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British filmmaker captures life of man living with bears
Anchorage Daily News


January 04, 2008
Monday PM

Anchorage could have a new international celebrity: a nearly 70-year-old retired teacher who has spent the past two decades hiding from the public eye in an effort to conceal his intimate love affair with a large gang of black and grizzly bears.

After the existence of Charlie Vandergaw's Susitna Valley bear farm was revealed in the Daily News last spring, the former wrestling coach decided to come clean with his unbelievable story.

British documentary filmmaker Jon Alwen spent 51 days with Vandergaw at the farm last summer. His hour-long documentary, which aired on television in Great Britain two weeks ago, provides an up-close view of Vandergaw's life with a collection of black and brown bears that are treated more like, and sometimes behave more like, family dogs than bears.

Except, of course, when the family dog puts its paws on you they usually aren't on your shoulders, and even if they are, they aren't tipped with four-inch-long, razor-sharp claws and the dog's head doesn't tower three feet above yours.

Alwen filmed a scene like this and others equally shocking. Vandergaw, however, said the young filmmaker "didn't even get the best stuff."

What Alwen got is nonetheless jaw dropping.

"The Man Who Lives with Bears" will be shown in the United States on ABC's "Primetime: The Outsiders," although no date has as yet been set, according to London-based Firecracker Films. There's a trailer up on YouTube.

The film appears to have both shocked and fascinated British TV critics.

"The Man Who Lives with Bears ... really does," wrote Tim Teeman of The Times. "They come into his garden, eat from his bucket and occasionally bite him. It didn't mean to be a sweet program -- the bears are quite ferocious and Charlie was a dedicated recluse -- but he was fascinated by them, and (unless it was just the food) they by him. Only Kookie, a female grizzly, proved resistant to his bear-whispering ways.

"Jon Alwen's film captured the desolate Alaskan expanse as well as the sheer strangeness of Charlie playing with the bears; astonishing when there are so many murderous bear-on-human attacks. Charlie is aware that his fascination could have fatal consequences, and his naivety and adoration are tempered with life-saving common sense. I do hope Kookie comes back and they become friends."

In a telephone interview earlier this month, Vandergaw said he hasn't read the reviews nor seen the film as yet. What people say -- good or bad -- about him and what he considers his bears doesn't, at this point, matter, he added.

"Have you Googled my name?" Vandergaw asked. "Every sort of vile thing that can be said has already been said about me. A lot of folks get their jollies at that. There are lots of pissant experts out there. I don't think (the documentary) will change anything."

Such contacts are what led to the deaths of Grizzly People founder Timothy Treadwell and girlfriend Amie Hugenard. The man whose bear-whispering ways got him onto "The Late Show with David Letterman" was killed and eaten by a grizzly near Hallo Bay in Western Alaska. The bear then killed his girlfriend.

Vandergaw believes the deaths happened mainly because Treadwell was a misguided fool. Vandergaw cites his own decades-long association with black and brown bears as evidence that he knows better than the shaggy-haired Californian.

One of his daughters, Terra Vandergaw, agrees. She spent part of her childhood at the bear farm, she said, and never felt in any danger with the bears. A one-time actress turned acting professor at a college in New Jersey, she has felt comfortable enough to send her children north to spend time with their grandfather at the bear farm in the summer. Dozens of other friends and acquaintances of the Vandergaws have also visited the farm over the years.


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