Mangelsen’s Walk on the Wild Side

Nature photographer Thomas Mangelsen marks 40 years, cautions against ‘bear selfies’

While most people realize feeding bears is ill-advised (and illegal), the same standards of common sense apparently don’t apply when the opportunity arises to post a cool close-up of oneself with a grizzly in the background.

Late last month, officials with the U.S. Forest Service in South Lake Tahoe issued an official warning notifying park visitors to stop taking bear selfies — a growing social media trend referred to as #BearSelfies.

Award-winning wildlife photographer and conservationist Thomas Mangelsen, who opened his Images of Nature gallery on Girard Avenue in 1991, claims that in his 40 years in business, he’s never succumbed to the urge to snap a bear selfie, although he’s seen “hundreds” do so near his Jackson, Wyoming home, on the edge of Grand Teton National Park.

“I see lots of people here taking selfies with their iPads and iPhones, turning their backs on bears that are way too close,” he said. “They try to get closer because they want to see the bear in the frame, which is, quite frankly, not very bright. They don’t understand the real danger of that — and it is a real danger.”

Although bears rarely attack people, Mangelsen said it does happen when they are taken by surprise, or if they feel their food source or young are threatened.

He said most attacks on humans are over food, as was the case Oct. 27 when Wyoming Game and Fish Department officials shot and killed a young male grizzly known as “760,” who repeatedly ventured into developed areas. Critics — including Mangelsen, who is compiling a book about the family 760 was born into — contend the bruin did not meet the criteria for being killed.

The bear was shot after he ventured into a yard and pulled a hunter’s deer from a tree. When approached, 760 didn’t back down, though he also didn’t attack, Mangelsen noted.

“I thought that was a mistake,” he said of the shooting. “It has spurred on online petition from people who want an explanation for the decision to euthanize the bear. … It did what bears do — it protects its food.

“There’s a lot of people who are fearful of wolves, bears or cougars. So much of it’s fear-based and not science-based.”

Although Mangelsen often photographs his favorite, four-legged lugs of fur — polar bears — in cozy, playful postures, he knows and respects that, in the bear kingdom, these arctic wanderers are a top-tier threat for humans.

“They’re quite different than grizzly or black bears,” he said. “They’re true carnivores. They live on meat (and) rarely eat grasses. … If you’re on foot, you’re alone, and you’re in the arctic, you’re potential meat.”

Mangelsen said he has twice been stalked by polar bears while in the field. Once, while walking on the shores of the Hudson Bay in Manitoba, Canada, he and his girlfriend surprised a polar bear obscured by bushes.

The bear followed the couple over the tundra in what would be Mangelsen’s longest walk back to a car, ever.

“That was kind of scary,” he recalled, noting that if encountering a bear in the wild, the best thing one can do is to make oneself appear tall and yell; the worst is to run. “We didn’t have any bear-spray or a gun or anything,” he said.

Mangelsen recalled another close call while on assignment for National Geographic, in which his close friend, the late La Jolla resident Spence Wilson (manager of The Cove Theatre) came to his rescue.

A film crew was interviewing Mangelsen when he noticed a mother bear and three cubs approaching in the snowstorm, and began taking pictures. Wilson was standing watch in the distance, when he saw “a gnarly old bear with worn teeth” stalking the crew from the opposite direction.

“We didn’t see it, but Spence saw it and he yelled at us,” Mangelsen recalled. “We dropped everything and scrambled up a staircase to the top of the buggy. So, Spencer kind of saved the day on that.”

Among Mangelsen’s favorite bear shots are his image of a bear at the top of a waterfall near Anchorage, Alaska, jaws agape as a salmon leaps from the stream into its mouth — a shot that took a week waiting in the lurch to capture.

“It happened so fast that I was never sure that I actually got the picture until a month later when I got the film back,” he said. “That has kind of become my iconic picture, my logo, which I use for my business cards and signage.”

Such patience has paid off for Mangelsen, whose accolades include the BBC’s prestigious, international Wildlife Photographer of the Year award (1994) for his picture of a polar bear being trailed by an arctic fox.

Arctic foxes often follow polar bears through the winter season, living off their seal kills, Mangelsen explained.

“If this bear isn’t a good hunter, then pretty much the fox has to find another one or it will starve to death,” he said, noting that, at times, the bears seem to welcome the companionship. “Every once in a while the polar bear will lunge at the fox, but it scampers away,” he said.

Mangelsen sold his first portrait — a Canadian goose in mid-flight — in 1975, opening his first store three years later in Jackson, Wyoming.