Scarred by grizzly bear, biologist turns the other cheek

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LOGAN — Four decades after surviving a grizzly bear attack, retired Utah State University professor Barrie Gilbert is advocating for better understanding and treatment for his attacker’s kind.

“I had a very strong feeling that bears needed better press,” Gilbert said as he walked in Logan Canyon. “Especially grizzlies. I think that the tales and folklore about grizzlies are all about the danger that they are.”

Ironically, Gilbert’s face was pretty much ripped apart by a grizzly, way back at the beginning of his career as a wildlife biologist. Decades later, the injury is still obvious: severe scarring and a missing eye on the left side of his face. For anyone who might have trouble looking at his face, that’s their problem, he said.

“I’m the same guy, I just got a new face. Now, if there was a Brad Pitt with a face transplant, I probably would have taken that,” he said with a chuckle.

Now he’s written a book calling for better understanding of his attacker and in a recent classroom talk at USU, Gilbert acknowledged an obvious point about grizzlies.

“They are dangerous,” he told the students. “I wouldn’t pretend they’re not.”

Gilbert’s message — after a lifetime of field studies in Alaska and Canada — is that bears and humans would get along a lot better if people would try harder to understand bear behavior.

“It’s our behavior towards them that’s so important,” he said. “They’re not the ‘great white shark’ in the woods that wants to eat your mama.”

His own research has convinced him that bears have their own culture and are much smarter than most people believe.

“I think so,” he said. “I think they’re much more intelligent. I’ve told people that they’re half-times brighter than your golden retriever dog.”

Even after his own horrific and life-changing mauling, Gilbert doesn’t blame the bear. He blames himself.

Doctors performed emergency procedures and gave Barrie Gilbert, left, 990 stitches in his head after he was attacked by a grizzly. Photo: Courtesy Barrie Gilbert
Doctors performed emergency procedures and gave Barrie Gilbert, left, 990 stitches in his head after he was attacked by a grizzly. Photo: Courtesy Barrie Gilbert

“It was bear, one, Gilbert, zero,” he said with his characteristic dark humor.

It happened in 1977 at Yellowstone National Park while he was doing field research for the university. Standing on a ridgeline he observed elk below and decided to run off the ridge to avoid being seen by the elk silhouetted against the skyline. He didn’t realize he was running straight toward a grizzly that was alarmed by his sudden movement.

“As I run fast,” Gilbert said, “I look up and there’s a bear roaring at me, clawing at the rock trying to get to me, because I basically charged it. Not a good idea.”

He compounded his error by trying to run away. But the bear caught him.

“So, I turned around to fight it, and that was a mistake too because then it lodged its big, smelly mouth right on my face,” he said, pointing to the left side of his face. “One tooth here, one tooth here, and (one) went in my eye socket and tore the side off my face.”

A USU student working with him called for help by radio. In a dramatic rescue, a DC-3 fixed twin-engine aircraft flew in and dropped medically trained smokejumpers by parachute.

“Eight wonderful guys that leaped out of that airplane and came down and wrapped me up,” he said. They did emergency life-saving procedures and, later, doctors at the University of Utah put 990 stitches in his head. His own attitude, he said, was like a rider thrown from a horse.

“You don’t hate the horse,” he said. “You learn from it and get on the horse again. And I got on the horse.”

He went back to the field and spent most of his career studying bears and advocating respect for their place in the natural world.

“The bear is a wild animal,” Gilbert said. “It needs open, wild space. And we need the bear, the grizzly bear, and the wild space.”

In his book and in his talks, he offers safety tips for humans in grizzly bear country: Stay alert, carry bear spray and don’t go alone.

There’s no instance in which three or more people were ever injured or attacked by a grizzly bear.

“Get two or three friends to go with you,” he told students. “There’s no instance in which three or more people were ever injured or attacked by a grizzly bear.”

In that same talk, he pantomimed one of the fateful mistakes he made: trying to run away from an attacking grizzly.

“If you see a bear and do this (running away), you’ve defined yourself as subordinate. And maybe you’re on the menu because you’re running. And it will chase you, for sure.”

He pointed out a human is not likely to out-run a grizzly.

“They are incredibly fast,” he said. “We’re slow-motion robots compared to a bear.”

Gilbert’s new book is called “One of Us: A Biologist’s Walk Among Bears.” He believes scientists themselves have contributed to the grizzly problem by over-managing bears with excessive capturing and collaring, a practice that Gilbert believes “is actually making bears man-haters, and in my book, I talk about it.”

“I don’t collar any bears,” he told the students. “I don’t track ’em.”

Despite the bad press that grizzlies get, Gilbert said violent grizzly encounters are far less common than fatal attacks by pet dogs.

“You know, we dwell on those instances and they are so rare,” he said.

In Gilbert’s ideal world, humans will be better informed and bears will have more freedom to roam the wilds.

“There are always risks when you go into wilderness,” he said. “I’m willing to take risks when I go into wild country.”

Gilbert left USU and moved to eastern Canada in 2005 and now lives on Wolfe Island in the St. Lawrence River.

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