I watched the last segment of this documentary with some apprehension. The first two – Spring and Summer – created an emotional charge that got me deeply involved in the lives of the bears, particularly Lily and Hope, her cub.
At the end of Summer, Hope was fending for herself (with some help from the besotted Gordon) after being abandoned by Lily. But she was still in great danger from predators. Autumn found her, against all the odds, reunited with Lily whose maternal instincts were once again in full flow. Gordon’s relief and joy are palpable, particularly because her condition is so much better: “Hope, you look like a proper bear!” Still not enough body fat for hibernation, but getting there, confirmed by a visit to Lily’s Aunt Juliette and her 3 cubs for comparison.
In between walking with his bear family, Gordon is looking at the wider context of their existence in the Minnesota woods. He talks to Charlie, who lives in the remote community of Eagle’s Nest. Like some of his neighbours, Charlie feeds the bears that come to his property. For him, bears are not a problem, but the inevitable consequence of living in the woods.
Then there’s a visit to a gun shop – “guns for everyone” – and the culture shock, sharpened by Gordon’s love for the bears, is evident. But he does try to understand the other point of view. He visits Dave, a local hunter, whose walls are crowded with hunting trophies, and eats a bear-burger (enjoys it too). Dave is “one of the good guys” who don’t shoot bears with radio collars. He even goes with Gordon to meet Lily and Hope. Gordon is definitely in the business of changing hearts and minds, as he persuades Dave to feed the bears from his hand. It’s a lovely moment.
But his main mission is to protect the bears, because it’s now the hunting season: “This time, I’m no longer just a cameraman – I’m a bodyguard.” Down to the bullet-proof vest. It’s illegal to shoot radio collared bears when a researcher is with them, so Gordon, Lynn and Sue try to walk with the research bears during daylight. The bears also wear bright pink and yellow ribbons on their collars.
Another concern is that Hope will not get fattened up in time for hibernation. Lily must soon start building a den for the winter, taking them out of harm’s way. But the hunters are in Lily’s territory, and she’s unable to move into other bears’ territory without challenging the occupier. This has already happened – another bear, Sarah, has challenged Lily twice and been driven away.
The tension cranks up as the programme progresses. I found myself looking at the elapsed time counter, thinking, “well, not long to go, and nothing terrible has happened yet.”
But it does. Sarah, the bear who challenged Lily, is shot – despite wearing a collar and a brightly coloured ribbon. Her collar is shoved, anonymously, through the the letter box of the Dept. of Natural Resources. Coming as it does after we’ve come to know these bears as characters, it feels like an utterly despicable act. Sue, one of researchers, says it best: “I feel like crap. It’s so hard to understand the way they think.”
Then it’s time for Gordon to return to Scotland, but not before seeing Lily make a start on a den. He has changed from the wary cameraman, who only filmed wild animals from a relatively safe distance, to someone who has lost his fear and bonded with these animals. My guess in the opening segment, Spring, is borne out in this one when he says, “I’ve fallen in love with these bears.”
And so have I. I can usually take or leave nature programmes, but this one went straight to the heart. For the most part due to Gordon’s empathic connection with the bears and the humane research carried out by the Wildlife Research Institute.
This is inspired television, presented with wit, courage and passion.
The Bear Family & Me is available on DVD at the BBC Shop.