I had never seen so many bears in one place. And they came in all shapes and sizes. Some tall and lanky, as if their frame had been built first and the rest of their body suspended from it. Others shorter and more squat, but rippling with muscle.
But the most intriguing thing as I watched the bears, some of them only 20 or 30 feet away, was that for all their close proximity to each other, the body language was exactly the same as that of their wild Canadian cousins.
As they moved, scratching in the snow for the frozen fish that was their afternoon meal, they used the same tilt of the head, the same positioning of their mouths and curl of their lips, and the same angle of their torsos to communicate as the bears back in Canada.
For a bear nerd like me this offered a plethora of information: an insight into intent, a hint of mood, a sense of where each bear ranked in the dominance hierarchy, and clues as to when a bear’s patience was beginning to run thin.
I was riveted.
It was a late winter day and I was in Synevyr, a snow-bound national park high in the Carpathian mountains in western Ukraine, being given a private tour of one of Europe’s wildest bear sanctuaries. With me was an old friend, Nick, who is the long-time Central Europe correspondent for the BBC.
The Synevyr Brown Bear Rehabilitation Centre, which opened in 2011, is about as close as a once-captive bear in Ukraine will ever get to living in the wild.
Home to about three dozen bears, it is spread over 30 acres and consists of an outdoor enclosure on a steep hillside and a few cages for animals that have freshly arrived and are not yet ready to mingle with others.
Bears are brought to Synevyr from all over Ukraine. Most of them were once in restaurants and circuses, or in the private zoos of wealthy businessmen. One or two had come from the far east of the country, areas now under Russian control.
What makes Synevyr special for bears is that it offers a small slice of the best habitat to be had in Ukraine. But for a junky like me it was a unique opportunity to see many bears in one small place, all interacting with each other, all just being bears.
After more than 15 years running a bear lodge deep in the wilds of British Columbia and with more than a thousand encounters with wild bears under my belt, I have seen my fair share of ursine behaviour.
But to have it served up on a plate in front of me in such a condensed format, even if it was behind a wire fence, was a real treat.
Misconceptions about bears are, of course, legion. And misinterpretations of their body language almost as ubiquitous. Thanks to Hollywood and popular myth what we are led to believe is often quite wrong.
Many people think, for example, that a bear that is standing up is being aggressive.In reality if you do come across an angry bear, and the chances are rare, it will probably have its head close to the ground not up in the air.
So is a standing bear perhaps establishing dominance? Does a bear stand for the same reason that a young tough in a bar might straighten his back and puff out his chest?No, not that either.
A bear that wants to look big – and it is something they will sometimes do - will actually tend to turn sideways on.
I once met a female grizzly bear at close quarters on a bridge not far from the lodge. I was out scouting alone and suddenly she appeared about 20 yards away.
I froze. And so did she. And then slowly, slowly she turned until she was at a 90 degree angle to me, displaying the full enormity of her large shoulders and equally impressive behind.
“Check out the size of my arse,” she seemed to be saying. “Do you really want to mess with a bear with an arse this size?”
I lowered my gaze like a bashful teenager and whispered ursine sweet-nothings.
A bear standing up, then, is – perhaps a little disappointingly - nothing more than a bear having a look around. Two legs will always give for a better view than four. It alsooffers the bear a chance to have a good sniff of the air.
Bears, like dogs, are scent-oriented animals. Their vision is good – on a par with a human’s - but they prefer to rely on their nose with its millions of specialised sniffer cells. I have several times witnessed a bear pick up my scent at many hundreds of yards, and across a wide valley.
I reflected on all this as I stood in Synevyr, ankle deep in snow, and gorged on bear behaviour.
I was coming to the end of a three-week trip to Ukraine that had taken me to the frontlines in the east and the capital Kyiv and this was a real treat.
I used the visit to Ukraine to write (see my other newsletter Back to the Front for my journalistic dispatches) and also to put together a project that we will be running at the lodge this autumn.
In September we will bring six injured Ukrainian soldiers over for recuperation and wilderness skills training in our second such not-for-ptofit programme called Wild Bear Vets 2023.
In a week or so I will once again return to Ukraine, this time with Kim, my girlfriend, who is helping run the project. We aim to meet and interview some of the potential participants.
The bears that I watched in Synevyr will never return to nature – they would either run afoul of Ukraine’s estimated 400 wild brown bears, or head for human settlements where they might cause trouble.
Seeing the bears behind fencing also reminded me of how lucky I am to live in a valley with its own totally wild bear population and so few people.
And if you fancy a few days among wild Canadian bears you know the place to come.
We still have availability for this year and we may even offer a discount for certain dates in June or mid-late October, both times of the year that are not high season for tourists, but are very much peak time for bears in the valley.
If you are interested please drop me a line. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org
LINKS & NEWS
+ If you are interested in our Autumn Grizzly Viewing season we still have space.
+ In late May and early June we will also be running our Spring Bear Viewing season .
+ Many thanks to all of you who contributed to our Crowdfunder campaign for Wild Bear Vets 2023. We now have nearly 90 percent of what we need to run the programme.
What a wonderful discovery in the Carpathian Mountains. There are no wild bears in Ukraine, as far as I know, so no possibility of release into the wild in that country. Would these bears be accepted by local bears & benefit if they were transported to, say, BC in Canada for release into the wild? Or are they better off where they are? There is a beautiful, enchanting lake with its own isolated eco-system (&, I believe, some unique types of frogs & fish) not far from the bears' home, high up in the park & very much worth visiting.