What the Aesthetic Tastes of Bears Say About People

Adopting wild Russian cubs and a greater-than-human sensibility

Jared Barlament

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Charlie Russell with a young bear, Kamchatka, Russia (photo by Gay Bradshaw)

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen what floored me immediately; pictures of bears sitting down enjoying natural scenery such as vistas and sunsets. They struck me as being a lot like hikers and photographers, spending great effort just to get to sit and stare out at a pretty view. In fact, the evidence tells us it’s the exact same mechanism in us both that leads us to do this. What that tells us about ourselves — our aesthetics, our autonomy, and our identities — could be explosive.

Bears maintain rich and far-reaching social relations. They can like or dislike each other; they can form friend circles and engage in social play; they can have complex social exchanges within loose local communities; older bears can tutor unrelated younger bears in different skills; communities engage in structured relations of kinship and the sharing of resources and defense responsibilities. They stare and paw at their reflections in water for long periods of time. Cubs mourn their dead mothers for weeks.

But first, let us tell some fun stories about bears. In Kamatcha, in the Russian Far East, starting in the mid-1990s, a Canadian couple, artist Maureen Enns and rancher Charlie Russell, lived in a cabin in the wilderness surrounded by an electric fence from a dense local population of grizzly bears. They were on an interdisciplinary and multimedia mission to document the personal lives of these animals as never done before. By the almost insane courage they had in doing so, they wildly succeeded.

So it was that Enns and Russell adopted three orphaned wild brown bear cubs. There’s a string of books available written by the two about this experience, so I’ll refrain from indulging in the details, but yes, they adopted wild brown bear cubs. It was these cubs who would lead them to other bears’ old nesting sites, where Maureen noted a pattern.

https://charlierussellbears.com/1997/Beauty.html#:~:text=Within%20a%20week%20of%20our,with%20ever%20increasingly%20spectacular%20vistas.

“Within a week of our arrival at Kambalnoe with the cubs, I discovered them curled up in an old bear’s nest and observed them sitting up and peacefully…

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Jared Barlament

Author and essayist from Wisconsin studying anthropology and philosophy at Columbia University.