Chapter 12: Bears on The Job

In August 2002, Dr. Scott Amsel worked as “Vet on the Set” for an American Express Commercial. The production company hired Ruth LaBarge and her family of bears for the commercial. Scott’s job was to stand by with a tranquilizer gun – in case things went sideways.

The idea behind the commercial was that the bears would approach the tent, in which a celebrity was camped – in this case Jerry Seinfeld, who would offer a comical diatribe about his credit card.

The bears Ruth used for the commercial were three grizzlies – Barney, Betty and Whopper.

Each of  the bears have their own personality. Barney and Betty were tightly bonded to each other and often sat side by side holding hands. Whopper was larger and tended to dominate the other two, bullying them like a big brother might.

Betty and Barney cuddling.

Ruth knew that Whopper needed to be “fixed” because he was starting to bully Barney and Betty more aggressively. During a break in shooting, she talked to Scott about coming out to her facility to do the job after the commercial wrapped. It became apparent to Scott, after watching the bears interact, that this was not a moment too soon.

Whopper takes direction from his trainer.

Ruth trained her bears using a hot wire, which gave them a boundary they respected from an early age. As adult bears they would never approach the wire even if it wasn’t turned on. The wire was portable and represented a real boundary for working with these huge bears. On the site of the commercial, the wire was strung around the perimeter and would later be “blown” out of the film anywhere it showed up. At any time during the shoot these half-ton bears could be only a few feet from the camera crew on the other side of the wire.

 

The one concern that the trainers had about the hot wire was that the bears had to see it for it be effective. If they were distracted, they could accidentally go right through it. It was apparent, by their relaxed attitude, that the film crew didn’t think there was any danger involved with filming grizzlies. Scott, however, was on high alert and held his tranquilizer gun like a fly swatter against a bull moose. He soon got to see first hand how silly his “fly swatter” actually was.

The incident happened in between one of the shots. Barney found a spot of salmon juice on the ground about three feet from the camera crew and sniffed it. Whopper moved in to push him off it – in his typical big brother style. Then, in the blink of an eye, the two huge grizzlies were fighting. Fights among hand raised bear siblings can be a lot like two family dogs fighting in that they often look and sound much worse than they are – a lot of sound and fury. The one significant difference though is that grizzly bears are the size of small tanks. So its best to get out of their way while they resolve their differences.

The fight was short, about ten seconds, but their cavernous mouths flashed huge, razor sharp teeth and they roared and snapped at each other. When the brothers moved back to swing their giant claws at each other, they came within inches of a half million dollars worth of camera equipment and a terrified movie crew.

The trainers carried pepper spray, lead chains and a wooden cane, but nothing could stop two grizzlies if they were determined to fight. The key was to calm everything down without getting too close. Ruth got in front of them and waved her arms to get their attention. The other trainer yelled for everyone to freeze. If the camera crew began to scream or run away the bears might become agitated and the fight could escalate.

Then, just as suddenly as it started, it was over. The silence afterwards was broken only by the sound of a lot of panting humans. Scott had not even had time to raise the tranquilizer gun. The bears, for their part, went serenely back to following their trainers. The crew took a short break to get cold drinks (Scott joked that they probably had to change their underwear). Then the commercial resumed filming. Scott noted that the tenor of the film crew was different afterward. They now realized that these were not trained dogs. They were huge, wild grizzly bears.

Later that afternoon, while Whopper was resting in his trailer, Ruth took Barney and Betty to exercise in a field up on a hill above where the filming was being done. They set up another hot wire perimeter to let the bears romp and burn off excess energy. These two bears were close and loved to play together. Betty was especially excited and was bouncing all over the place. She ran at Barney and made a playful swat, then took off toward the top of the hill. It looked to Ruth and Scott as if she had just done a “tag your it.” Betty was so excited that she then ran right over the hot wire at the top. Ruth realized too late that the wire was slung too low to be an effective barrier for the excited bear. Betty was now loose and was running at full speed.

Grizzlies can run as fast as racehorses for short distances and Betty was having a good run. The trainers took off after her and Scott came around the other side of the enclosure with the tranquilizer gun. As he topped the hill, he saw Barney, standing stretched up to his full eight foot height, looking off in the distance after the quickly receding Betty.

Without thinking, Scott put his hand up toward Barney and said in his best dog owner’s voice, “STAY!” Then he ran over the crest of the hill in pursuit of Betty. Later Scott thought of that moment, when he’d told Barney, a half-ton Grizzly, to stay as if he were a beagle, and laughed.

“I was watching Betty run down the hill toward the equipment trucks and was in a kind of “catch the bear” fugue state. Since Barney actually DID stay, maybe it helped after all,” he shrugged sheepishly.

Scott noticed a truck driver standing outside one of the trucks in Betty’s path. He was a big guy, with a Harley cap and impressive tattoos – the kind of guy you might give your side of the sidewalk to. When he saw Betty barreling down the hill toward him, however, he leaped headfirst into the cab of his truck, his large muscular legs dangling out the door. Scott would never have imagined a man his size could move that fast.

When Betty reached the line of production semis, it was like she suddenly woke up and realized she was not where she was supposed to be. She stopped next to one of the trucks breathing hard and looked around. She had been running with abandon and pleasure but now she was winded and confused. Barney was nowhere in sight.

It’s hard to say what she would have done if left on her own at that point, but just then Ruth came into sight and Betty approached her and stood so Ruth could put her lead chain around her neck. There was a lot of relief to go around as Ruth calmly led Betty back to rejoin Barney.

It had been a very long day with bears.

Betty kisses Ruth after a long (and exciting) run.

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About Sheri Amsel

Sheri Amsel has degrees in Botany and Zoology from the University of Montana 1980, a Master's Degree in Anatomy, Physiology and Biomedical Illustration from Colorado State University 1987. Ms. Amsel interned at the Smithsonian Institute in 1983 in Scientific Illustration, taught anatomy and biology at three colleges from 1990 - 1997. In addition, Ms. Amsel has published more than 15 nonfiction children's books, two field guides for adults, and illustrated a myriad of books and interpretive displays on nature and science topics. Ms. Amsel has done science programming at more than 300 schools nationally, developed more than 20 educational nature trails in New York State, and coordinates school visits to local nature trails for environmental education programs for the Eddy Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to conservation and habitat preservation. Ms. Amsel created the Exploring Nature Educational Resource website with the hopes of sharing her science and environmental education knowledge and experience with science educators and students worldwide.