University research student brings grizzly bears to Whinlatter
Visual ecologist and University of Cumbria PhD student John Kitchin is staging a fascinating exhibition at Whinlatter Forest Visitor Centre over the next few weeks.
As part of his research studies, John has spent much of his time over the past four years in British Columbia (BC), Canada observing and filming brown, otherwise known as grizzly, bears.
The exhibition includes some remarkable video footage of brown bears in their natural habitat as well as stunning still photography and information about John’s ongoing research work.
John, who comes originally from Cumbria, describes his time in BC as ‘life-changing’ and explains:
“I was fascinated by the similarity between the forests of BC and the places I walked my dog in the Lake District. The forests in BC and Whinlatter are both temperate rainforests and share many species. They look very similar, but there are no longer any bears in England. This opens up lots of questions for me about how our landscapes have changed and what it must have been like when bears did wander our forest trails.
“I want to reintroduce brown bears to England - well, digitally at least. I want to share my experiences of bears and the more engaging and bits of my research; the pictures and videos of bears being bears.
“The images in the exhibition cover a lot of ground, from families playing to bears fishing. There are a couple of clips that mean a lot to me; one is a female bear nursing her two cubs, which happened just a meter away from me last year as the bears settled down under my viewing stand. The sound the cubs make while nursing is unlike another sound you can imagine, they chortle and gurgle which relaxes the mother and encourages lactation.
“Another is some footage of a female that I met on a forest road one day; she and her cubs came and played nearby. Watching me but not concerned, they fed and sat for a while before wandering off.
“I hope these images really challenge what people expect a bear to do were they ever to meet one in a forest. In that sense, this exhibition is as much about challenging our expectations of wild animals and exploring other ways of thinking about them.”
John’s work achieved international media attention in October 2014 when a young female grizzly became fascinated by his GoPro camera and carried it off to examine it and give it a chew! The up-close-and-personal footage of the bear’s face and teeth became an instant YouTube success.
“My time at the University of Cumbria and my research in Canada has taught me to think differently about forests and wild animals,” John concludes. “I think we need to consider how we can approach living in a world where space is short and animals such as bears have huge value on many social, economic and ecological levels.
“I’ve been able to develop some really exciting and innovative ways to study bears non-invasively and although it continues to be hard work, I’m very excited by some of the possibilities of developments over the coming months and years.”
John Kitchin’s Brown Bears Research Exhibition is on display at Whinlatter Forest Visitor Centre until Easter, when it will be replaced by the annual osprey attraction. John’s exhibition will resume in September when the birds have migrated; he also has a two-day discovery exhibition at Brighton Museum in August.