Monday, August 25, 2008

Allowing A Bear To Save Face

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Bear hunting is a special brand of outdoor adventure where the hunted can become the hunter. It’s when the tables can be rapidly turned on a sportsman, and where things can get very interesting very quickly.

It doesn’t happen very often with black bears, but when one attacks, it’s not good news. A grizzly will maul and bite a human, often inflicting horrific injuries, but the person often lives.

Black bear, even though they are the most common bruin of all, are perhaps the most dangerous. Their attack may continues until the victim is dead. It has happened many times across North America, and in many cases, the human doesn’t survive such brutal maulings.

I lay no claim to being a black bear expert, but have hunted bruins, photographed them, and have had them approach within three feet of me. Each experience is one to learn from, and to hope it never happens again. A Human best hope he does everything right if a bear gets within three feet of you. One wrong move, and it can mean terrible trouble.

I’ve never been truly frightened of a black bear even when they’ve come within spitting distance on a dead run. Knowing some things about bears can help you cope with the animal if things turn sour, and an angry bear is only feet away. What you do may truly affect the outcome of the encounter.

Bear baiting season is open wherever bear hunting is legal in this state, and that means that bears and humans may be within close proximity of each other, and neither one knows it. Throw in the fact that the bear may be a sow with young cubs, and there is the potential for disaster.

Once while photographing a black bear in Canada’s Northwest Territories I was downwind of a foraging bruin. It turned, looked in my direction, and I took a photo with a flash attachment. It startled the animal, and it came walking slowly toward me.

I talked to the animal in a fairly soft voice. I kept my voice level, and it approach close enough that I could have reached out and touched it, which I knew would have been a mistake. The animal continued to circle me, and as it moved around me, I turned with it and continued to face it and talk to it. The bear got downwind of me, caught my scent, and circled back on the same path as before and slowly walked away.

One important thing in bear encounters is to keep a clear head. Don’t scream at the animal, and realize that a wild bear can sense anxiety and fear. The same is also true of a junkyard dog. Running from a bear is a bad thing to do. Watch the animal, and read the messages it gives you.

Know this: bears, and especially sows with cubs, will often make a false charge toward a person. They can walk, trot or run, but you’ll hear teeth clacking, deep growling, and then the bear stops at 15 to 20 feet.
It is defending its turf and its cubs, and a slow dignified retreat with soft talk while facing the animal can put an end to the whole business.

The trick is to stand your ground until she stops. Step backwards slowly for a step or two, and talk to the bear. If it does nothing, take two or three more slow steps backwards. This allows the animal some space, and gives it a chance to save face. Its enemy is retreating to avoid what could be a deadly confrontation. Just don’t make any quick moves, and pay some attention to your footing. If you fall down, it could trigger an attack that would be difficult to defend against.

Watch the bear. Keep a level head, and don’t crowd the animal. If it comes, turn with it, but watch its head because the body will follow the head. Study its actions intensely. A bear that becomes increasingly agitated is now a deadly animal.

A bear that approach within 15 to 20 feet and stops, its ears laid back against its skull, and is clacking its teeth and growling, is a dangerous animal. A bear that does that, and then begins slamming its front feet against the ground, has become truly dangerous. Back up and try to defuse the situation with a slow retreat.

Do not run. Never run from a bear because it’s like running from a mean dog: the chances are it will trigger a charge. A full-blown charge with foot stomping, growls, ears laid back, and clacking of teeth is something that will stir your guts into soup and give your mouth a coppery taste. This is no time to lose your head and do stupid things.

Continue to face the animal but try a slow-movement retreat. Chances are the bear doesn’t want to force the issue, but this posturing can be a prelude to a mauling and death or a close call. In many cases, the human’s movements or lack of them may act as a catalyst that triggers an attack.

Saving face is no different with a bear than with a barroom bully. Sometimes the issue can be resolved without incident; other times, it can only be resolved with force. A man alone, unarmed, is not capable of fighting a faster and stronger bear. A few instances have been noted of a bear-man fight, including one here in Michigan, and they are the stuff of wild tales ... except some of them are true.

Few people will ever face a false charge, and even fewer will come to grips with a full-blown charge. Those who face the latter (and it’s difficult to determine one from the other until the attack occurs) and live to tell the story are a rare breed in today’s society.

I’ve faced three, and all were defused after several troubling minutes, but the best advice is to stand tall, make yourself look as big as possible, talk (don’t scream) to the animal, and give the bear a chance to save face without injury to it or you.

Backing away or stepping aside when a bruin is very close can leave you with a wildly beating heart, a dry mouth and your life, providing you do everything right. The chance of a bear attack anywhere is rather remote, but it pays to have some knowledge of what to do well before such need is within 10 feet of you.

Especially if the bear has a surly attitude.

Posted by Dave Richey on 08/25 at 06:44 PM
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