Cage Against the Machine: The Beaver Believers Documentary

Sarah Koenigsberg
A beaver being released back into the wild in The Beaver Believers.
The issues of ecological management are often polarizing, with endless debates over climate change, water rights and managing our most basic and precious resources. But there's an often forgotten member of our ecology that has serious teeth in these matters: the beaver.

Some view beavers as a pesky menace, gnawing down ornamental landscaping, flooding waterways and chomping up cash crops. But then there are the beaver advocates, who want people to appreciate the majesty and value of these animals and the role that they play in a healthy environment.

Sarah Koenigsberg's film The Beaver Believers shares the heartwarming yet urgent tale of six activists –– a biologist, a hydrologist, a botanist, an ecologist, a psychologist and a hairdresser –– who are all fighting to save the beavers as they work to preserve our environment.

In this unlikely bunch, the rogue hairdresser is one of Colorado's own.

click to enlarge Sherri Tippie and a beloved beaver in The Beaver Believers. - SARAH KOENIGSBERG
Sherri Tippie and a beloved beaver in The Beaver Believers.
Sarah Koenigsberg
Lakewood resident Sherri Tippie, a longtime animal activist and the subject of a Westword cover story, is not the type of woman you'd picture passionately slogging through wetlands to trap semi-aquatic rodents. “I am not an outdoorsy person, at all," she says in the film. "I like HBO. I like toilets that flush...I am not outdoorsy."

She also hates deep water. "I'm scared to death of water where I can't see the bottom," she told Westword in 2011. But that doesn't stop her, because "doing this, live-trapping and relocating beaver and getting in the creeks and getting dirty and muddy, it is the most exciting and satisfying thing I’ve done in my life."

During decades of saving beavers from a cruel and untimely fate, Tippie has earned the moniker "Beaver Whisperer," a term she loathes. She's also been called "the Jane Goodall of beaver," another title that's not entirely fitting. Tippie's not a trained ethnologist, and she holds no scientific credentials. But her unyielding drive and compassionate intuition have made her an expert among beaver believers.

A self-taught trapper, Tippie was galvanized into action decades ago by a news story about how beaver were going to be killed for mauling trees on an Aurora golf course. An animal lover, Tippie didn't think twice. She was determined to become a live trapper, catching beavers in hostile environments and relocating them to safety.

Tippie understood that once landowners deem a beaver a nuisance, they have the legal right to kill it. She's also found that most people, when given the option, would prefer the animals be relocated rather than executed...but that's simply not policy for many trappers – which is why Tippie feels so passionately about her work.

"I say, if I can be a hairdresser and I can get involved and do something like this, anybody can," she stresses. "Don’t let anything hold you back. We have a responsibility, living on this planet, to do something.”

click to enlarge The Beaver Believers director Sarah Koenigsberg hard at work. - TYSON KOPFER
The Beaver Believers director Sarah Koenigsberg hard at work.
Tyson Kopfer
That same mentality drove Koenigsberg to create The Beaver Believers. "When I set out in search of the story for my first feature-length film, I knew I wanted it to be about climate change," she says, "but I didn’t want to repeat the same apocalyptic 'doom and gloom' narrative that we’ve all seen before."  She thinks that grim approach makes viewers "feel like crap because it’s all our fault. That frame of catastrophic narrative is so often overwhelming, to the point of being disempowering and debilitating, that it is actually counterproductive to inciting action."

So instead she set out to make a film "where climate change could be seen, dare I say it, almost as an opportunity: as a motivating, inspiring impetus to jump into joyful action," she explains.

"On the surface, The Beaver Believers is all about these remarkable, adorable, little bucktoothed ecosystem engineers — how they are a keystone species, how they repair and expand riparian habitat, how they seem to counter nearly every negative impact of climate change — but at a deeper level, this film is about so much more," Koenigsberg says. "It’s about the human spirit, about passionate people striving to make the world more resilient and robust, and shockingly, having a fantastic time as they do so! It’s about realizing we have a place within the natural world, and that we have the capacity to be agents of good."

Her work as an agent of good doesn't stop with the film. Koenigsberg is creating the Beaver Coalition, structured similarly to the National Audubon Society, with local chapters of conservation advocates who can serve as "beaver first responders." She hopes to have the organization up and running by March, and encourages beaver believers to sign up for alerts via her newsletter.

“They’re going to take care of us," says Tippie in The Beaver Believers. "It’s our responsibility to take care of them, the right way.”

Catch The Beaver Believers on tour in Colorado at the Colorado Environmental Film Festival in Golden on Saturday, February 22; at the Nomad Playhouse in Boulder on Sunday, February 23; at the Esquire Theatre in Denver with special guest Sherri Tippie on Monday, February 24; and at the Lyric Cinema in Fort Collins, also on February 24. Find more information and purchase tickets on the film's website.