By Jenny Neyman
The situation was precarious, to say the least. Three fishermen in a drift boat were drawn by the terrifying, teeth-rattling cries of a brown bear cub caught in an eddy in the upper Kenai River. The cub seemed to be tiring from fighting the current and not making any headway in breaking free of the whirlpool and getting to shore, where, somewhere in the brush, the cub’s mother lurked.
The fishermen — Dustin Klepacki, a Kenai River fishing guide, Mike Polocz, Klepacki’s father, of Soldotna, and friend Charlie Mettille — decided to help. After several tries to nudge the bear out of the current with a landing net, but ending up just spinning the boat in the eddy, too, the current swept the cub against the boat, and it was pinned there just long enough for Polocz to push it into slower-moving water. From there it swam to shore. After resting on shore it let out another screech, which was answered by the sow, the Polocz said.
Luckily, the rescue had a happy ending, but there are many, many ways in which it could have ended unhappily, even tragically. That’s why wildlife managers with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game can’t condone the fishermen’s actions. They can understand the visceral impact a cub’s cries can have, they can empathize with the urge to help when seeing an animal in distress, but they can’t recommend handling the situation as Polocz, Klepacki and Mettille did.
“We don’t try to encourage that type of behavior. We understand that people value our wildlife, but I would really discourage any attempts to try to save an animal or interact that closely, particularly with a brown bear cub with a sow nearby,” said Larry Lewis, a Soldotna-based wildlife technician for Fish and Game. “The fact is that we do have rules and regulations that govern human behavior around wildlife. I would rather see people adhere to the regulations and the reasons for those regulations than to take matters into their own hands.”
Mettille recorded part of the rescue on a cellphone camera and Polocz posted the footage on YouTube. The video has gone viral, nearing 250,000 views as of Monday, catapulting the fishermen into their proverbial 15 minutes of fame. Polocz opted to allow online advertising on the YouTube clip, to try to make the most of the attention. Whatever money the ads raise, the fishermen agreed to donate 100 percent to a charity in Alaska that benefits abused or abandoned animals. If the amount doesn’t get too high, Polocz said that his company, Alaska H2O Pros, will match the amount.
“I’ve just been running in circles with this stuff. I’m not an attention tramp or anything like that but we’re thrilled to share the story,” Polocz said. “I think I was up at 2 in morning to do an interview with ‘Fox and Friends’ on Sunday, after flying back and forth to Anchorage doing the other interviews.”
The reaction nationwide has been praise for the fishermen for their efforts to save the cub. That makes
wildlife managers nervous, in that the YouTube clip and the overwhelmingly positive response to the story might give people the impression that it’s OK to put human life at risk in interacting with wildlife like the fishermen did.
Under state statutes, it is illegal to “take” wildlife. Generally defined, that means killing, harming, harassing or in any way interacting with wildlife beyond just safely viewing or legally hunting and harvesting an animal as game.
Laws are generally established to prohibit the misdeeds of the malicious, misanthropic or merely mindless, but the well-meaning can also sometimes end up on the bad side of the law, even with good intentions. In Alaska, it is difficult to legally be a good Samaritan toward wildlife. Lewis said that he sees it all the time — people “rescuing” an orphaned moose calf or bear cub, or trying to scare off a predator from its prey. Those cases are exceedingly sticky for Fish and Game. On one hand, such actions violate state statutes, yet the would-be rescuers argue that not stepping in to help would violate a higher ethical code.
“It’s a very precarious situation to be seen as heartless and uncaring and all that to not help these animals. They think, ‘Oh, geez, the department, what a bunch of heartless brutes, they don’t care,’” Lewis said. “And that can be counterproductive because then we don’t get calls because they’re afraid we’re not going to do something.”
It’s not that they don’t care about wounded, orphaned or distressed animals, it’s that they care more about the health and safety of people.
“A lot of well-meaning people do the wrong thing because their heart’s in the right place but they’re not thinking very clearly,” Lewis said. “The bottom line is that animals’ existence is not worth the life and safety of a human being’s. They put themselves into a very risky situation, and their heart’s in the right place, but it’s not something that we recommend people do.”
Lewis said that he can see in the YouTube clip that the club is in distress, but he can also see the myriad ways the situation could have gone horribly awry. Polocz said that, at one point, he was considering jumping in the water to save the cub. Or the boat could have capsized, dunking all three men in the river. With the cold water and swift current of the Kenai River, that could have been a death sentence. Polocz also said the cub looked like it wanted to climb into the boat. That alone would have been dangerous, Lewis said, even more so with the sow nearby.
Polocz said he understands that standpoint, and he doesn’t necessarily recommend people do what he did, either. It was a choice made in the heat of the moment — one that he doesn’t regret.
“They’re absolutely right and I can see their point 100 percent and thank goodness it did go the way it did. For example, I imagine if I had picked the thing up by the scruff of the neck and got it in the boat and took it to shore, the story would be, ‘Three dummies near a sow molests a baby bear cub and gets mauled, and they’re still picking pieces of us out of the river,’” Polocz said. “I definitely agree with what they’re saying. However, I wouldn’t change anything and I would do it again, no doubt about it. And the other two guys in the boat feel absolutely the same way.”
Lewis said that people should report wildlife issues — such as orphaned, injured, ill, stranded or distressed animals — to Fish and Game. He acknowledges that, yes, sometimes they won’t get to the animal in time, or that they won’t be able to help when they do arrive, but they are much better equipped — and legally authorized to deal with wildlife situations — than the general public.
“When it’s possible, we will try to help individual animals that are in distress, however we do this under authority of a collectors permit and under the authority of our agency and through the commissioner’s authority,” Lewis said. “We do what we can when we get an opportunity, but the fact is we also have to have an understanding that nature, at times, takes its course. If no one saw it then it would happen anyway. It’s part of the course of life in the wild.”
But Polocz, Klepacki and Mettille did see it happen, and Polocz said they just weren’t willing to let nature take its course if they could do something about it.
“I would do it again, absolutely, and they can throw all the tickets at me that they want, I don’t care. What kind of human beings would we be if we just watched that thing drown?” Polocz said. “It’s just one of those unequivocal experiences. Am I just supposed to sit there and watch that thing drown? According to the law, yes, but I’d be up at night just hating myself for it.”
Lewis can empathize, and said he’s not immune to the tug at his heartstrings when seeing an animal in distress.
“I say all that and then I think of times when I’ve walked out on river ice with an extension ladder in case I broke through, standing out in the middle trying to help an animal. So I understand, I have empathy for their feelings. We go out and make sometimes, I think, extraordinary efforts to help individual animals, and put our own safety in jeopardy. But we have some level of experience that helps us to avoid taking unnecessary risks. It wouldn’t do to lose human life or risk serious injury to take those type of actions,” he said.
What it comes down to is common sense, he said. Think calmly and clearly and act safely and responsibly when in a situation with distressed wildlife.
“You have to try to reason and not put your heart in front of your mind,” he said.
And, yes, he realizes how difficult that can be in the moment.
“I enjoy watching animals, and I have a dog that owns me. I empathize, I absolutely do,” he said.
Just recently he had to put his resolve to the test to prioritize safety over good Samaritan urges. He was driving on the Sterling Highway and saw a “cute, little dinky terrier dog” trying to cross the highway amid busy traffic.
“It was everything I could do not to stop traffic and help him get across. And he squirted across, he knew what he was doing, but I was just heartsick. I wanted to go find the owner and chew them out. It was everything I could do not to just block traffic and let him across. But that’s not common sense. You don’t jeopardize public safety, human safety, over the life of that animal,” Lewis said.
“We discourage people taking the law and matters into their own hands. We understand it happens, but we are a nation of laws and there are regulations that preclude someone from taking those type actions,” Lewis said. “You have to weigh things. They (the fishermen) weighed it and obviously decided to take action. But it’s illegal, they didn’t have the authority to interact with that animal and it’s not what I would recommend people do.”