Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Ask a Zookeeper: The Dynamics of a Bear Attack

Brown Bears, Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
 Thanks for tuning in for my second installment of my brand-new "Ask a Zookeeper" series!  This post comes from two sources:
  • Lydia Kang, who writes: "How would a bear kill a person? Like, what happens in a mauling? Are we talking torn out throats, or disemboweling... Sorry, I know it's gruesome, but I wanted to know for one of my previous WIPs and I never quite got the answer."
  • Donna Perugini writes: "Some of the questions you get really make me curious. I think you could even open up psychological profiling here along with the zookeeper section. Seriously! Not all bears (black, brown, grizzly, etc.) are the same regarding their aggressiveness."
Excellent questions and ideas, ladies! You're in luck, because I occasionally taught Bear Awareness classes in Alaska, and my husband and I follow the rules VERY closely when we go camping in bear country. (Let the record show, however, that I wasn't always up-to-date on my bear knowledge. Growing up in Florida, I didn't even enter brown bear territory for the first time until a trip to Glacier National Park on my honeymoon. During that trip, I was so petrified that I rarely made it far on our hikes, and a chance encounter with a deer on one nearly sent me into hysterics.)

Upon my arrival in Alaska, I took it upon myself to learn absolutely everything there was to know about bear attacks, thinking it was the only way I'd ever convince myself to enter the woods again. I also became obsessed with my zoo's brown and black bears (Jake, Oreo, Zayk and Mavis), and I watched them as often as I could--memorizing the way they moved, the way they reacted to things and the clues they gave off when they seemed excited or irritated.

Jake the Brown Bear, Photo Courtesy of Me
What impressed me most about the time I spent working around them (and the time I later spent helping raise the orphaned brown bears the zoo would occasionally receive) was the amount of intelligence the bears displayed--especially in regard to problem-solving. It was staggering, but it was also intensely helpful, because intelligent animals tend to act in predictable ways, and this is paramount when dissecting something as complex as a bear attack.

Many people split bear attacks into two categories: black bear attacks or brown bear attacks. (Brown bears and grizzly bears are essentially the same thing; the phrasing differences are mostly semantics.) I think, however, that it's infinitely more helpful to split bear attacks into two different categories: DEFENSIVE attacks or PREDATORY attacks.

Brown Bears, Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
DEFENSIVE attacks are the ones we are FAR more likely to encounter in the wild: we've stumbled upon a bear, startled it, blocked its access or threatened its food, gotten between a sow and her cubs, etc. These attacks are typically not as life-threatening as predatory attacks, because the bears will generally stop attacking us as soon as they feel like we are no longer a threat. (Slightly heartening, I suppose, but still not delightful-sounding by any means.)

Defensive attacks by brown bears are far more common than defensive attacks by black bears (though still uncommon in the grand scheme of things), because black bears evolved in habitats with lots of trees. When black bears feel threatened, they typically just scoot up the closest one. Brown bears, on the other hand, evolved in more open areas, so they are more hard-wired to stand their ground.

If you ever encounter a startled bear, remain calm and do not run. Here are some tips from
  • Speak in a low monotone voice so the bear can identify you as human.
  • A bear may charge in an attempt to intimidate you – usually stopping well short of contact.
  • If contact is made, or about to be made, drop to the ground and play dead. Protect your back by keeping your pack on. Lie on your stomach, clasp your hands behind your neck, and use your elbows and toes to avoid being rolled over. If the bear does roll you over, keep rolling until you land back on your stomach. 
  • (In response to your question, Lydia, when bears attack to kill, they typically swipe at the chest or back and then finish their prey off by biting its neck or head. At that time, they usually go for the entrails. Gross, right?)
  • Remain still and quiet. A defensive bear will stop attacking once it feels the threat has been removed.
  • Do not move until you are absolutely sure the bear has left the area.
Black Bear, Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
PREDATORY attacks are incredibly rare, but they are exactly what they sound like: attacks where a bear is purposefully seeking us out and intending to kill and eat us. This is the stuff nightmares are made of, so it's obviously important to react differently.

Here are some more tips from Any bear that continues to approach, follow, disappear and reappear or displays other stalking behaviors is possibly considering you as prey. Bears that attack you in your tent or confront you aggressively in your campsite or cooking area should also be considered a predatory threat.
  • If the bear does not respond to aggressive actions such as yelling or throwing rocks and sticks, you should be prepared to physically fight back if it attempts to make contact. 
  • Try to be intimidating: look as large as possible. If you are in a group, stand close together to give the illusion of size.
  • If you have bear spray, emit a deterring blast, preferably before the bear is within twenty-five feet. This gives the animal time to divert its advance.
  • If the attack escalates and the bear physically contacts you, fight back with anything that is available to you. You are quite literally fighting for your life.
(Ironically, black bears are responsible for the majority of predatory attacks, not brown bears. This is why popular wisdom suggests only fighting back during black bear attacks and playing dead during brown bear attacks. Who knew?)

Zayk the Black Bear, Photo Courtesy of Me
Lastly, here are some great ways you can AVOID bear attacks all together, courtesy of
  • Keep your eyes open for signs of bears. Footprints, droppings, trampled vegetation, clawed up tree trunks, overturned rocks, ripped up rotting logs.
  • Invest in some bear spray before entering bear country. Know how and when to use it.
  • Hike in groups. This gives you people to talk to, making noise is important to warn bears of your approach.
  • Feel the wind. If you are hiking into the wind, your scent will not reach bears ahead of you and the chances of encounter are higher. Be aware and consider making more warning noise.
  • Feel the land. Hiking across open meadows, ridges, or hillsides provides the opportunity for spotting bears at a distance. Hiking in gullies, thick forests, or along streams masks noise and scent and increases possibility of encounters.
  • Dispose of garbage in bear-proof containers, if they are available.
  • Hang all food, garbage, and smellable items in secure bear bags. Locate two trees about 200 feet from your campsite and at least 20 feet apart. Hang your smellables between them at least 12 feet from the ground.
  • Never eat or even bring smellables into your tent. This includes toothpaste, perfume, snacks, gum.. anything with an odor. This also includes the clothes you cooked in - put on different clothes for sleeping.
  • Cook at least 200 feet downwind from your tent. Even better, stop and cook your meal a mile before stopping to camp. Don't even open your food or garbage bag in camp.
  • Clean all dishes immediately. Do your washing 200 feet from camp.
  • Make sure you leave a spotless campsite. Remove all reason for a bear to visit this location looking for food.
Last but not least, don't forget that bears are very reclusive animals. They are hoping to avoid you just as much as you are hoping to avoid them. Just remember to let them know you're in their neighborhood, and behave like a well-mannered guest.

Thanks for tuning in for the second edition of my "Ask a Zookeeper" series, and please let me know if you have any questions for future posts.  My next question is about Capuchin monkeys, and I will be posting it in two weeks!


homecomingbook said...

One of the worst situations I ever saw for bear risk was at a tracking test near Anchorage. Those of us watching saw a black bear, with cubs, run into a patch of high brush on the track about 15 minutes before the track was to be used, and pointed out to the judges that the track should not be used. The judges, from Outside, refused and sent the handler and her dog out on the trail. Luckily the dog and the handler had more sense than the judges, and when the dog was reluctant to move into the brush, the handler pulled the dog off the track, even though it meant an automatic forfeit. I know back when I was laying tracks in the Fairbanks area, we were always told to make lots of noise while we were setting the track.

mooderino said...

Great post. I will be using all this if my life goes in a very weird direction (not many bears in the UK)


Moody Writing
The Funnily Enough

Donna Perugini said...

Fantastic write up about bear differences. I had thought brown was different from grizzly.

We had a medium sized black bear come into our yard. Our dog (half Collie/half Border Collie)was in the house with us. She let off barking I'd never heard from her before. Turning to look toward the sliding doors, there was the black bear turning fast to run back into the woods. I've walked in these woods many times, knowing there is cougars but not bear.

My reactions to black bear will definitely change. The spray would be a new addition along with 'bear bells' for noise. I'll also start singing outloud while walking...I think it will be church hymns! :O)
PS Thanks for linking!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Whoa! So on average, most grizzlies do not intend to eat you? I think I'll avoid a bear attack by avoiding the woods. I'm more of a 'great indoors' kind of guy anyway.

Jaye Robin Brown said...

Great Stuff!

LisaAnn said...

@homecoming: Yikes! I avoid Far North Bicentennial Park almost all year for that EXACT reason.

@mood: You are now officially prepared!

@Donna: There are actually "some" differences between the two, though there's no true genetic differences to speak of--with the exception of Kodiak brown bears, which are a distinct sub-species. In Alaska, "brown" bears are the bears that live near the ocean and primarily eat salmon and other fish. "Grizzlies" are the interior bears that primarily eat game. "Brown" bears are typically larger because of all the good fish fat, but the distinction is mostly just semantics, because there's no real dividing line between the two. (I thought the same thing, though, so it's definitely a common misconception.)

@Alex: Shocking, eh? (Though I still probably wouldn't want to snuggle up to one!)

@Jaye Robin: Thank you!

Lydia Kang said...

This is such an amazing post, with more depth than I'd hoped for. Wow. I had no idea about the black bears. I always thought, "Bear attack = grizzly" and left it at that. I learned so much, and I'm so grateful for your (near bottomless) fund of knowledge on this topic! said...

Meeps! I had no idea black bears were more prone to attack. Not that I'd march around trying to pet one anytime soon. Such a great, informative post that makes me want to write a bear into my WIP. :-)

I love the concept of "Ask a Zookeeper" and can't wait to read more!

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

Yay! I love bears! They're one of my favs, right after elephants.
Any specific reason you left off polar bears? Or is it just because there's less of a chance for people to come across them

LTM said...

wow. I'm not a big hiker or camper, but the thought of a bear attack just wigs me out! Thanks for the tips. Here's hoping none of us ever need them in real life~ :p <3

Stephen Tremp said...

I've hiked a lot of trails and the worst I've seen was a mean ol' bobcat killing a fuzzy little bunny and running off. Couldn't imagine a bear attack. Great blog you have hear. I'd love to be a zoologist or something along this line! said...

Holy smolies, I'm officially freaked out, though that little cub is adorableness herself. Mostly, we just go campsite camping, but still. Funny side note: My friend is terrified of polar bears. Enough so, that I yearly gift a calendar of polar bears just to watch him flinch. Hilarious!

Jenny Phresh said...

Super informative and interesting!

But ohjeez. Bears. Bears! I have got to go and hug my son's "stinky teddy" to avoid the inevitable nightmares!

Peggy Eddleman said...

This was fascinating! I haven't ever written about bears, but I live less than 30 minutes from where bears live, and I've camped amongst them several times.

Dinda Amanda said...

Banned complain !! Complaining only causes life and mind become more severe. Enjoy the rhythm of the problems faced. No matter ga life, not a problem not learn, so enjoy it :)

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