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DAWID RYSKI
DAWID RYSKI

Building a Bear-Proof Suit

DAWID RYSKI
DAWID RYSKI

On August 4, 1984, Troy Hurtubise was hiking in central British Columbia when he came face-to-face with a grizzly bear. The grizzly knocked the 20-year-old sportsman down, his .22 rifle careening out of reach. Struggling to his feet, he drew his knife.

The bear, Hurtubise claims, seemed to contemplate its chances before disappearing into the woods. A conservationist later told him that if any cubs had been present, he would’ve been mauled.

To the grizzly, it was a forgettable encounter with a bothersome human. To Hurtubise, it was a revelation. The Ontario native became obsessed with designing armor that could withstand a full-blown attack. Inspired by the chain mail worn by shark researchers, he began consulting with experts on how to test his ideas. The suit’s seven-year development was chronicled in the 1996 documentary Project Grizzly, a favorite of Quentin Tarantino’s.

But not all has gone well for Hurtubise. Now 50, the self-proclaimed eccentric doesn’t use schematics and often can’t explain why his inventions—fireproof paste, a bulletproof shield, a light he claims shrinks tumors—work. Over the years, he’s been forced to declare bankruptcy, sell his prototypes on eBay, and even pawn his wedding ring to make up for the debts run up by his obsessive ambitions.

Since Hurtubise lacks financial or university backing, most dismiss his notions as fanciful or downright senseless; others believe his ideas could save lives. “My wife has said, ‘If you’d just invent some simple refrigerator magnet and do an infomercial, we’d be rich,’ ” Hurtubise says. “But I don’t know how to do that. I just build what I see in my head and know it’s going to work.”

Armor Up

Years after his encounter with the bear, Hurtubise was watching RoboCop when he was struck by the idea of body armor. He thought there should be a protective suit that would allow researchers to test so-called bear-proof sprays and safely observe grizzly behavior. He spent the next seven years (and $150,000) constructing a series of suits he dubbed Ursus Mark. The 7'2" Mark VI—a blend of air cushioning, titanium, and duct tape—successfully endured makeshift trials in which it was hit by a pickup truck and beaten by bikers armed with baseball bats, as depicted in Project Grizzly. But the armor weighed as much as Hurtubise himself: 150 pounds.

“My only complaint was that the filmmakers didn’t show five minutes of science behind it all,” he says. “Being able to get hit by the truck took years of development.”

Ultimately, Hurtubise’s rematch with a grizzly never came to be. During filming, he was forced to abandon his efforts because the suit was too heavy and he was unable to remain upright on uneven ground. In 2002, a trainer allowed him inside a cage with a Kodiak, which was too confused by Hurtubise’s appearance to approach him.

“She was so terrified, she urinated,” Hurtubise recalls. “I didn’t look human enough.” Limited mobility and questionable usefulness combined to doom the Mark series. “We would never use a suit like that,” says Lana Ciarniello, PhD, a bear behavioral expert. “A solid knowledge of bear behavior is the best thing one can use to avoid being attacked, [which is] rare.”

Nonetheless, the armor brought Hurtubise fame. In addition to the documentary, he was recruited for Japanese game shows, and he inspired a 2003 episode of The Simpsons where Homer constructs a bear-proof suit. He even filmed an Audi commercial. Of course, Hurtubise quickly reinvested the proceeds in his pursuits.

After Hurtubise hung up his bear ambitions, he turned his attention toward other inventions. He had a brother in the military, which piqued his interested in flexible armor, and he believed a suit styled after the one in the videogame Halo would keep soldiers and law enforcement better protected. So Hurtubise invented a suit dubbed the Trojan and performed his trademark experiments, enlisting retired military marksman Keith Cunningham—who had “covered” Hurtubise during his bear expeditions with nonlethal rounds—to help with field tests.

Once, Cunningham recalls, Hurtubise wanted to be shot point-blank, believing his armor-plated chest could take the bullet. “But it’s illegal in our province to point a loaded weapon at someone,” Cunningham says. “So we took the plate out. I shot at it, and the bullet went right through. He turned ashen gray.”

Hurtubise tweaked the Trojan, which he debuted in 2007, to little notice. Eventually, he offered his design to the Canadian military for free, but it can take years for armed forces to evaluate new technology. And existing contracts with equipment vendors render it near impossible for independent inventors without backing or references to succeed. “With industrial military, contracts are sewn up, and they don’t want anyone stepping on toes,” he says. “Engineers pick my brain, but I can’t be affiliated with them. I’m a loose cannon, and my methodology is backward.” Even so, many of Hurtubise’s inventions have grabbed headlines. His fire paste, a gooey substance that hardens to resist flame, was documented by Canada’s Discovery Channel as standing up to temperatures in excess of 3,600° F. Hurtubise held a blowtorch to his helmeted head for 10 minutes to prove it. NASA, he says, was interested but never followed up.

During a demonstration for his blast blanket, a plate meant to absorb heavy firepower, a crowd watched as Cunningham shot round after round of 12-gauge shotgun shells into it. When it finally budged, it only fell over; the glass behind it was unharmed. “I told cops about it every chance I got,” Cunningham says. “Imagine having that on the doors of patrol vehicles for protection or under military transports. I told them, ‘Try to look past Troy’."

There was a reason for Cunningham’s caution: Hurtubise looks more like a mountain man than an esteemed inventor. Worse, his claims sometimes stretch the boundaries of reason. Hurtubise garnered skeptical looks when he announced that his God Light device had shrunk his sister-in-law’s cysts as well as tumors in mice. He even believes it can cure Parkinson’s. “Light is extremely effective against certain cancers,” he says. “All I did was take all spectrums of light, electromagnetic radiation, and put them together. And it works. I don’t know why, but it does.”

Hurtubise’s claims have never been validated by an outside auditor, in large part because subjecting a group of sick people to a makeshift electromagnetic beam stretches ethical considerations. When Hurtubise turned the light on himself, he experienced what he calls the Hyde effect. His hair began falling out, and he lost 20 pounds. Then the God Light stopped working. Hurtubise has yet to find the money to resurrect it.

Invent and Invent Again

Today, Hurtubise operates a scrapyard in Ontario and dismisses notions of patents (“the stuff is too easy to duplicate, and it costs $80,000 to file an application”). He rejects offers to outright sell his creations—like fire paste—because he frequently sells off shares to fund their development. “By the time I got fire paste to the point of testing, 70 percent of it was owned by investors,” he says. “So when a university wants it, I have only 30 percent left. They’re not interested in that.” And yet, Hurtubise can’t stop inventing. He still feels compelled to put in 21-hour days refining his projects. His current plan is to find funding for the Apache, the latest version of his Trojan suit, which he says protects 93 percent of a user’s body and offers 96 percent flexibility. A prototype will cost $70,000. “It’ll take six to eight months to build by hand. I’ll try to market it to law enforcement like SWAT.” He needs another $100,000 to rebuild the God Light, renamed the EMR-5, which he now claims will only cure breast cancer. He wants to take it to Johns Hopkins for testing.

As for Hurtubise’s legacy, it’s hard to predict. There’s a chance he’ll join the long list of inventors who were once disparaged until time proved them correct. Even the airborne Wright brothers were thought to have faked their maiden flights. If that’s Hurtubise’s fate, he seems comfortable with it. “I’ve been called a maverick, a nutcase, everything,” he says. “It never bothered me. Without imagination, science is nothing.”

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.

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NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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Animals
Watch the First-Ever Footage of a Baby Dumbo Octopus
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dumbo octopuses are named for the elephant-ear-like fins they use to navigate the deep sea, but until recently, when and how they developed those floppy appendages were a mystery. Now, for the first time, researchers have caught a newborn Dumbo octopus on tape. As reported in the journal Current Biology, they discovered that the creatures are equipped with the fins from the moment they hatch.

Study co-author Tim Shank, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, spotted the octopus in 2005. During a research expedition in the North Atlantic, one of the remotely operated vehicles he was working with collected several coral branches with something strange attached to them. It looked like a bunch of sandy-colored golf balls at first, but then he realized it was an egg sac.

He and his fellow researchers eventually classified the hatchling that emerged as a member of the genus Grimpoteuthis. In other words, it was a Dumbo octopus, though they couldn't determine the exact species. But you wouldn't need a biology degree to spot its resemblance to Disney's famous elephant, as you can see in the video below.

The octopus hatched with a set of functional fins that allowed it to swim around and hunt right away, and an MRI scan revealed fully-developed internal organs and a complex nervous system. As the researchers wrote in their study, Dumbo octopuses enter the world as "competent juveniles" ready to jump straight into adult life.

Grimpoteuthis spends its life in the deep ocean, which makes it difficult to study. Scientists hope the newly-reported findings will make it easier to identify Grimpoteuthis eggs and hatchlings for future research.

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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