Last Night’s TV – Natural World: Bearwalker of the Northwoods

by Lynn Connolly

bearwalker of the Northwoods 2

This is without doubt one of the most truly beautiful natural history films I’ve ever seen. Documenting and observing the unique relationship that Dr Lynn Rogers has with black bears in the Minnesotan Northwoods, this remarkable film invoked many conflicting emotions for me.

First, it was uplifting and inspiring to see how dedicated Dr Rogers, his wife Donna and his research assistant Sue are to these astoundingly dignified and beautiful animals, and their devotion has been rewarded by gaining the trust of the bears, thus enabling the study of them.

However, the joy of the magnificent bears, the beyond-cute cubs and the breathtaking scenery was marred, as it so tragically often is, by the interjection into this wilderness for six weeks a year by hunters, intent on taking home a bear carcass.

Bearwalker of the Northwoods

Nature throws enough challenges at the bears – disease and predators being just two – and as we saw, one small family unit was sadly depleted as one cub simply disappeared and another died as a result of a parasitic infection.

But then came September and hunters tore a brutal path of destruction through the woods, and not only killed one bear who clearly was fitted with a radio collar – and therefore should have been off limits to the hunter’s gun – but another who was not collared but nonetheless was known to Dr Rogers.

Not only was Dale – the young male black bear who was killed on day one of hunting season – interesting from the study’s point of view, he was also, ironically, one of the bears who would visit the ‘Bear Cabin’ in order to mingle with the humans who go there in part to get over their irrational fear of bears.

Dale sat patiently on some wooden steps while one middle aged lady hand fed him in order to conquer her fear of his kind. He gently accepted the food and happily submitted to the lavish attention of cameras and loving strokes along his lush fur, but he was to be shown no mercy by the hunters who took him for no reason other than as a trophy and in the name of ‘sport’.

I abhor hunting in any form, and given the pioneering and dedicated work that Dr Rogers and his colleagues have done for decades in bringing greater understanding of black bears to the world, he was remarkable sanguine about the fact of his and the bears’ lives; that hunters can and do kill the bears every autumn.

How he doesn’t go nuts and turn a gun on the hunters is a sign of the man’s innate dignity. I don’t advocate the use of violence as a remedy to similarly mindless violence, but it must be heartbreaking to carefully nurture such a mutually trusting relationship with animals who are then mown down in a matter of moments needlessly.

However, that aside, the majority of the film focussed on female bear June and her small family of yearling cubs, as well as her sister Juliet and her cubs, two of whom, as I mentioned earlier, died within their first year.

Dr Rogers has developed an incredible relationship with June and Juliet by simply building up trust over many years in the form of offering food then sitting quietly and patiently until the bears accept him and his colleagues as being non-threatening fellow fauna.

And the footage that Dr Rogers and the cameraperson with him got was awe inspiring. Not only of the vistas which were legion and stunning but also of the bears, completely at ease and simply going about the business of being a bear.

Watching them plonk themselves on the ground to scratch off irritatingly hot under-fur as summer arrived was comedically clumsy. Watching them play and eat was heart warming, and watching them go through the cycles of their lives was a privilege.

By the end of it, I must admit I cried like a girl, whilst trying hard not to be seen to be doing so. My family are merciless when I get gooey over animals, but with the beautifully haunting acoustic version of Over The Rainbow playing, and June and her brand new cubs emerging from their den, sleepy eyed and curious, you’d have to have been made of stone not to get a little tearful.

Programmes of this kind are so valuable because they bring us closer to the true nature of animals, and especially in this case, animals who are feared, wrongly as it turns out. Black bear attacks on humans are so rare, they’re almost negligible and it’s thanks to dedicated scientists like Dr Rogers that we all get to share in some small way the magnificence of the animals in question and hopefully, films like this will only further the cause of banning hunting altogether.

It irks me beyond reason that because we humans are capable of subterfuge, deceit and weapon wielding, some of us feel we have the right to kill animals in the name of sport. What sport is there when your ‘opponent’ doesn’t have a gun to shoot right back? When your opponent is doing nothing more than trying to survive in a harsh wilderness and doesn’t have the wile to hide in a tree, ready to ambush?

It’s desperately sad, but I have to reiterate what I said at the beginning of this piece; despite the footage surrounding hunting, this was one of the most wonderful films I’ve even seen and if you missed it, I’d highly recommend you catch it here on BBC iPlayer.

Lynn is an editor and writer here at Unreality TV and is trained psychotherapist and the author of two books. She's addicted to soaps, period drama and reality TV shows such as X Factor, I'm A Celeb and Big Brother.