to a person in the same situation. Smith concurs, which he regretted later when he saw the scene in context.
The dummy is no stand-in for a person, say biologists. These are captive bears acting like zoo animals, and there is a big difference. Larry Van Daele has worked with bears for decades, and he’s investigated bear attacks. The Kodiak-based state wildlife biologist said the bears are not “attacking” the dummy but simply playing with a new objective in their pen.
“They’d do the same thing to a plastic traffic cone,” Van Daele said.
“I think they went over the line with the dummy,” said Mike Miller.
Miller runs the facility where the program was filmed, and he’s the caretaker of the bears. The behavior of captive bears is very different than wild bears, he said. That’s a point a number of scientists emphasized. Even if the location was perfectly clear to viewers, the fundamental premise that these zoo bears represent wild bears is false and misleading.
Runnette of the Discovery Channel said she appreciates these concerns, and that the Discovery Channel wants to be considered credible.
“I know biologists make a distinction between these bears and wild bears, and that isn’t a distinction that’s necessarily made in the show,” she said. “We were trying to get at some kind of representation of what has happened and what could happen.”
The Discovery Channel broadcasts a range of programming. “We do a lot of straight-up documentary stuff, and this is different than that,” Runnette said. “We always really want to work with experts and have credible T.V. There’s a delicate balancing act with T.V.”
Bear researcher Tom Smith was asked to assist on the script regarding proper conduct in bear country. Smith has written a number of papers on bear biology and teaches at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He edited portions of the script, and he was also asked to sit in on several scenes. He’s featured prominently in the show.
He said he was shocked when he saw a rough cut of the film shortly before it was released. He strongly recommended that Gurney Productions make a number of changes, which they disregarded.
“Gurney Productions did not take my advice. If you’re going to have an expert, you should use him,” he said. He particularly regrets the mannequin scenes, which he called educationally worthless.
“I said the title is a mistake, it’s misleading and alarmist. I told them to dump the scenes with the mannequin and dump the feeding scenes,” he said. “Replace them with some closure – what’s the message here? So a bear tears up a tent – tell people what they should be doing when camping in bear country.”
“It’s not a given that you are going to get hurt if you go camping in bear country – but that’s the message they sent,” he added.
That’s not the message the Discovery Channel wants to send. “We don’t want people thinking they can’t go camping again,” Runnette said. She offered to post appropriate bear safety information on the Discovery Channel’s website.
Runnette said although there have been several “feeding frenzy” shows, this isn’t a series and there are no more commissioned. “They do share a common idea, these are sort of experiments in the behavior of lions or crocodiles, and they (the producers) work with these experts. Tom was their expert. Tom worked with Gurney, Gurney works with us, and we expect them to work to our standards of factual accuracy and truth. I’m sorry to hear this.”
After a briefly talking about the location credit, Gurney Productions declined to talk further and did not take or return two phone calls and an e-mail.
Mike Miller of the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center oversaw the filming to ensure the people and the animals were safe. Scores of professional photographers and a number of crews have worked there over the years, filming commercials, documentaries and feature films. Miller said he’s turned down a lot of proposals he did not feel good about, and Gurney’s production did not raise any concerns.
Miller said virtually every photographer and film crew that visits the center tries to create the impression the footage is of wild animals. Fences and fence posts are either masked or off-camera for aesthetic reasons, regardless of the final use of the image.
“The filming was routine, and filming-wise, it didn’t seem bad,” he said. “It was only when they sensationalized it – hyping the talk on the film,” he said. “When they cut to other bears - they tried to make it look like they were filming in the wild and it came back to bite them.”
Miller said had the same footage been presented differently there would be no controversy. “They just hyped it too much.”
“Bear Feeding Frenzy” features an interview with an Alaska angler who was blinded and disfigured when a bear tore his face off, which he describes in detail as the program “re-enacts” the attack. In other scenes, as bears break into a vehicle and tear into a tent, Douglas highlights the violence, framing events in terms of injury and potential harm to people. This mischaracterization that bears are aggressive troublemakers, especially dangerous to campers, is upsetting to biologists.
“Bears are intelligent, largely predictable animals, and this flies in the face of that,” Van Daele said.
That largely predictable behavior has allowed for safe, managed, public bear viewing in areas such as McNeil River and Pack Creek for decades. Thousands of people have watched unfettered wild bears up close without mishap – real bear feeding frenzies, such as they are, at salmon streams.
“The perception that bears are bloodthirsty man-killers takes away from people’s opportunity to appreciate bears for what they are,” said wildlife biologist Neil Barten.
Rick Sinnott has spent years working with bears, and as state’s wildlife biologist working in Anchorage, he’s devoted considerable time addressing bear/human interactions.
“Over-exaggerating the risk of being hurt by wild animals shifts the general mood of the public,” Sinnott said. “It makes people who don’t get outside that much think bears should be eliminated or reduced in number. It promotes the idea that people should carry guns and use them. The next time someone sees a bear walking through a campground, even a black bear, they assume it’s going to walk up and grab them, and they are more likely to pull a gun and shoot.”
Van Daele said promoting the facts is good for bears. “We’ve learned quite a bit about bear psychology in the past 30 years, and as stewards of the resource we’ve applied that to bear education,” Van Daele said. “We’ve been pretty successful promoting tolerance and a realistic attitude.”
Bears living adjacent to Alaska’s cities and towns have benefitted; as respectful, informed residents became more responsible with trash and bear attractants, bear/human conflicts have diminished, and fewer bears are shot in “Defense of Life and Property.”
Van Daele said “Bear Feeding Frenzy” erodes legitimate bear safety messages.
“It’s like they made a program called, ‘Don’t Wear Seatbelts,’” he said, “with footage of people drowning in cars, or burning up in cars, all because of their seatbelts.”
One basic rule of safety in bear country is to identify yourself as human when you encounter a bear. In virtually every encounter, bears avoid people once they’ve identified them. Douglas repeatedly allows the three zoo bears to approach him as he sits silently in his predator shield box. In the first encounter, he says, “We’ll just sit here so we won’t come off as a threat.” As one bear sniffs at the box, inches away, he says, “We are completely at the mercy of this animal now.”
Later, when Douglas shouts a muffled, “Hey bear,” from inside his plastic box, the bears initially retreat, but then ignore him. They return and dismember, “his buddy Billy.”
“The show discounts all the credible advice we give people,” said Sinnott. “They portray bears as if they are looking to feed on you, and that yelling doesn’t do any good. That looking big and making noise is baloney and doesn’t work.”
“Bear Feeding Frenzy” is a double whammy of bad information and good presentation, said Kristen Romanoff, an educator with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The producers know the most effective way to reach people is to make them identify with the “victims” in the program, she said.
“They convey to the viewer: this could be you,” she said. “That could be me getting all torn up. That could be my tent getting smashed.”
That creates a very negative first impression – and one that really sticks. “It’s easy to gain new information,” Romanoff said, “but once you have a belief it takes a lot more effort to change people’s mind from something that is presented as fact – to disprove a myth.”
“The Discovery Channel has a perceived credible reputation, and because a program is engaging and gets people pumped up, they really take it in,” Romanoff said. “Then we as a state agency present things more passively and factually, and it’s hard to compete.”
Smith said he initially agreed to the project because he appreciates the potential to reach large numbers of people through television – hopefully with factual information. He said he was naïve. “There was potential for valuable scenes and stories,” he said. “I totally underestimated the weight of misinformation.”
And misinformation can resonate. Fifty years ago, Disney studios released one of the most successful, supremely misleading wildlife documentaries ever produced. “White Wilderness” highlighted lemmings’ strange compulsion to commit mass suicide, catapulting a gross mischaracterization of animal behavior into mainstream consciousness. Half a century later, this myth is still widely held.
“Bear Feeding Frenzy” is scheduled to be aired one more time on Animal Planet, on Feb. 25. It‘s likely to air again on both networks in the future, but it’s not currently scheduled. Excerpts from “Bear Feeding Frenzy” can be viewed online at the Discovery Channel site, as well as the Discovery Channel’s “HowStuffWorks” site. Among the ten clips are: “Campsite Bear Attack,” “Anatomy of an Attack,” and “Why Bears Attack Humans.” Disclaimers have recently been added to both websites.
Riley Woodford is the editor of Alaska Fish and Wildlife News and writes for the Division on Wildlife Conservation at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
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