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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Bear Suit

Air Date: Week of

Inventor Troy Hurtubise (HURCH-ooh-beez) is designing a suit of armor, inspired by the movie Robocop, that will protect him against grizzly bear attacks. He wants to study the bears up close in the wild, something researchers have been unable to do. Miriam Landman reports.


CURWOOD: Wildlife biologists have studied grizzly bears for a long time, but much about them is still a mystery. Mostly because researchers can't get close enough to the animals without risking their lives. To make it possible to study grizzlies up close in the wild, a Canadian man has invented a special bear suit, and it's not the fuzzy kind. Through a series of macho stunts, Troy Hurtubise has demonstrated that the suit's high-tech metals and plastics could protect him in the event of a bear attack. Though some people question his suit pursuits, Mr. Hurtubise's obsessive interest in grizzlies remains unwavering. Living on Earth's Miriam Landman has this profile of the man who would be bear.

LANDMAN: Troy Hurtubise is crazy about grizzly bears. His passion was sparked about 15 years ago, when he had a run-in with a grizzly while trekking in British Columbia.

(Bird song)

HURTUBISE: It was a very young bear about three or four years of age, and I was directly in its territory. I was about 50 feet off from scratch marks. That's where my tent was.

(Bear calls)

LANDMAN: The bear knocked him to the ground with its snout, but then ambled off, leaving him shaken but alive. After the encounter, he became fascinated with grizzlies, but he discovered that many things aren't known about the ferocious bears because researchers can't get close.

HURTUBISE: So, I put it aside for a year, because I couldn't, you know, break that barrier that nobody else could, until I watched a viewing of Robocop. And I said wow, if I had the money and the time, and I exclude the, you know, Hollywood superhuman capabilities and that, it could be a research vehicle for me to go in and do close-quarter research with grizzly bears.

(Soundtrack from Robocop: "You are under arrest." Man: "You better take me in." Robocop: "I will.")

LANDMAN: He'll need the armor of a superhero to fulfill his dream: to film a grizzly cub birth in the wild, something no one has done before. But then, Troy Hurtubise isn't your typical bear researcher. He built the suit in a shed behind his house, sinking all of his savings into the project. Meanwhile, his scrap metal business went belly-up. But though the suit may have cost him a fortune, it has also brought him some fame.

(Music and merriment)

LANDMAN: Especially in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he was honored at the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony. At the annual event celebrating wacky scientific achievements, audience members gathered around the seven-foot-tall white plastic suit on display. There are red and black designs on it and a drawing of a grizzly bear on each leg.

(Milling crowds)

WOMAN: It looks early caveman combined with astronaut combined with duct tape.

MAN: It looks like something you'd probably find on Mars.

WOMAN 2: It's just utterly magnificent. (Laughs) It's a spectacle.

LANDMAN: The bear man has gained a cult following since appearing in the campy documentary film Project Grizzly. At the awards ceremony, the audience watches a clip of the film showing a two-ton pickup truck pummeling the suit-wearing inventor at 35 miles per hour.

MAN: Are you ready, Troy?

HURTUBISE: I'm ready.

MAN: Here it comes.

VOICE: Look out, look out, look out!

(Crash; the audience whoops and applauds)

LANDMAN: As ridiculous as it looks, Troy Hurtubise considers it serious testing to make sure that he could withstand an actual grizzly attack. He's called on his buddies in northern Ontario to help him test the suit. In addition to hitting him with the truck, they've hit him with bats, attacked him with a chainsaw, and even shot him with a gun to simulate a grizzly mauling. His ingenuity has earned him some fans, like Ig Nobel organizer Mark Abrahams.

("Oh Canada")

ABRAHAMS: Troy to me represents the finest in the tradition of inventors. When you say the word inventor to many people, the word that comes up immediately is "crackpot." Because who on earth would spend all the time and effort and care that's necessary to come up with something new that works? You have to have that crackpot element in you to do that.

("Oh Canada")

LANDMAN: The inventor has faced his share of setbacks. A couple of years ago, after the battery of ballistic tests, he went to the Canadian Rockies to find a grizzly. He found one, but it turned out he couldn't walk up to it because his suit was too heavy and rigid for hiking through the rugged terrain. This difficulty was captured by the Project Grizzly film crew.

(Footfalls; panting)

HURTUBISE: Walking uphill is -- ooh! Going to be, very, very difficult.

LANDMAN: But he refused to give up. He has now drawn up blueprints for a more streamlined and flexible suit, which he calls the G-man. He explains that the G stands for Genesis, the beginning of something new.

(Suspenseful music up and under)

HURTUBISE: It's literally bulletproof. You see the outside world on the inside of the visor, and it comes into a hologram. It has robotic hands, 100 percent dexterity, that works off a touchpad system with your real hand. Has a lot, a lot of gadgetries on it.

LANDMAN: The high-tech suit will not be cheap to build. He's currently trying to drum up almost $1 million in funding to bring the G-man into being. He plans to get funds by selling spinoffs from the suit, like a hockey helmet that he's patented. He also plans to sell a spray that he calls the Hurtzy, as in Hurtubise. He claims that the formula can make materials stronger and lighter than today's bulletproof body armor.

(A gunshot with suspenseful music up and sirens and under)

LANDMAN: Eventually he also hopes to sell the impervious suit itself, to fire departments, riot control squads, and maybe even the United Nations for land mine extraction.

(Sirens, gunshots, heartbeats, explosions)

LANDMAN: But Troy Hurtubise says the suit and its spinoffs are just means to an end.

HURTUBISE: I just want to do grizzly research, you know? The preservation of the grizzly bear and its habitat is my main goal.

LANDMAN: He believes the public will be more prone to set aside land for the threatened bears if they see how grizzlies can help people. Scientists say that a better understanding of grizzly hibernation could provide insights into human metabolism, muscle atrophy, and bone loss. But Troy Hurtubise acknowledges that he is not a scientist. So he says he'll bring credentialed biologists along with him when he goes to see bears in their dens. Still, many mainstream bear researchers question his methods. Dr. Chuck Schwartz is a government biologist for the inter-agency Grizzly Bear Study Team in Bozeman, Montana.

SCHWARTZ: We do everything possible not to disturb or displace the bear. So, we don't go into the bear's dens and we certainly don't try to confront bears in close situations.

LANDMAN: But Troy Hurtubise points out that bear researchers have never had qualms about going into black bears' dens, because black bears are relatively non-aggressive. And he wants to learn more about grizzly aggression to help develop better techniques for deterring attacks.

(Bird song)

LANDMAN: But until his new suit is built, he can't get close to wild grizzlies. So for now, he watches them from afar. The Project Grizzly crew filmed him and his friends on one of their annual expeditions to the Rockies.

MAN: (on radio) Everybody stay alert, because we're got one in the area. Out.

(Suspenseful music)

HURTUBISE: (Whispering) Spotted the old man coming down up the trail there, saw his tracks. He's not huge but he's a half decent size. Might have been 500 feet away. He swung back around. He might have been spooked because there are too many people up in the hills, so we'll have to wait him out. But he might come in.

LANDMAN: Troy Hurtubise feels a rush of excitement and awe come over him whenever he gets anywhere near a grizzly. His reverence for the bears made me wonder if, on some level, he wishes that he were one. So I asked him.

HURTUBISE: Oh, absolutely. You know, I'd be the king out there. Sure, no doubt about it. I love the solitude. I'm not a city person; I like the bush anyway. So to be a grizzly bear would be great.

(Bear calls)

LANDMAN: For Living on Earth, this is Miriam Landman.



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