AD Main Menu

Juneau bear man pleads guilty to bear feeding

Craig Medred
Charlie Vandergaw. Charlie Vandergaw and a conditioned grizzly at his Yentna River cabin. (Photo: Alaska Dept. of Fish & Game)
Alaska Department of Fish and Game photo
No fear. A black bear hangs out with two girls at Vandergaw's cabin. (Photo: Alaska Dept. of Fish & Game)
Alaska Department of Fish and Game photo
In court: defense. Defense attorney Kevin Fitzgerald gestures during Charlie Vandergaw's sentencing on Thursday, April 8.
Stephen Nowers photo
Sean Farley. Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Sean Farley testified for the prosecution.
Stephen Nowers photo
Charlie Vandergaw. Charlie Vandergaw at his sentencing on Thursday, April 8.
Stephen Nowers photo
Charlie Vandergaw's friends. Bears milling around near the airstrip near Charlie Vandergaw's Yentna River cabin. (Photo: Alaska Dept. of Fish & Game)
Alaska Department of Fish and Game photo

The one-time bear man of Alaska's capital city pleaded guilty to a single count of feeding game last week.

As his penalty for trying to make pets of about a dozen black bears, 65-year-old Arnold W. Hanger was ordered to pay the state $4,000 and perform 80 hours of community-service work for the Wildlife Division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. In addition, he will spend two years on probation. 

Hanger, like Charlie Vandergaw and Timothy Treadwell before him, was a man who let his love of watching and photographing bears get the better of him. To bring the bears close for pictures, he started feeding them. It worked. Bears became his buddies, and he couldn't stop feeding them.

"… Hanger had been actively feeding as many as 10-15 black bears at his residence located near Tee Harbor north of Juneau," Alaska State Troopers reported after his sentencing. "Several bears were observed by Wildlife Troopers at Hanger's residence during the investigation.

"During the service of a search warrant at the residence, 382 empty bags of dog food were located. Hanger did not own a dog."

As Vandergaw can well attest, bears love dog food. Over the years, Vandergaw spent tens of thousands of dollars on the dog food he flew to his homestead north of Anchorage for use in attracting and training black and grizzly bears. Vandergaw and his bears eventually became the stars of a TV documentary called "Stranger Among Bears" -- and a couple television specials.

But in the end, the state shut Vandergaw's "Bear Haven" as a threat to both people and bears.

Treadwell, who Vandergaw considered to be a fool, had by then already become the poster boy for the danger of getting too close to bears.

For more than a decade, the wannabe movie actor from California journeyed north to Katmai National Park and Preserve to spend his summers cavorting among huge, coastal brown bears. The behavior finally caught up with him when in October 2003 a bear killed and largely ate Treadwell and girlfriend Amy Huguenard at Kaflia Bay.

Co-author of an over-indulgent, poorly-written book, "Among Grizzlies: Living with wild bears in Alaska," Treadwell was a minor celebrity before his death and became a bigger one afterward due to the Werner Herzog film "Grizzly Man."

Authorities who could have stopped Treadwell, but never really tried, have been nervous about bear feeders ever since the Californian's death. Treadwell got away with what he did because he said he was helping the National Park Service protect the bears.

Vandergaw, a former wrestling coach in Anchorage, got away with what he did for a couple decades because he did it in a relatively remove area, did it well and had good connections.

Hanger, like Vandergaw, fed bears for years before getting caught even though other Juneau-area wildlife photographers knew what he was doing. At least one confessed that he understood what drove the old man. There's a certain attraction to trying to make friends with the bear. The legend of one man and his pet bear became the material for a hit television series called "Grizzly Adams" in the late 1970s.

The bear in that movie was a big, cuddly friend and protector for actor Dan Haggerty, but it doesn't often work out that way.

Treadwell isn't the only one to die at the claws and fangs of beloved bears. Donna Munson, 74, was probably the last to perish.

She was killed two years ago near her Colorado home. It was reported she'd been feeding nine bears there. Authorities had warned her to stop. She couldn't. Vandergaw once observed that the affection for the bears, as with the affection for many pets, can be addictive.

Authorities are hopeful Hanger is over his. He could face additional penalties if the bear feeding resumes. After settling on a plea agreement and pleading guilty, his complete sentence called for $5,000 in fines with $2,500 suspended, 10 days in jail with all 10 suspended and $1,500 in restitution to the state. The suspended parts of the sentence depend on good behavior.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com