Bear man Charlie Vandergaw -- who once hosted the largest gathering of semi-tame bears in Alaska at his homestead west of Anchorage -- was Thursday fined $20,000 for feeding the animals and shackled with a 180-day suspended jail sentence.
The suspended sentence handed down by a district court judge in Palmer will likely guarantee the 71-year-old former Dimond High School teacher avoids future temptations to attract and train black and grizzly bears at his outpost in the Yentna River drainage. The jail time could be imposed if Vangergaw goes back to baiting his so-called "Bear Haven" with dog food to attract bears.
For more than 20 years, Vandergaw lured bears to the retreat near Alexander Creek about 50 miles from Anchorage. Then he used dog food, cookies and other treats to train the bears to live with people much like big dogs. It was his passion.
His attorney, Kevin Fitzergerald of Anchorage, said Vandergaw did it "because he loved the bears" and wanted to demonstrate they could live in harmony with man. Fitzgerald blasted the state for causing "the tragic end of a pursuit with so much promise, a pursuit that has the potential of teaching us ... that man could interact, could have relationships with bears at a much higher level, a more humane level."
State officials have countered there is no higher level where bears will become the new trendy pet. Bears, Assistant Alaska Attorney General Andrew Peterson argued, are potentially dangerous and need to be treated that way.
"You don't feed bears," he said. "You don't cuddle with them. At some point, it's going to lead to someone being hurt and killed."
After a day of testimony, District Court Judge John Wolfe sounded skeptical about the latter claim.
"The harm caused by Mr. Vandergaw, if any, is minimal," he said in pronouncing the 180-day suspended sentence and $20,000 fine -- the minimum agreed to by Vandergaw and his attorney earlier this week when he agreed to plead guilty to eight counts of feeding bears in exchange for the dismissal of 12 others and an agreement to hold his fine between $20,000 and $72,000.
Peterson had argued for the largest fine possible. He said Vandergaw not only engaged in dangerous activity by inviting others, including children, to Bear Haven to get close to and sometimes touch his bears, but Vandergaw made money from the deal as well. Depending on which side was doing the accounting, Vangergaw pocketed anywhere from $71,000 to almost nothing from Firecracker Films, a London-based firm, for the rights to shoot a documentary about him and his bears. The two sides also disagreed on how much Firecracker and television networks made off the show. That number floated between $350,000 and $750,000.
Wolfe decided the money didn't matter because he saw in Vandergaw's behavior no desire to profit off Bear Haven. From watching video of Vangergaw and the bears, the judge said, "it's pretty obvious Mr. Vandergaw cares deeply for these bears." The judge thought he saw "mutual affection" from the bears, too.
State wildlife biologists had warned that no matter what the video appeared to show what Vandergaw was doing was dangerous. The judge didn't buy it.
"I'm not convinced that what he did ... was any more dangerous than many other activities," Wolfe said. The judge went on to compare taking a child to Bear Haven to meet Vandergaw's bears with flying to Hawaii with one's children. The reasoning was rooted in the arguments laid out by Fitzgerald and Vandergaw that fears of bears are largely based on a bunch of hype. Fitzgerald even took to task the state's public relations campaign -- "A fed bear is a dead bear" -- aimed at keeping bruins out of trash in Anchorage and elsewhere.
There was, the lawyer said, no good evidence to support that claim.
"The state's education program is based on the false premise that the only good bear is a dead bear, that there can't be human-bear interaction or involvement," Fitzgerald said, and Vandergaw had shown otherwise.
Many who have worked with bears at universities and elsewhere would agree, but only in the most limited of circumstances, as Vandergaw himself once admitted in an interview at his bear farm. He was, he told this reporter, in charge of a pretty controlled experiment to manipulate the behavior of bears. It wasn't much different, he confessed, than what people do to train any animals anywhere.
He carefully rewarded bears with dog food or cookies when they did what he wanted, and he punished them when they did otherwise. Sean Farley, a state wildlife biologist, said that when he was at Bear Haven in 2008, the retired teacher whacked a bear with an oar to get it off his porch. Such negative conditioning, along with a loss of positive reinforcement, does not appear to have been uncommon at Bear Haven.
Over the course of 20 years, Vandergaw became a master in the art of dealing with free-roaming, semi-wild bears in this way. The animals -- black bears and their bigger, more powerful cousins the grizzlies -- would sometimes gather by the dozens at his compound in the shadow of Mount Susitna across Cook Inlet from of Anchorage. Tens of thousands of pounds of dog food had been used to lure them there year by year before the state finally moved to try to stop the bear feeding in 2008.
By then, the bears lured by dog food had lured all sorts of bear lovers and filmmakers, and Vandergaw had become famous, possibly more so in Europe -- where the Vandergaw documentaries got big play -- than in the U.S. He appeared in at least two full-length documentaries and a number of shorter television segments in recent years.
Some of the coverage focused on whether what he was doing was safe in the wake of the death of Californian Timothy Treadwell and girlfriend Amy Hugenard. Treadwell spent 13 summers cozying up to grizzlies in Alaska's Katmai National Park and Preserve before he ran into a bear that killed and partially consumed him and Hugenard.
Vandergaw thought the rather off-beat Treadwell was a whack-job who took stupid risks around bears and died at the hands of his own ignorance. But Vandergaw admitted he had been injured by bears, too, though never seriously, and other experts in bear behavior said that although the one-time wrestling coach oversaw a far more controlled environment than Treadwell ever envisioned, there were still dangers.
Since Vandergaw's property was searched and his dog-food-transporting airplane seized in 2008, the safety debate has continued among people interested in bears. There are people who think the danger of bears largely underrated, and those who think the danger vastly overstated. Some of the latter helped organize a Web site -- savebearhaven.org -- to solicit funds for Vandergaw's defense and argue the virtues of what he has been doing for 20 years.
Fitzgerald was confident Bear Haven was pretty safe. As far as threats to public safety go, he compared what Vandergaw was doing to nudging past the speed limit on the freeway. Peterson held the opposite view. But both lawyers and the judge did agree that it was against the law, and Vandergaw willfully violated the law.
"Mr. Vandergaw is committing an intentional crime," Peterson said, and what Vandergaw has been doing sets a bad precedent.
Whether the animal being fed is a moose, a wolf or a bear, there is evidence that animals regularly fed by humans come to expect food from humans and if they don't get it, they will sometimes act aggressively in trying to obtain it. Some cabin owners near Vandergaw's summer encampment claimed to have had problems with bears that appeared to have lost their fear of people. One told this reporter that over the years he shot and killed two bears he believed had been conditioned by Vandergaw to approach people.
State wildlife officials -- even those who recognized Vandergaw as quite possibly the state's leading authority on interpreting the likely behavior of bears based on their movements, posture and other subtle signals -- made much the same argument. And Vandergaw himself had confessed to others, including this reporter, that he knew what he was doing certainly wasn't risk-free.
Despite that, he was allowed to continue feeding bears for years. State officials knew about the feeding early in this decade, if not sooner, but largely ignored it until an Anchorage newspaper reported the full extent of the Vandergaw operation.
That and the discovery that Vandergaw was regularly inviting others, including children sometimes without parental consent, led to the 2008 crackdown. On Thursday, Fitzgerald argued that it was safer than it looked. Aside from Vandergaw and filmmaker Richard Terry, no one had been injured at Bear Haven -- or at least no one in Vandergaw's tight circle of friends was admitting to it --- and certainly no one had been killed, Fitzgerald said.
"In some measure, the proof is in the pudding,'' he said.
Stephen Nowers contributed to this story. Craig Medred covered the Iditarod for Alaska Dispatch last month, focucing on the "back of the pack" mushers trying to reach Nome. The stories are a prelude to his forthcoming book, "Graveyard of Dreams: Dashed Hopes and Shattered Aspirations along Alaska's Iditarod Trail." Click to pre-order a copy.