Written by Elitza Batchiyska
Most people know Steve Searles as “The Bear Whisperer”, the man with a special power to communicate with bears and the lifelong goal of learning how we can coexist with them. Searles is a self-proclaimed average joe who feels like his successes are the product of sheer luck, but to everyone else he’s anything but that.
Searles is best known for his long-running “Don’t Feed Our Bears” campaign in Mammoth Lakes, which sprang to popularity a few years ago and led to him getting his own show on Animal Planet in 2010 called The Bear Whisperer, where Searles is seen interacting with, training, and educating about these magnificent creatures. Originally, Searles’ campaign was called “Don’t Feed THE Bears”, but the change to “OUR bears” really caused the movement to take off.
“We wanted to create a sense of stewardship and responsibility,” Searles says. “If it’s your trash, it’s your bear.”
Searles’ trademark way of spreading the word and raising awareness is his “Don’t Feed Our Bears” stickers, of which he has handed out nearly 78,000 to date. But, Searles wasn’t always a bear activist. Searles moved to Mammoth Lakes in 1976 and was originally hired by the town to kill. He was an avid outdoorsman/trapper, and at that time, bears were seen as a nuisance for going through peoples’ garbage. Oftentimes, Searles was even required to kill animals that had been injured by traffic collisions and left to suffer.
Eventually, however, the weight of the work got to him.
“The idea of the ‘Bear Whisperer’ came about because even though I was hired to kill them, I came to learn how intelligent and adaptable they were,” Searles says. “The animals had so much respect for each other, and I knew we had to breed that same respect for them.”
And Searles’ efforts clearly have results. According to Searles, Mammoth is the number one place in the world for coexistence with black bears. Yet, he does not consider this an individual effort, and credits the residents and tourists of Mammoth Lakes for being extremely cooperative. Searles says its been like a huge social experiment, built around the following question: Could we coexist with something we’re afraid of?
For Searles, his work is his life, and he’s on the grind 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Sometimes, Searles says, he spends more time with the bears than with his own wife. Currently, Searles is on a seven-month streak without a day off, but he still considers himself extremely fortunate.
“I’ve worked with generations of bears,” Steve says. “They’ve taught me everything I know, and I’m honestly the luckiest guy you’ll ever meet.”