Monitor photographer Melanie Stetson Freeman felt the tears welling up.
Just moments ago, she had arrived at the bear research institute in Ely, Minnesota. 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. Lynn Rogers quietly sat down on a log near the yearling. She had heard about the biologist’s compassion for wildlife and commitment to teaching humans how to live in harmony with bears. Now, she was seeing it firsthand.
Slowly, the young black 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.
Melanie describes the next couple of days as one of her all-time favorite photo assignments. She shares “Doc” Rogers’ values. “Anyone who helps us coexist with wildlife is a hero to me,” she says.
But as reporter Doug Struck writes today in his profile, Dr. Rogers’ methods are controversial – including hand-feeding a bear. State and federal wildlife officials tell the public not to do it. 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.
But she couldn’t resist hand-feeding 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.”