Q&A: John Burroughs Medal Winner Sherry Simpson on Living With Bears

by AMNH on


Every year since 1926, the John Burroughs Association—which is headquartered at the Museum—has awarded the John Burroughs Medal to a new noteworthy title in the annals of natural history. Honoring Burroughs’ legacy as one of the 19th century’s foremost naturalists and essayists, the prize has been awarded to authors including Rachel Carson, John McPhee, and Ann Zwinger, just to name a few.

Simpson traveled into the field with bear biologists while writing her latest book.
© University Press of Kansas

This year’s winner is Sherry Simpson, whose book Dominion of Bears, examines the relationship between bears and humans in her native Alaska. Simpson, who says the award was “like winning an Oscar,” will be honored at a special luncheon at the Museum today. She recently spoke about what she learned—and what surprised her as she ventured farther into bear country. 

What was the most surprising thing you discovered while working on Dominion of Bears?

I was amazed by how bears behave depending on where they live. On the coast, where bears are biggest, you’d think it would be the scariest to be around them. But bears there have learned to accommodate one another, and because of that they can also accommodate people. You can sit by a river and just watch bears, dozens at a time, fishing.

Farther into the interior of Alaska, bears behave differently because they work harder for a living. They compete with each other in a way that doesn’t create this social structure.

What’s the most common thing people misunderstand about bears if they haven’t lived in proximity with them?

People have this misconception that bears are aggressive killing machines. I’m overstating it, but not that much—there’s a sense that if you’re going into the woods, you’re risking life and limb because there are bears in the world. It’s hard to argue with a fear like that because it’s so primal. But the first time you see a bear run away because it is way more scared of you than you are of it, it really changes your response.


This brown bear is hunting salmon in Alaska to fatten up before hibernating.
© Carl Chapman


What can learning about bears teach us about humans?

Bears are creatures we’ve had a relationship with for millennia, one that we see in things as ancient as cave paintings. The thing I learned in the course of the work is the way we see bears relates to the way we see ourselves in the world.

If you don’t understand bears—and I don’t think even the experts I talked to would say they understand bears entirely—then a fear of them will color your interactions. If you see everything as a Disney cartoon, though, that’s not appropriate or respectful either. People tend to act on their ideas about bears, rather than the actuality of how bears are.

Do people’s actions affect how bears act, too?

Definitely. The way you conduct yourself in the world affects how those interactions go.  And it’s important to remember that our interactions with bears aren’t just face-to-face. In areas like Juneau where bears are common, people get more afraid of the bears in a way that’s not warranted. And that is an interaction we started: we lure them into town by being careless with garbage, and then we’re surprised when bears want to dig through that garbage.

It seems like bears have a lot more personality than we usually ascribe to them.

Well, we tend to ignore the ability of animals to make choices, and bears make choices in how they interact. In a lot of circumstances, a bear’s first reaction is not to kill you. That’s why a lot of biologists I worked with are way more afraid of dealing with moose than bears. Bears are making up their minds about you as they go, whereas a moose doesn’t really hang back and see what you’re going to do before it charges.

If readers have one takeaway from this book, what would you want it to be?

The bears in your head are not the same as the bears that exist. They’re a lot more complex than we give them credit for, and a lot more interesting than we expect.

Visit the John Burroughs corridor on the first floor  of the Museum (next to the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians) to learn more about the naturalist.