A Conversation with the Bear Man
Robin Campbell has safely rescued and released hundreds of bears over the years (bar one). We talk to him about his extraordinary work.
July 24, 2015
At the beginning of July, the internet blew up in outrage over the suspension of B.C. conservation officer Bryce Casavant, who refused orders to kill two black bear cubs. The cubs’ mother, having become reliant on human sources for food, had regularly accessed salmon from a freezer. Animal-rights proponents maintain the cubs didn’t partake in the freezer raiding, meaning they had the potential to be fully rehabilitated into the wilderness, even if their mother did not.
The cubs were initially taken to a vet, who made the decision to pass the bears on to the North Island Wildlife Recovery Association. Owner of the centre, Robin Campbell, was quoted as saying at the time: “[The mother bear] was a problem, but these cubs did nothing.”
Specializing in the rehabilitation of bears, Campbell’s affiliation with the species has certainly developed in a non-traditional manner. In a world full of qualifications, certificates, and degrees, Campbell’s relationship with bears began almost accidentally.
Given the internet’s recent furour, we spoke with Campbell about his lifelong relationship with animal-kind.
Vanmag: Tell us about your childhood.
Campbell: I lived right on the outskirts of Calgary; I was always bringing stuff home. We had a pet skunk in the house for a time. My dad left when I was younger, but my mum was okay with pretty much everything. The skunk and her became the best of friends—it slept in bed with her.
From the looks of it [Campbell’s house is full to the brim with antiques, cuckoo clocks, and taxidermy], you like to collect things?
I’ve always collected things—even animals. It didn’t matter what somebody offered me; I would take it. I used to trap them and keep them. I didn’t know about rehab or anything. I’m doing the opposite now—when I realized I could help animals, that I got a bigger thrill from it, a better high. I could give them a second chance.
Was there one animal that changed it for you?
Yes, but I couldn’t release him. It was heartbreaking. His name was Spirit; he was a grey-winged owl and I couldn’t help him. He got caught in a barbed-wire fence on Christmas Day, and ended up being with me for years. I spent a long time with a retired vet trying to help him, but we ended up losing the wing, so he wouldn’t survive out there.
When did this fondness turn into the North Island Wildlife Recovery Association?
When I came here [to the island], we were at the far end of Campbell River. The conservation officers used to call me to help a swan or whatever, because it was too far to travel for them.
A few of us started off by setting up the Wildlife Network of B.C. My dream was to have a rehab centre in every city: in Nanaimo, Port Alberni, Tofino, and so on. But then I realized it was impossible. People would start to help, but then lives would change, people die, have families. It’s a very expensive project to maintain.
Then officials started to know I had quite a number of animals coming by my place and they said, ‘Well, geez, we better give you a permit.’ They didn’t really have any courses or anything at that point, so they just gave it to me.
[At this point, the interview pauses as Robin’s wife, Sylvia, comes in to show him a rare beetle she found in her car door. They don’t know what it is, but Robin vows to look it up that evening.]
There seems to be quite a big difference between rescuing a swan and rehabilitating eagles?
All of that just sort of happened. For example, this one year, all these eagles were just dropping out of trees—there ended up being 29 of them altogether. Turns out a farmer had poisoned his cow and the eagles had been feeding on it. We kept them here and got them well until they could be released again. We released all of them at the same time; all the volunteers and vets held one each. It was such a high.
How did you afford to do that?
People from all over the world were sending money to help me. There’s far more good people than there are wicked.
Then bears were the obvious next step?
We have some of the largest black bears in the world here on the island, but a lot of the coastline isn’t populated. So it’s easy for some poacher to come in on a boat and have a mattress soaked in bacon, throw it on the beach, and pick off the bears when they come down. I started being asked to help out with some of these cases and be a witness in court.
Then people started coming to us for help. People were coming and telling me, “Oh, so-and-so had a bear. It bit some people so they just released it.” Then the bear becomes a big nuisance because it’s familiar around people. I was convinced I could help them—so convinced that I invested $100k of my own money to get things going.
And they let you do it, without any sort of license?
Well, no one was rehabilitating bears in B.C. yet. For about a year, I was meeting with the government, who were saying, “Our biologists say it can’t be done; bears cannot be rehabilitated.” But I had a biologist friend called John Beecham who was doing a study about releasing bears, and the president of the SPCA came with me to some government meetings, then they finally said, “Well, you can do it, but only Vancouver Island bears.’” And I said, “That’s all I want to do. They’re the only subspecies I’m familiar enough with to do it.”
How many bears do you think you’ve saved?
Over the years, we have rehabilitated hundreds of bears successfully. We just kind of fell in to it and became part of it. It’s so important to do it properly. If you’ve done it properly, the bears will never even see a human while they’re in your care.
How long do you usually keep bears for?
Usually about 18 months, but it can be shorter or longer as required. There’s only one bear we keep here: Knut. He was born in captivity, so was too used to humans before he came to us. We have a very close bond.
Where do you release them?
We usually put them back where they came from if it’s safe. One time we thought we had found the best spot. The sign of a good spot is if you don’t see the bear ever again. It means that it’s just going about it’s life and not encountering many humans.
Before I started, some conservation officers thought they had found a good spot. But then some people were walking in that area and found an old trapper’s cabin; on the mantlepiece was a glass jar full of bear tags—many of them from bears that had been released there. He must have just been shooting them as fast as they were releasing them.
What made you dedicate your life to this?
I never even thought about it that way. It’s just a hobby. Some people do some things they have a passion for: they collect stamps or something. Just whatever they like to do. This is just something I like to do.
Are you ever going to stop?
A lot of people dream about me retiring (laughs), but I’m not going to.
You can visit the North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre at:
1240 Leffler Rd.
Phone: (250) 248-8534