Buck Wilde, The Bear Whisperer
Reprinted courtesy of Centre Magazine – all rights reserved. By Finn Farlow.
“The Seneca Tribe didn’t like white folks moving in, so they raided settlements to reclaim their land. One day, the Indians snuck through the forest and attacked a family that was working the land. They scalped everyone but little Elizabeth and William. They kidnapped them away to Ohio. Elizabeth escaped and came back here to Pennsylvania, but William liked living with the Indians, and when he grew up to be almost a man, they made him their chief, so he stayed.” – Buck Wilde, from Breath of the Bear
Nature photographer, author and wildlife expert Buck Wilde, a Centre County, PA, native and Penn State grad (Class of 1971), has worked as a guide and cameraman on television productions for the BBC, Discovery Channel and National Geographic. He has written a dozen children’s books about natural history and is currently preparing a new online series for young readers. He has also published Breath of the Bear; a collection of non-fiction stories, including the tale of Buck’s ancestor (and Seneca Indian chief) William Spicer, which is told, in part, by Buck’s grandfather.
I met with Buck in January 2015, during his hiatus from the wilderness adventures he’s enjoyed every summer for the past quarter-century. He talked about how a “CIA geek” named Sam Holderman became a wildlife behaviorist named Buck Wilde who, after being featured in a 2001 BBC broadcast, was dubbed “The Bear Whisperer” by the program’s host, David Attenborough.
The skills that earned him that moniker were especially evident on the 2012 BBC documentary called “The Great Bear Stakeout,” during which he had an encounter with Van, a huge grizzly and the dominant male in a wilderness region of southern Alaska where filming took place. Van had a mangled ear and was named (by Buck) after the one-eared post-Impressionist Vincent Van Gogh. One rainy morning, late in the shooting schedule, Van returned to the beach where he buried a seal killed the previous evening by his mate, Alice. After some digging, he discovered that his breakfast was gone, obviously dislodged and carried away by the tide. Van, convinced that his seal was stolen, was clearly upset. (“Like most bullies, Van has more brawn than brains,” noted Scottish actor/comic Billy Connolly, the film’s narrator.) The disgruntled bear scans the area and immediately spots the only available culprits-Buck Wilde and the two cameramen on the shore. As Van began to amble in their direction, Buck picked up the canister of pepper spray, clicked off the safety, and prepared for the worst as he explained the situation to his colleagues, Matt Aeberhart and David Marks.
“If Van were to decide anything we’re doing here contested his lost seal, he would give us one hair-raising charge, and we don’t want to see that.” Matt looked up from his viewfinder and considered backing off, but Buck told him a retreat of any kind was not a good option. Meanwhile David, standing behind them, continued to shoot. Buck knelt down and instructed the others to do likewise. Then he began to talk to Van in a calm, kindly tone, as if speaking to a child or pet. “Van, we’re not challenging you. Good boy, Van. We don’t want your seal.” Matt followed Buck’s lead, mimicking his guide almost word-for-word, and Van, satisfied by their act of submission, veered from the trio and plodded away.
Buck wrote about that experience in Breath of the Bear: “Other bear experts might differ with me on this point, but I came away from the encounter with even greater confidence in taking a submissive vs. aggressive tact as long as no anger is being expressed by a brown (i.e. grizzly) bear’s body language. Furthermore, Van’s challenge from the kill site brought more credence to official guidelines about maintaining a ‘safe distance’ from kills and carcasses.”
Your interest in nature and wildlife probably dates back as far as you can remember, doesn’t it?
Buck Wilde: Yeah. I was born in Bald Eagle Valley and lived there through my college years here at Penn State. Grew up on a farm out in the middle of nowhere and spent a lot of time in the mountains hunting and trapping and fishing. I had a grandfather who was a great storyteller and a father who was a wonderful hunter and a naturalist himself. He was a big influence on my brothers and me, and both of my brothers, Dave and Charlie, became wildlife biologists. Dave ended up going to Alaska and Charlie is currently in Idaho. So, thanks to Bald Eagle Valley and my father, we got scattered all over North America chasing wildlife. My father’s side of the family is from Bern, Switzerland-The City of Bears, coincidentally. They were recruited by William Penn, along with a bunch of other Anabaptists over there that were being persecuted. So they bought land and came over to Pennsylvania. Got off the boat in 1715. The first biologist in the family was actually an entomology professor at the University of Pennsylvania between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War period. This fascination with nature seems to be in our blood. So that’s in my father’s pedigree, if you will. He was a blue collar worker, worked for a local power station in Milesburg, but really his passion was hunting and nature. And he bought property out in the middle of Bald Eagle Valley which was, as far as he was concerned, the best turkey hunting in the valley. So we learned how to hunt turkey and deer, and that’s how he spent his time with us and that was his primary influence, really, on us boys.
You wrote that your dad, Kenneth “Pappy” Holderman, was the best turkey hunter in Bald Eagle Valley. Did you become as good a shot as he was?
None of us were as good at anything as my father was. My father was one of the best dancers I’ve ever seen. He was a great athlete. Amongst other things, he was a Golden Gloves boxer in the Army Air Corps, post- World War II. He was an impressive man in that regard – a guy that could do everything.
What about your grandfather, Buck Spicer?
My grandfather was a completely different man. He wasn’t a hunter and he was very proud of his Native American heritage. He looked like an Indian. His name was Spicer, pronounced “Spiker”by the Seneca, and that story he told about those two kids being kidnapped? As far as we can tell, he was related to that family. And that is a true story. That’s a historically documented story about this one young boy named William that ultimately became a Seneca Indian chief-Chief Spicer. Anyhow, my grandfather was a meat cutter and had a meat market/grocery store in Bald Eagle Valley. But he loved to tell stories, and he loved to scare us kids by telling those stories. And a few things I’m proud of that he taught me to do was … my dad taught me how to hunt and fish, my grandfather taught me how to swear, how to tell a good story, and how to drink whiskey.
Three of the most important things a guy can learn. So William Spicer, who would have been your great great great grandfather, was a Seneca Indian chief?
Yes. Actually, the local band of the Seneca was called the Mingo Tribe. As you might know from your local history, there’s a Centre County town, Mingoville, and the former Chief Logan High School mascot was the Mingos – it’s that Indian tribe. They were part of a broader tribe known as the Seneca, and the Seneca were part of the Iroquois Confederation, originally from upstate New York. The notorious Seneca Chief Logan led that raid on the local settlers in 1774, and raised William back in Ohio.
So your maternal grandfather comes from the family of a kid whose parents are murdered by Indians. And this kid is adopted by these Indians and later, despite the fact that he was a white man, becomes chief of the tribe.
And that’s all I know of the story. I’ve actually just come across verification of the story recently in an ethnology-research that somebody did in this family tree that was posted on-line. My grandfather just used to tell me that he was related to Chief Logan, and I believe his story got very muddled by the time he heard it. But my grandmother and my mother forbade him from talking about that Native American heritage. He had strict orders about A: not making us cry when he told stories, and B: not telling stories that none of the other adults in the family believed, i.e. the Native American part.
One of his stories was about Bigfoot – an enormous black bear.
He used to talk about this big-footed bear on the mountain that would come and visit the farm and do all kinds of spooky things and lurk around in the night. You could never see him but he was a giant. My grandfather would just get the kids’ imaginations going … and he wasn’t happy until he scared the hell out of you.
The name of the giant bear is a little misleading, since many people associate Bigfoot with the mythical, simian creature who walks upright.
Well, bears often get in a bipedal position to stand upright to do various things, so that’s an easy place to extrapolate to. To see big footprints and perhaps seeing an upright, 10-foot bear in the forest…it’s only one step to Bigfoot, you know? (laughs)
I’m curious about your association with Dr. Paul Ekman, the famous psychologist that specializes in facial expressions and is considered “the best human lie detector in the world.” How did you end up working with him?
Let’s see, how to put this … unlike my two brothers who became wildlife biologists, I studied electrical engineering. So I worked for 16 or 17 years – probably about 12 or 13 of those locally – as an electrical engineer, generally in the Department of Defense. More specifically, I worked with spy satellites, and over the last five years of my career, I transitioned from Naval Intelligence into the CIA. I was not a CIA employee, but I was a CIA contractor. And in the course of my work there, I was exposed to a counter-espionage project that Paul Ekman was basically the technical advisor of. In essence, what they were doing was bringing polygraph technology into the 21st Century, only this was 25 years ago.
So it was 1985?
Yeah, 1985 to 1990. I quit in 1990 and went from the CIA to bears. (laughs) That was my big mid-life crisis. But there was this polygraph technology, research and development, at a counter-espionage center that the CIA was running in Washington, D.C. What my group was doing was building this polygraph machine. What Ekman was doing was saying that there are involuntary micro-expressions-in the face, body posture, breathing rates and movements-that a polygraph operator, even with the various sensors that he’s got on a subject, will miss. So we would shoot the subject through a two-way mirror, on video, unbeknownst to the subject. And we’d be shooting that video, not at the normal 30 frames-a-second rate, but at a hundred frames-a-second. So a human operator on the other side of the wall would be looking at this, and any time there was anything that would give you a cue-like anytime a needle on a traditional sensor would go off-this guy could play back that video clip in slow-motion, look for micro-expressions and see what was going on. And Ekman had that stuff down. That’s pretty much the gist of it.
How did that research help you with your next vocation?
Well, that maps into the world of being a bear whisperer in a less-than-obvious way. Here’s how it goes: It’s not that a bear has facial expressions, or it’s not that I can even read your micro-expressions in that way consciously. But the hypothalamus-your inner brain, which operates at about a hundred frames-a-second in terms of its visual cortex-it has its own visual cortex that’s running three times faster than your conscious cortex is. It’s picking up all kinds of cues and operating on them, and operating on the pituitary gland which controls all the hormones and emotional responses to things. In the hormonal cocktail there are about nine hormones that the pituitary gland releases based on what the hypothalamus is seeing. And I firmly believe that the hypothalamus is really a working super-computer. So when you get an emotional cue, by the way you just feel something .. .listen to it. When that little angel on your shoulder whispers in your ear, I firmly believe you should listen to it. (laughs) Because that’s what’s going on. Whether it’s a stranger, a black bear or a grizzly bear, when you’re in a close encounter, a face-to-face encounter, you’re basically doing a real-time assessment of what the operative emotion is in that animal: Where is it at and where is it going emotionally, and how does it affect my situation here. I believe in listening to those emotions, and I really believe that I’ve developed a sensitivity to do that.
David Attenborough gave you the nickname “the bear whisperer,” for that reason-your ability to do that kind of emotional assessment. Of course, it’s one thing to do it with a person, but with a grizzly bear it’s quite another. And you can only learn and get better at this sort of thing by going out and doing it.
Absolutely. You can’t read books about it. (laughs) And it’s a bit of filmmaking hype, too. It’s dangerous. People get killed.
But isn’t eye contact with a bear something that you want to avoid?
First of all, that’s a common belief. I call it a myth because I don’t buy it. But there’s a reason for it, even amongst people who have some bear experience. I look at bears in the eye all the time, when I want to. Think of the emotional response between these two things: This … (He looks directly at me.) And this … (He looks away from me, staring at the floor.) One is aggressive, the other is submissive. So part of my job as a bear whisperer is not only to be reading the bear, but to constantly communicate back and be sensitive to that animal’s threat assessment of me. The bottom line is that I don’t ever want that animal to think I’m a threat.
You remarked that bears in Alaska are more approachable than the ones in the continental U.S.
They can be, and that’s actually location-specific, even within Alaska. What it really all comes down to, Finn, is whether the bears are actively being hunted. I do a lot of my work in national parks where the bears are not hunted. Under those conditions, they will lose their fear of people and be curious. And that’s not a bad thing. That’s what allows them to get close to you and check you out and, as a photographer, to get within photographic range. That’s how film crews are able to do their work. Now I do a lot of work both with hunted and non-hunted bear populations. Hunted bears are much more wary, especially if you have a gun. They know what a gun is. They can see it and they can smell it. They can smell the gunpowder in the barrel. They can smell the oil on the barrel – they associate it with previous experience and it’s an easy dot for them to connect, so they’ll just cut you a wider berth.
Which wasn’t the case with the two episodes of “The Great Bear Stakeout” in which grizzly bears were photographed more closely than ever before.
This film crew was world-class, and it was a world-class budget. These guys came off of doing things like “Frozen Planet” and big, blue-chip wildlife programming for their entire careers. That’s all they do. And to work with these guys was really one of the high points of my career. I twas really fantastic. In the first episode, Chris Morgan is the apparent lead bear guide in the show. In the second episode that flips and I have a more prominent role. Also, it just so happens that the best and most exciting crescendo of the series occurs in that second episode.
The show has everything-humor, sex, tragedy, breathtaking beauty and extreme violence-all of it shot down on the southern coast of Alaska, the Kabnai National Park.
A very rich environment. You’d have 50 bears in your line of sight many days. Can you imagine that? Fifty bears in an area about the size of State College. A very rich ecosystem. There’s salmon and berries … there’s a wolf pack that lives there, and moose. You see the wolves in the second episode. And that, by the way, has become my new primary interest in my fieldwork.
Yeah. They’re much more challenging to work with. Much more challenging. (laughs) You know, I’ve been doing bears for 25 years. I need to keep it interesting. I never approached my trip into the wilderness with bears on an intellectual level or even on a vocational level. It was really a personal, spiritual, if you will, odyssey that I decided to take with my life at 40years old.And the bottom line is I wanted adventure, I wanted it to be an adventure that was mine, and perhaps because of some of these childhood stories and my upbringing, I was fascinated by bears. My brother Dave ·had worked with bears in Alaska. Actually, I went to Alaska while I was still working with the feds, and went into the field with Dave for a week while he was working with bears. I came out of that experience and I went back and submitted my resignation. I twas a very impulsive, emotional move that I made, and it happened to coincide with a second divorce and mid-life crisis and having my kids’ college educations bankrolled. I had a lot of responsibilities taken care of to set me up for freedom, so to speak.
And now you go to Alaska twice every summer, right?
Yeah. I used to go all summer, but I’ve got this State College girlfriend, Christina, and what she said to me was, “Buck, if you want a girlfriend, you’ve got to act like a boyfriend. And on top of that, this girlfriend is a schoolteacher. So if you want this girl to be your girlfriend, you’ve gotta spend some time with her in the summer when she’s off.” So that’s what breaking the season up is all about. And it’s great, it’s great.”
In a recent interview you said that you were a naturalist first and a photographer second. Was photography something that interested you prior to becoming a guide?
No, it’s something that, really, I took up after I went to Alaska. I’ve taken my photography pretty seriously and I’ve done about 12 children’s books for McGraw-Hill and Scholastic. They’re all about natural history and are photographically-based. I’ve actually got another children’s book series about to come online. In association with that, I lead photo tours, not only in Alaska, but in other places on other subjects other than bears. I’ve got one coming up in June in Wyoming about wild horses, as an example. I’ve already done a children’s book about wild horses and I wanted to do a second one. My next children’s book, in this new online series, is called Three Sisters and the White Wolf. It’s about a wolf and a mother bear with three cubs. The three cubs are three sisters and it’s about bear behavior and wolf behavior and interaction in the predator world. But it’s not a natural history book. The new online books are fantasy-bedtime, pre-school/first-grade level books with talking animal characters and a moral to the story that will appeal to parents and grandparents.
Speaking of grandparents, you obviously borrowed your grandfather’s nickname, but I’m curious about how your “pen-surname” came about.
I would not lay a name like Buck Wilde on myself. My first of 12 children’s books I did in the 90s was called In Search of the Great Bear, and I got a sweet contract. The publisher invited me into her office and put the contract in front of me. Beautiful terms. She pushed me into it after she’d seen a presentation I did out in Auckland, New Zealand, and I was going by Buck Holderman at the time. And she said, “Now, Buck. .. about your name. We need to come up with something. A pen name.”
But Buck Holderman is a good, manly name.
But she wanted more! (laughs) And I was working in a night club called Whiskey Jacques’ at the time as a security guy during the winters in Sun Valley. And we had this lady vocalist by the name of Lily Wilde who would come in from Seattle and do a week-long gig at the night club. I didn’t have any relationship with her whatsoever, I just worked there and liked her jazzy music. So I said, “How about Buck Wilde.” And the publisher said, “Perfect! Buck Wilde it will be!”
Some of your writing influences include, not surprisingly, Jack London and Ernest Hemingway. In fact, prior to moving to State College in 2011, you used to live in Sun Valley, Idaho, where Hemingway lived at the end of his life.
I’m a huge Hemingway fan and I lived in Sun Valley for 20 years. When I left the east coast, 25 years ago, I would summer in Alaska and spend the winters in Idaho. So I have more friends in Sun Valley than I have here. The Casino, the bar where Hemingway used to play poker, is my favorite bar. I used to shoot pool there and I know all the locals. I could walk in there right now and know half the people at the bar. It was really in that kind of outdoorsy bravado spirit that I wanted to rekindle in my life, having been a geek in the CIA, and get back to my woodsy background. But what I basically promised myself at 40 was one great wilderness adventure a year for the rest of my life.
Now, when you go to Alaska, there’s usually a job involved, something that’s funded-a film, a photo tour, etc. Have you ever gone there by yourself?
Oh yeah, I do that all the time. And really, the way I look at it, this stuff just pays the bills for me to do what I really like to do, which is camp out there by myself. But it’s expensive. I can’t do a trip without spending $5,000 unless I dove-tail it, so to speak, with one of these other paid trips. That gets me there, I’ve got access to food there, and I can sustain myself before or after a trip for a couple of weeks and do my thing.
As a guide and photographer, what’s the most important thing you can bring to the table?
I have developed expertise at two things, relative to photographing wildlife, and the hardest thing is just being in the right place at the right time and finding the absolute best places in the world to be for the subject you want, specifically where the action is-what valleys, what bays, what rivers … and it takes a long time to learn that. And the other thing is learning how to work safely with the animals, in the case of large predators, within close photographic distances.
And, with any kind of luck, a story will materialize.
You just gobble up the action as it’s happening and you try to put a story together in your mind. It’s really quite a process. On “The Great Bear Stakeout” they were doing field editing to see the quality of the takes on a daily basis, we had a boat off-shore with a unit producer, and all he did was take the camera cards from up to five cameramen at a time at the end of each day, back them up, do quality edits on them and develop storyline threads. The on-location producer, who was managing all these resources, was developing, day-by-day, the storyline, therefore deploying resources about how to string a story together. It’s really quite a fascinating process. I just love the filmmaking aspect of it, probably more than anything else. I love the hard work and I love the challenge of getting the camera unit on the subject and being able to tell the story, the satisfaction of getting the subject on camera day after day. That’s the real challenge-much harder than you could imagine. It’s exhausting work. On the average, Finn, in that second episode, I would go to bed wet and exhausted, at maybe 10 o’clock at night … too tired to even eat a meal. I’d just collapse. (laughs)
And get up at first light and do it again.
Every day, regardless of the weather, including rain that lasted for days.
You didn’t do much still photography on “The Great Bear Stakeout,” did you?
Not a lot, but I was shooting stills that were used for promotion and for my own purposes. So I primarily do that, but I also shoot video. I’ve got a job coming up in April that’ll be out west, focusing on bears. I’m not going to be first cameraman, but I’ll be second cameraman and a guide, off-camera. Right now, on the table, there are four movie projects being talked about for this summer.
I’ll be lucky if one of those comes to fruition. But this is the way it is in my world.
But what happens if all four come to fruition?
I’ll do as many as I can schedule. It’s simple. (laughs) I’ll be lucky if it’s one or two. It’s a pretty dicey business.
Not to mention risky. Have you ever been attacked or injured by a bear?
Never. And that’s going to be, sort of, the moral of Breath of the Bear. In a lot of those stories, there are these embedded guidelines different stuff to do and don’t do. But if I’m going to give one piece of advice: don’t run. If people could just do that, it would cut down on the number of bear attacks immensely. But ultimately, bears are very curious, and if you get inside of a certain zone, like we did with Van and the seal, it’s very likely that they will come over and check you out and investigate. I’ve been charged by killer bears that apparently just killed a bear on the Continental Divide. I’ve been charged, over 25 years, about a dozen times-full-on, hard charges, where a bear stops and roars in my face. And there’s been other cases when it looks like another bear is charging me aggressively, and it’s actually a mother bear doing what we call “human shielding.”
They’ll come at you full speed, put the brakes on, lay down and nurse their cubs right in front of you. So my point is, in a lot of those scenarios, the average person will turn and run.And if you turn and run, I guarantee … you are toast. That’s how bear attacks happen. So the message is: no matter what, don’t run! That’s what I tell my clients all the time. Then I take small groups of photographers or film crews out, there are two rules. Number one: always stay in a group, no matter what happens. Number two: don’t run, no matter what happens. That’s it. So, to answer your question, I’ve stood my ground and I’ve added this up, in 25years-and this is hard to believe, but I have to build a case to make this a believable statistic-but I estimate that the long-term average over 25 years, I have had close encounters, as close as five to 10 feet, to a bear on the average of 100 times a year.
A hundred times a year?
Yes sir. A couple dozen times there were charges, but I mean with bears just mulling around me. I’ve had up to 50 bears as close as from you to me in one day. So I’ve been exposed to what people would call close encounters. And the one thing I’ve never done-I have never run. And I have never been touched by a bear. Never.
So … in 25 years, that’s 2,500 close encounters … and never been touched! That’s an amazing statistic.
I think that’s the most outstanding statistic I have to offer. But I gotta tell you, I do feel very, very fortunate to pursue my passion, and if the passion wasn’t there, I wouldn’t be. There are no real financial rewards, no security. There’s a big cost side to this, but the personal satisfaction end of it more than balances it out. It’s been a great ride, and I want to keep it going for as long as I’m physically capable. The way I describe my feelings about what I do, and this is very true … in the 25 years that I’ve been doing this, for the entire month before I go up to Alaska to live with these bears, I’m so anxious that I lose sleep.
Isn’t that a good thing, to be that excited?
It’s fantastic. And at the end of every season, when I know I’ve got to get on a plane to come back, I honestly cry. It is really a deep, deep emotional experience for me, and I can’t imagine it getting any better. I honestly consider myself to be the luckiest guy in the world.