ANCHORAGE, Alaska – 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 was 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 to 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.”
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.
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.
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 eaten by grizzlies 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.