Bear witness: Compassion at the forest’s edge

How a Monitor photographer found herself feeding a wild black bear named Cedric while on assignment in Minnesota

Courtesy of Lynn Rogers
Melanie Stetson Freeman puts down her cameras to feed wild black bear Cedric hazelnuts near the Wildlife Research Institute in Ely, Minnesota.

In 1990, Doug Struck found himself playing with bear cubs deep into the Minnesota woods. 

A Baltimore Sun reporter at the time, Doug was visiting controversial wildlife biologist Lynn Rogers – a guy who put radio collars on black bears without tranquilizers. “He just convinced them to wear the collar,” Doug recalls. Dr. Rogers tracked the bears on a device with a 3-foot-long radio antenna. “He raced into the woods, and I raced after him. After about 30 minutes we caught up to a family of bears. The mother bear sniffed him, recognized him as no threat, and the cubs played in his lap. And the cubs gave me, a guest of Rogers, the same treatment.”

Returning to Ely, Minnesota, 32 years later for the Monitor, as explored in this recent cover story, Doug found that Dr. Rogers no longer chases black bears. Instead, they show up at his research institute for food and safety. But the biologist’s compassion for wildlife and commitment to teaching humans how to live in harmony with bears are undimmed. “His core values are that we should live in more comfortable proximity with other species on this planet,” says Doug. His research extends beyond black bears to grizzly and polar bears, moose, caribou, pine martens, wolves, and deer. “He acknowledges some bears can be dangerous,” Doug says, “but Rogers will also tell you that’s true of any species: Some individuals are dangerous.”

This was Monitor photographer Melanie Stetson Freeman’s first time meeting “Doc” Rogers. She says it was one of her all-time favorite assignments. She shares Dr. Rogers’ values. “Anyone who helps us coexist with wildlife is a hero to me,” she says. 

Before she arrived at the bear research institute, she was told there was no guarantee she’d see any bears. The wild mammals come and go as they please. “But when I pulled up,” says Melanie, “someone shouted, ‘Elvis is here!’” 

Elvis, it turned out, was a new visitor. She watched as Dr. Rogers quietly sat down on a log near the yearling. Slowly, the young bear moved toward him, and was soon eating hazelnuts from his hand. “I was tearing up. It was so moving to see something that positive from a creature that’s ‘supposed’ to kill us,” she says.

Hand-feeding a bear is controversial and not recommended to the public. Some of Dr. Rogers’ longtime volunteers won’t do it. And the veteran bear ambassador doesn’t approach every bear himself. “Doc reads their body language. He can tell if a bear is uncomfortable, and he’ll back away,” Melanie says. 

She tried it with a bear named Cedric. “I was photographing him as he was rolling around on a log and being silly. Someone else was feeding him and invited me to try,” she says. Unlike with horses, where you have to hold your hand flat because they might bite your finger, bear tongues are like suction cups: “They just snatch the hazelnuts from your hand,” she says. “It was magical.”

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