Bear necessities

New Scientist, 19 December 1998

IN the 12 years since Troy Hurtubise started building grizzly bear-proof suits, he's lost his business, risked his life and endured the jeers of sceptics. But, with the UN and firefighters showing interest in his work, the last laugh might still be his. After making half a dozen prototypes, Hurtubise is convinced that his latest -- the Ursus Mark VII -- will be just the ticket. And if it is, miners, police and sportspeople could also be placing orders.

The suit, dubbed the "G-man Genesis", will be tough enough to withstand an attack by a 400-kilogram grizzly bear. OK, so the suit hasn't been built yet, and it hasn't come anywhere near a real lunging, swiping, clawing bear -- but Hurtubise's heroic efforts to demonstrate the strength of his last model, the Ursus Mark VI, prove that he's not one to shy away from rigorous field-testing.

Locked up inside the Mark VI, for instance, Hurtubise survived two strikes with a 136-kilogram tree trunk, 18 collisions with a 3-tonne truck at 50 kilometres an hour, an assault by bow and arrow from a top-ranking archer, a few shots from a 12-bore shotgun, and a 50-metre tumble down the Niagara escarpment. Not to mention an attack by three bikers wielding axes, planks and baseball bats. And, he says, Mark VII should be even better.

It all sounds exciting, but why the need for grizzly protection in the first place? It began when Hurtubise was head-butted by a grey-bearded old grizzly back in 1984. "The bear didn't kill me," he marvels. Ever since, he's been longing to go back into bear country and stand face to face with the beast. And to watch without fear.

He's become increasingly obsessed with black bears as well as grizzlies, and spends a lot of time testing bear-repellent chemicals. "They don't work," he concludes. But testing repellents is his excuse to study bears up close. Hurtubise is part Ojibway Indian and is forced to do most of his observing on Native land since the Canadian government has accused him of bear harassment. "I'm the world's pioneer of close-quarter bear research," he says, rather too earnestly. Too little is known about the creatures, he laments.

No one has ever observed the bears during hibernation, for example. He imagines that the suit might someday allow him to fix a heat-activated video camera inside a bear's den so zoologists can observe the long slumber. "I'm going to film the entire thing," he says. He also wants to record the birth of a grizzly cub in the wild, something that's never been seen before. "I have the suit. Nobody else does," he says. "I'll be the first one in to do it."

You have to have a lot of confidence in your gear if you're going to hang out with grizzlies. To prove his point, in 1995 Hurtubise donned his Mark VI and put himself directly in harm's way. A male grizzly had been attacking tourists near Lake Louise, Alberta, so Hurtubise seized the chance. He flew in with his bear team -- a combination of sharpshooters and field technicians -- the suit was airlifted in by helicopter and a film crew was on the scene to record the long-awaited encounter.

Alas, when Hurtubise was sealed into his bear-proof suit, he found he couldn't climb the 100 metres that would take him onto the edge of the bear's territory. "I can't take two steps without falling on my face," he cursed at the time. Meanwhile, the bear ambled around and ignored him.

The biggest improvement in the Mark VII, he says, will be its flexibility. "I'll be able to drive a car in it," he jokes. He estimates it will weigh about 54 kilograms -- 12 kilograms lighter than the Mark VI -- mainly due to its construction from Boralyn-E5, a new aluminium and boron composite produced by Alyn Corporation in Los Angeles. "It's a mighty metal," says Hurtubise, "stronger than titanium and lighter than aluminium." Another feature of the new suit is that it will come in two pieces, allowing him to get inside the thing all by himself -- unlike his earlier versions which were just too bulky to put on without help.

While a patent is pending, Hurtubise won't say too much about the design of the Mark VII. It will have an endoskeleton and an exoskeleton as well as airbags and something Hurtubise calls a "honeycomb system" in between to absorb impact. But he'll reveal little about the suit's joints, except that they are "ten years ahead of their time".

Eventually, he hopes, the G-man Genesis will be fitted with the latest in bear observation gear -- infrared and thermal night vision and an on-board camera to record the action. On the left arm will be a "bite bar", to register the power of a grizzly's chomp. Hurtubise bills the suit as cold-proof, fireproof, weatherproof and even bulletproof. For comfort, it comes with a cooling system, a one-hour emergency oxygen supply -- and a black box, to record any last words should the other features fail.

It can be yours for just $500 000. Who'd be crazy enough to buy a bear suit, you ask? Well, not grizzly scientists it turns out. Hurtubise approached a few field stations, among them one in Glacier National Park, Montana, but the researchers weren't interested -- they're sticking with their regular outdoor gear to do their bear work.

But a couple of fire departments have been making inquiries, says Hurtubise. They are wondering if such a suit might come in handy during an emergency. The UN is also showing interest, he says, since the G-man Genesis could be ideal attire for those defusing land mines. "They can be custom-made," he says. "The UN probably won't want a bite bar." Miners, volcano researchers, observers of tigers, even riot control or military forces could benefit from the suit.

Hurtubise has now set up two companies to market the suit and to take care of sportswear spin-offs. Thirteen patent applications have been made on inventions stemming from Marks III through VI, and one has so far been granted. That's for the "airjohn", essentially long underwear with a special cushion of compressed air that can offer protection against injury in games like ice hockey. A new ice hockey helmet is also on the drawing board.

If all goes well, Hurtubise stands to make a bit of money back for the 12 years and $100 000 he's invested. That's welcome news. Since the collapse of his scrap metal business a few years back, his financial situation hasn't been great.

He was forced to declare bankruptcy, so his creditors seized his assets -- chief among them, of course, the Ursus Mark VI. They will be auctioning off the seven-foot-tall, red and white titanium and rubber Goliath in the second week of the new year. In the meantime, they charge $500 for each public appearance -- and it's been making the Hollywood talk-show rounds, from Roseanne to The Tonight Show. "I take it out at a specific time and have to return it at a specific time," says Hurtubise.

In a fit of generosity, however, the creditors allowed the suit to go free with Hurtubise when he collected his Ig-Nobel prize in Boston earlier this year -- though his trustee was never out of sight. Sadly, even a bear-proof suit can't protect a man from corporate animals.