“What Bears Teach Us”

March 24, 2021

BookShelf: “What Bears Teach Us” 

Text by Sarah Elmeligi
Photographs by John E. Marriott
Rocky Mountain Books, $45 

Reviewed by Frances Backhouse 

I first came across Sarah Elmeligi’s research in 2007, while working on a magazine story about the Khutzeymateen/K’tzim-a-deen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary, a provincially protected area on the north coast of British Columbia. 

At the time, the Canadian biologist was just months away from completing her master’s thesis on bear-viewing tourism in the sanctuary, with a focus on determining how to minimize impacts on the bears while giving tourists a safe and satisfying experience. 

She followed that degree with a Ph.D. on grizzly bear habitat use along hiking trails in Canada’s Rocky Mountain national parks and has since built a career as a kind of interspecies mediator, working to increase habitat protection for bears and reduce human-bear conflict.

“What Bears Teach Us” draws on Elmeligi’s years of learning about, and from, all three North American bear species: grizzly, black and polar.

On almost every page, she reiterates one of the first points she made during our 2007 interview: “Bears are incredibly complex animals.”


Learning from bears

Each of the book’s six chapters highlights one of the things Elmeligi says bears have taught her: patience and tolerance; adaptation and coexistence; knowing when to walk away; resilience; living in the present based on lessons from the past; and just being yourself. 


This is no ursine, self-help

manual dispensing instructions

on how to live in the world.


As the book’s title suggests, she believes we can all learn from these teachings. But this is no ursine, self-help manual dispensing instructions on how to live in the world. Rather, it is a guide to understanding bears, aimed at improving their odds of surviving in a human-dominated world. 

In the final chapter, Elmeligi zeros in on the connection between the complexity of bear behavior and the high level of individuality within each species. 

“As is the case with people,” she wrote, “every bear has a personality and things they like or dislike,” adding: “As a scientist, I’ve found that this individual variation has made me pull out my hair trying to statistically test a hypothesis and make extrapolations pertaining to a population.” 

For Elmeligi as an avid bear conservationist, she loves bears as individuals. “This inherent diversity is what makes them such a fascinating species to observe, study, spend time with, philosophize and try to understand.” 

Yet it also makes managing for coexistence extremely challenging.

“We do not have the resources, capacity, knowledge or time to manage for individual bears everywhere,” Elmeligi wrote. 

Instead, we need to “flesh out a relationship with them based on science, behavioral observations and human dimensions, as well as an openness to the unexpected.” 


A wealth of bear stories

“What Bears Teach Us” is steeped in science, with 219 endnotes scattered through its 224 pages. But it is also written in an easily accessible style, featuring plain language and a conversational voice. 

Elmeligi has a wealth of bear stories, and makes good use of them to illustrate concepts and explain findings from her own and other biologists’ research. 

She also throws in humorous asides at opportune moments, for example, noting, “I would make a bad bear because I would bluff-charge too many people for violating my personal space while I was trying to eat lunch” and contrasting her own tetchiness with the “incredible patience” shown by most bears that live in areas with lots of human activity. 

Because Elmeligi’s work focuses on grizzlies and, to a lesser extent, black bears, it’s not surprising that polar bears figure less prominently in the book than their cousins. They do, however, get top billing in the “Resilience” chapter. 

There, Elmeligi examined the behavioral and physiological adaptations that have allowed polar bears to thrive in the harsh Arctic environment and the possibilities for their resilience in the face of climate change. 

A two-page sidebar by renowned polar bear biologist Andrew Derocher — one of several such supplements found throughout the book — provides additional insights and information about this species.


Photo spreads help readers ‘really look’ at bears

Photographer John E. Marriott’s striking images grace almost every page spread in “What Bears Teach Us” and are an integral part of the book. 

Elmeligi exhorts readers to “really look at the photos of bears that John and I have included. Look into the eyes of these bears, look at their body language.” 

She and Marriott have worked together for years, and she recounts several stories about experiences they have shared while observing and photographing bears. 


Elmeligi underscores Marriott’s

philosophy of prioritizing

bear welfare over any photo op.


When Elmeligi talks about the impacts professional and amateur photographers can have on bears, she underscores Marriott’s philosophy of prioritizing bear welfare over any photo op. 

His practices, Elmeligi explains, include using very large lenses, always starting at a significant distance away from his subjects and pulling back the moment a bear shows any signs of stress or discomfort. It’s no coincidence that this discussion comes in the chapter titled “Knowing When to Walk Away.” 


Valuable lessons for all levels of reader

A decade and a half before I interviewed Elmeligi for my magazine story, I spent five months working on a grizzly bear study in the Khutzeymateen inlet and up the river valley of the same name — a study that helped make the case for the creation of Canada’s first, and — to date — only grizzly bear sanctuary. 

As I read “What Bears Teach Us,” Elmeligi’s descriptions of her research and Marriott’s intimate portraits of grizzlies feeding, relaxing, playing and skirmishing in that familiar Khutzeymateen landscape stirred up plenty of memories for me. 

But you don’t need to be a former field biologist to appreciate their words and photos. I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in bears and especially to those who live, work or play in bear country. There are valuable lessons here for all of us. 

Frances Backhouse is an SEJ member and freelancer based in British Columbia. She is working on her seventh book, which is about grizzly bears and written for kids 9 to 12 years old. 

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 12. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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