The Bear Family & Me - Complete Series (Review)
Review by Jack Foley
IF WERNER Herzog’s Grizzly Man set out to prove that bears are wild beasts that shouldn’t be indulged by humans, then Gordon Buchanan’s The Bear Family & Me provided a suitably compelling counter argument.
Admittedly, Herzog tackled grizzlies, while Buchanan focused on black bears but the camera-man more than achieved his goal in forcing people – viewers and most significantly even the odd hunter – to rethink their views.
BBC’2 three-part series The Bear Family & Me was therefore an unqualified success. Told over three nights, it followed Buchanan as he got to know a series of study bears in the Northwoods of Minnesota (by the Great Lakes) in order to raise our understanding of them and change misconceptions.
Initially, he was as scared as we might be, treading cautiously as he was encouraged by American bear expert Dr. Lynn Rogers to get closer than ever before to them.
But if spring was marked by trepidation mixed with awe, summer saw growing confidence mixed with care so that, come autumn (and the final episode), Buchanan was smitten enough to don a bullet-proof vest and potentially put himself in the firing line of hunters to protect them.
It was a remarkable, thrilling and often very touching transformation. But then, like Buchanan, we too had fallen in love.
The black bears of Minnesota are now commonly regarded as the least troublesome bears in America, by virtue of the fact that large numbers of the community surrounding them have learned to accept and embrace them.
And it was easy to see why, as Buchanan spent time with two bears in particular: first-time mom Lily and her cub Hope. There were other families and the odd big male to contend with, but the focus of the three episodes was largely on the aforementioned duo and they provided enough drama to outdo any number of soaps.
In the first episode alone, Lily ‘lost’ her cub, only to be reunited (thanks to human intervention) with Hope. By episode two, Lily even abandoned Hope, prompting more agonising soul searching among the study team over whether to let nature take its course (and see Hope starve to death) or intervene once again in the hope of getting new research material.
Hope responded to intervention, learning to fend for herself in the wildlife and beat the odds, allowing Buchanan to travel back home with a certain degree of optimism come the end of the second episode.
But even he wasn’t prepared for what came next, upon his return for the final autumnal episode. Lily and Hope had been reunited once more (this time naturally) and Lily’s devotion to her cub was second to none.
However, neither mum nor cub was out of the woods yet. And having bitten our fingernails over the previous two nights, we once again held our breath as Hope attempted to gain the weight needed to survive a winter-long hibernation, while Lily did her best to avoid the approaching hunters.
Sadly, one study bear did succumb to a bullet – and her loss was felt by all concerned (viewers, camera-men and study team alike). But fortunately, Lily and Hope made it to denning – but not before allowing Buchanan to capture some truly intimate scenes between mother and cub.
It’s fair to say, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house as he said his final goodbye to them.
But perhaps even more remarkable than some of the footage was Buchanan’s bravery in not only overcoming his own fears, but in confronting one family of hunters to overcome theirs.
Having been invited into their home and sampled some bear burger (which, he admitted, was genuinely tasty), Buchanan then invited the family patriarch to accompany him on a bear watch… allowing him to get close to and even feed Lily and Hope in the hope that it might lead to a change in opinion.
And the scenes that ensued were actually quite moving, as the hunter almost welled up in his appreciation of the bears at close quarters. We’ll never know, of course, whether it was enough to change his attitude to hunting, or would even enable him to change the attitude of others, but the seeds had been sewn.
As with the rest of this wonderful series, it left you with a feeling of optimism and admiration: optimism for the future of the bears as more and more people come to understand and respect them, and admiration for one of nature’s finest animals.
And let’s not forget to praise Buchanan, either, for having the bravery and dedication to overcome his own fears and put such remarkable footage and drama on our screens. This was, in short, a wildlife series to savour.
Alternatively, to keep up with Lily and Hope’s progress or to help, visit Dr. Lynn Rogers’ website