by Scott McMillion, Second Edition, Lyons Press, Guildford, CT, 2012
If you have never been scared to wander around in bear country, this book just might do it for you. It documents dozens of horrific bear attacks, including some deaths. They occur mainly when humans take a bear by surprise, wandering in the bear's territory.
I'd give you a spoiler alert here, but the title pretty much does that. I'm not going to describe the attacks themselves, but mainly review what I learned from this book, since the purpose of my nonfiction reading challenge is to learn new things. If you have a queasy stomach and a vivid imagination, don't read the book. Otherwise it's a great read with personal stories and lots of good information and bear safety and philosophy thrown in.
bears would prefer to stay away from humans, and will not attack if unprovoked. But just when you think that is always true, a bear will prove it untrue in its particular case. Each has its own personality, and just as with humans and other species, some deviate from the norm.
Hundreds of thousands of people camp in bear territory each year and very few even encounter a bear, much less get mauled. Sometimes they are lured into human territory by food or waste. Unfortunately humans do stupid things like maintaining a dirty camp, leaving food or garbage out, or, worse, approaching a bear.
Usually, however, the provocation is not deliberate. A hiker is going along, making plenty of noise (recommended) watching out to stay away from the cubs, and still manages to somehow surprise a bear and get attacked. A camper wanders a little too far from the tent in the dark. A hunter is moving quickly and quietly to sneak up on an elk and sneaks up on a bear instead. The element of surprise seems to be a big issue with bears. If you surprise them, they can decide you are a sneaky predator and attack you.
In a few cases, a bear has attacked unprovoked, attacking humans in a tent, dragging them out and killing them. Rest assured that if this happens in the United States or Canada, that bear will be tracked down and killed. Some people think this is inhumane, but once a bear perceives humans as food, it has tremendous potential to become a serial killer. It is just not worth the risk of saving its life. McMillion points out that killing that one bear will likely save the lives of others, preventing them from being shot by hunters who assume that any grizzly is a killer bear.
So, what works to prevent bear attacks? Nothing is fail-proof, but here are some suggestions that I gleaned from reading the book:
- Make noise. Let them know you are coming and they are likely to make themselves scarce. Don't sneak up on them for any reason. The best photo op is not worth your life, your health, your eyesight--as photographers have found out the hard way. Whatever you do, don't sneak up on them.
- Travel in groups. Make noise. There is safety in groups because if one person does get attacked, the others can get help. They may be able to fight off the bear or confuse it.
- Don't play dead unless the bear knocks you down. Stand up, face the bear calmly, and speak firmly. "No, Bear." (because bears apparently understand English.) What they do understand is that you are not a threat, but not intimidated either.
- Don't attack the bear. The only thing worse than a charging grizzly is an angry charging grizzly. Except that in some cases fighting it, especially in groups, may have confused the bear. However, they can easily bend a rifle or bite a big stick into shreds, so it's usually inadvisable.
- Don't run. The bear is a predator and will chase down its prey if necessary. By running, you have proven to the bear that it is more powerful than you, and that you are weak prey. Or something. Because no one can actually read the mind of a bear.
- If the bear knocks you down, play dead. You are no longer a threat to it or its cubs, and after a few more (extremely damaging) swipes, it will usually go off and leave you alone.
- Don't assume that because bears are close to the road, they are safe or tame. Even the most habituated bears can turn on humans.
- If your dog or horse gets jittery or unpredictable, change direction and be extra wary. Their sense of smell is better than yours, and bears stink. A lot.
- Don't take guns into national parks that don't allow them. There is good reason for this. Shooting a bear does not always stop it anyway; it may just enrage it. If you do have to shoot a bear, let's hope you are either a very good shot or get lucky. Remember that thick hide?
- For some reason, a good shot of bear spray, which is basically a larger, sometimes stronger, can of pepper spray than you would use on, say, the streets of New York, can chase off a bear. Perhaps it thinks it is being stung by millions of bees. You have to get it right in the eyes though. Quick reflexes and ability to reach the spray and release it from its holster are absolutely essential.
- NEVER look a bear in the eyes. Not even after it has turned away from you. Trying to stare down a creature that is more than twice your size and armed with very sharp teeth and claws is not a smart thing to do. The bear perceives it as a challenge, a sign of aggression, and will attack harder to subdue you.
- Bears go for the face, so if being attacked, try to keep your head down, your face protected by your arms. It may not work, but if you're lucky you'll delay damage to it until the bear has decided you are suitably chastised and moves away.
- Don't think you can read the mind of a bear. More than one "bear whisperer" has been mauled or killed. Follow general safety tips and stay away from them as much as possible. That's the biggest safety tip.
- Lock up your food in a vehicle or hang it really high in a tree. Make sure the windows are up. Don't leave it in coolers, backpacks, or tents, all of which are accessible by determined bears. Similarly, if you live in bear territory, don't leave fruit from trees for windfall.
- Keep a clean camp. Cook on a camp-stove and put it away. Use approved latrines--either one at the campsite or a sealed bucket that you lock in your car. Clean up your trash and dirty dishes. If you brush your teeth, spit in the latrine, not on the ground. Leave as little around to smell good as possible. Don't bring small animals, and especially don't leave them at the campsite or in a tent--not even in a carrier. I actually saw this in a movie, and it resulted in a heartbroken girl when the bear tore up the camp and the little dog disappeared.
MY MAIN TAKEAWAY: If you want to camp or travel in bear territory, be alert, be prepared, and know and follow the basic safety guidelines.