'Bear Man' prepares defense against state charges

FEEDING: Despite danger, friends say he's just an independent Alaskan.

May 23, 2009 

Charlie Vandergaw is crazy about bears.

That's obvious in a documentary made last year by a British filmmaker at Vandergaw's remote Alaska cabin and featured in the recent Animal Planet series "Stranger Among Bears." The videos show him scratching the belly of one black bear as if it were the family dog, feeding a cookie to a large black bear sitting under a tree, and feeding dog kibble to a cub from his outstretched hand.

Vandergaw has been coexisting with bears this way for the last 20 years, and he wants to be left alone.

That is not likely to happen now that the state is using a beefed-up law to prosecute Vandergaw for feeding bears. Game officials consider feeding bears a danger to humans, especially if others duplicate the behavior.

Not everyone thinks the state needs to be going after a 70-year-old retired teacher and wrestling coach.

Even if Vandergaw ends up being killed by the bears he loves, that's the Alaska way, said John Frost, who has been friends with Vandergaw for years. He recalled that when he came to Alaska in 1973 he saw a T-shirt that said "Alaska land of the individual and other endangered species."

"Yet here we are as a state going to crush this kind, gentle little guy," Frost said.

The bears at Vandergaw's cabin about 50 miles northwest of Anchorage are more than bold, said Sean Farley, a research biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, who helped troopers serve a search warrant on Vandergaw's cabin last year.

During the search, bears had be scared off with "cracker shots" that make a loud noise when fired.

If bears were that bold in an Anchorage park or campground, Farley said, he would recommend they be shot right away.

He also noted what happened to filmmaker Richard Terry at Vandergaw's cabin: "He got whacked and dragged across the yard by one of the bears during filming. Charlie has been nipped and slapped around."

20 COUNTS

The state last week charged Vandergaw with 20 counts of illegally feeding game -- a charge that could put him in jail for a year and fine him $10,000.

The law was recently changed to include stiffer fines and jail time, and Frost said it was specifically changed to go after his friend, Vandergaw. Farley denies that Vandergaw was the motivation behind the stiffer penalties.

There was no comment from Vandergaw. No one answered the door at his Anchorage home Wednesday and he hasn't responded to messages. The state has seized the plane that he normally would use to reach the cabin, Bear Haven, which isn't accessible by road. According to charging documents, the plane was used to transport dog food to the cabin.

Vandergaw's lawyer, Kevin T. Fitzgerald, said in a statement that he found the state charges "curious as to both timing and substance." He said Vandergaw stopped feeding bears last year.

The documentary describes how Vandergaw once hunted bears but quit after an encounter with a bear 20 years ago, shortly after he retired in 1985. A black bear appeared in his yard and crawled up to him on its belly. According to the Animal Planet Web site, Vandergaw reciprocated, and the encounter started "a long-lasting love affair" with bears.

Farley said there is a psychological component to Vandergaw's behavior with the bears. "They are associating with Charlie only because of the food. That association is fulfilling some psychological need for Charlie," he said.

'TREADWELLED'

Many Alaskans think Vandergaw is just plain crazy and lucky not to be "Treadwelled," a term used by some unsympathetic Alaskans referring to Timothy Treadwell, a self-described "bear protector" who had a similarly chummy relationship with bears. He and his girlfriend were killed by bears in Katmai National Park in 2003.

On one of the videos, Vandergaw says: "I think basically what I do is my business as long as I'm not hurting anyone."

But Farley said Vandergaw was profiting from Bear Haven and had drawn two friends into his enterprise. They also were charged.

According to charging documents, Firecracker Films in London paid Vandergaw and co-defendant Carla Garrod nearly $79,000.

"Charlie hasn't just been quietly feeding them. He has been profiting from it," Farley said.

Charging documents say a search of the home of Garrod -- a real estate appraiser who also owns a photo business called C&C Bear Imagery -- found receipts for thousands of pounds of dog food and hundreds of pounds of cookies.

Also charged was another Vandergaw friend, Terry Cartee. Documents say Cartee delivered 2,800 pounds of dog food to Vandergaw.

"It is unfortunate that the state of Alaska has taken this action now after turning a blind eye toward Mr. Vandergaw and his activities in the Susitna River valley for many years," Brent Cole, Garrod's lawyer, said in a statement. "This is an unfortunate occurrence which should make all citizens of Alaska pause and contemplate the unbridled power of the state of Alaska."

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