The Fortress of the Bear

Chaik, a one-thousand-pound brown bear, lumbers in my direction, stops, and rises to his full height — about ten feet. He looks directly at the man standing next to me and roars.

“Do you want to feed him?” the man asks.

We are about forty feet away from Chaik, which would be a far-less-than-safe distance except for the fact that the hulking bruin is safely situated in a gigantic cement pit, the remains of an abandoned paper pulp mill just outside Sitka, Alaska. Or rather, I am safely situated on the walkway at the top of the seventeen-foot-high wall that forms the perimeter of the old pulp basin that is now Chaik’s home. The bear is not the one who needs protection — at least not now. But that wasn’t always the case.

I am visiting the Fortress of the Bear, and its founder and executive director, Les Kinnear, is showing me around. Les has been a licensed wildlife guide for more than two decades, and knows more about bear behavior and biology than anyone I’ve ever met.

Six-year-old Chaik and his little brother Killisnoo, who weighs a mere seven hundred pounds, came to this non-profit education and rescue center as cubs shortly after it opened in 2007. Les got the idea for it after reading a newspaper article about the state having killed three orphaned bear cubs, who would have slowly starved to death without their mother. Shooting was — and still is — the only official protocol Alaska has for dealing with orphaned cubs, but Les thought there must be a better way.

He located two huge water settlement tanks left from an old pulp mill just outside Sitka, abandoned in 1993. With their high walls, concrete floors, and controllable drainage system, they made perfect bear enclosures. After spending several years navigating a complex and often frustrating permitting process, Les established the Fortress of the Bear. Local environmentalists protested the plan at first, but have since been satisfied that the bears here are well cared for.

“How much space does a bear need, anyway?” I ask.

Les had the data at the tip of his tongue. “International zoo standards mandate at least 4,200 square feet for two adult bears. This space houses Chaik and Killisnoo in a 35,000-square-foot enclosure — that’s more than eight times as large as is required.” A second enclosure that’s 24,000 square feet is home to three more residents: brown bear triplets Balloo, Lucky and Toby, who arrived in 2010. They were a year-and-a-half old at the time — not yet mature enough to survive on their own — and their mother had died from eating plastic bags she found in a garbage can.

Chaik and Killisnoo at Fortress of the Bear

Because they are circular, the pulp pits provide a “continuous environment” — there are no unnatural corners to hem the bears in. The pits have dirt floors with small berms, low-growing vegetation, scattered branches and the occasional tree stump. They look pretty much the same as the surrounding environment, except that they also include good-sized swimming holes, a bright yellow soccer ball, and a couple of old tires the bears like to play with.

“But wouldn’t they be better off in the wild?” I persist.

“All the bears here were orphaned because of human behavior, and would’ve been euthanized if they hadn’t found a home.” It turns out that bears being orphaned because of human behavior is a common occurrence. Their mothers might be hit by cars or shot by hunters. If a hungry mother bear is hanging around too close to humans and considered a nuisance, she might be destroyed for the sake of human safety.

“Is it even possible for bears and humans to live in the same area?” I wonder.

“Yes!” Les is emphatic. “Bears and people can live harmoniously in the same area; they have been doing so successfully on some Alaskan islands for decades. But it doesn’t work so well,” he warns, “when we entice bears with outdoor barbecues and pet food, and then shoot them when they come around foraging for table scraps.” The cubs left behind are lost and terrified — traumatized without their mother. Because they’re so anxious, it’s difficult to place them in commercial zoos.

I like the way Les answers. He may know more about bears than anyone else in the world, but he plays the information out slowly, like a fly fisherman. He never provides too much for me to absorb; in fact, he holds back a little. That just makes me more curious about the bears.

“What do they do here all day?” I ask Les.

He watches them for a few moments before answering. I’ve seen the look on his face before — it’s that of a proud father. “The bears here are displayed in a way that reflects their innate behaviors — they are not bored or pacing. You can see them interacting with each other and their environment.”

The bear I’m looking at now, the small male named Balloo, appears to be interacting with himself. Les is watching me watch the bear. “Is that one, um …?” I trail off.

“Yes, he’s doing what boy bears do,” Les says.

“What else do they do?”

“Killisnoo and Chaik search for food, explore and play with the toys we provide. They also spend a lot of time in the water; they’re more closely related to polar bears than to other brown bears.”

“They’re related to polar bears?” This strikes me as odd, since the nearest polar bears are nearly 1,000 miles away.

The ABC Bears

“These are ABC bears,” Les tells me, part of a genetically distinct population native to the southeast Alaskan islands of Admiralty, Baranof, and Chicagof — colloquially known as the ABC Islands. The area is known for its wilderness and wildlife, including the highest density of brown bears in the world — about one bear per 1.3 square miles.

DNA analysis suggests that the brown bear (Ursus arctos), a species that also includes grizzlies, was an ancestor to polar bears, which then evolved to develop specializations — such as a camouflaging white coat and teeth suited for eating seals — for inhabiting the harsh Arctic.

Killisnoo and Chaik roughhousing at Fortress of the Bear

Killisnoo and Chaik are roughhousing, but Les assures me it’s play fighting, nothing serious. They tussle in the water, wrestling and swatting at each other, splashing and growling for a few minutes. Soon they settle into what looks like comfortable companionship.

“How do you know whether they’re healthy?”

“A veterinarian checks them regularly for large scars or tattered ears, which would be signs of serious fighting. He also checks their paws for cuts or other injuries, like broken nails or toes.”

“Are the bears happy?” I want to know.

“Everyone asks that question, and no one really knows the answer.” Les is hesitant to anthropomorphize. “What we do know is that these bears are well fed and secure. We’ve eliminated the stress of finding food. There’s no need for them to defend their territory, to travel through other bears’ territories, or to encounter larger bears that could harm them.”

And even if they can’t duplicate the real life conditions under which bears hunt — killing seals, running down deer, catching mountain goats on high peaks — trainers at the Fortress of the Bear can still encourage the bears to interact with their environment and hunt for their dinner. Rather than feeding the bears on a regular schedule, trainers hide food throughout the enclosures.

“What do they eat?”

“They especially love celery and lettuce, but they don’t like potatoes or onions.” Once again, Les strikes me as a proud father. He knows exactly what the kids will eat. “They also enjoy grapes, apples, avocados, melon, other fruits and veggies, bread, dairy, meat, chicken, and — a special treat — live fish from the hatchery at the end of the season. Lots of their food is donated by local restaurants and grocery stores.” Bears are omnivores, and will eat just about anything. That’s a good thing, because Killisnoo and Chaik each require thirty to forty pounds of food every day.

Les shows me how, with hand and body movements, he has trained Chaik to stand up or lie down. “It used to be that the trainers worked the bears,” he says. “But now the bears work the trainers — they will make the response that gets them food. Toby, the only female here, really likes to eat.” She was the first to learn to signal for more food, by putting her paws together in front of her chest.

Toby is signaling for more food now, and Les says I can feed her if I want to. I have never fed a bear before. It seems like a risky undertaking, but Les seems to think I’ll enjoy it, and leads me to a hefty metal gate that opens into the animals’ enclosure. It’s made of heavy-duty steel grating, painted aqua, with a space about three inches high between the ground — which is muddy from a recent rain — and the bottom of the gate. It is through this slim slot that I am to deliver apple slices to Toby.

Toby knows what’s up. She wastes no time, slipping her huge paw under the door. Her claws are gigantic. The smallest one is larger than my apple slice. I’m so scared I almost drop the apple slice into the mud. (Does mud taste bad to Toby? Would she be mad at me if I got her apple muddy?)

Toby reaches for the apple. I’m surprised at her finesse, her agility. It almost seems as though she is picking up a grain of rice with chopsticks — her touch is that delicate. Then she pulls the apple under the gate, dragging it through the mud. And in barely a whiff, it is gone.

For updates on Chaik, Killisnoo, Balloo, Lucky, and Toby, visit Fortress of the Bear.

A version of “The Fortress of the Bear” appears in my new collection of travel stories, Your Crocodile has Arrived: More true stories from a curious traveler, available online and from your favorite bookstore.