The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 80: Fighting Animal Terror

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"Lions and Bison and Bears, Oh My!" Does the thought of them keep you from getting into the wilderness? This week on The WildeBeat; Fighting Animal Terror.

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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number eighty.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE: In the past couple of years, there have been some famous, tragic animal attacks: Victims includes Steve Irwin the crocodile hunter, and Timothy Treadwell the grizzly man. These stories and others terrify people. This terror keeps a lot of people from venturing out into the wilderness at all. But how afraid do you need to be?

STEVE: I'm talking with Dave Smith. He's the author of a couple of books by the Mountaineers Books "Don't Get Eaten, The Dangers of Animals that Charge or Attack," and "Backcountry Bear Basics, the Definitive Guide to Avoiding Unpleasant Encounters." Dave, welcome to the WildeBeat.

DAVE SMITH: Thank you.

STEVE: So let's start out. Everybody always wants to know, why are you the expert on dangerous animals.

DAVE SMITH: [Laughs.] Well, I guess it comes from living in places with dangerous animals. In particular, back in the seventies I landed a job as a winter keeper, a caretaker, snowbound in the heart of Yellowstone, and that gave me an awful lot of free time to interact with bears, and buffalo, and moose, and critters like that.

STEVE: Bears are one of the two, I would say, most feared animals for most people thinking about venturing into the wilderness, and how afraid do people really need to be? I mean, is this something that should prevent them from going?

DAVE SMITH: No, I don't think so at all. And in the Backcountry Bear Basics books, I added a little section called "Black Bears are not Mini Grizzlies." Behaviorally, they're an entirely different animal, and if you're in ...places where you're only dealing with black bears, you really don't have much to worry about. Grizzlies, anybody, no matter how skilled an outdoors person you are, anybody has that chance of startling a nearby bear. You encroach on the bear's personal space, which puts it into a situation where it can only fight or flee. And with a grizzly, there's a chance that bear will charge -- that'll be its response.

STEVE: I guess it's not so much the case in the lower forty eight states in the U.S., but in Canada, there certainly have been black bear attacks on people.

DAVE SMITH: Yes, ...there's been a number of incidents where everyone feels the bear clearly had the intent of preying on a person. It's unusual behavior... 'Cause there's only been roughly twenty incidents where black bears have killed and eaten people, and it appeared to be predatory in nature.

STEVE: Twenty incidents since when?

DAVE SMITH: Since people started keeping record in about nineteen hundred. So when you consider that we've got three hundred million people just in the United States, and approximately seven hundred thousand black bears, it's not statistically anything to think about.

STEVE: That sort of puts an edge on the point that's often ignored, right? Because it's news if bear eats person. It's not news if person meets their demise, for example, driving around the corner to the grocery store, and that happens, especially in urban environments every day, without making the news.

DAVE SMITH: Right, and I think part of the fear with bears and the fascination at the same time is they're the most human-like creature in North America. And so many of us grow up, for example, with Teddy bears, and then you hear stories of a bear killing and eating a person, and it's almost like, oh my God, Teddy bear turned on me. So I think that's part of the reason there's the fear. Yeah, we didn't, as a species, evolve to fear Hondas and Chevrolets, but we do have an ancient fear of being killed and eaten by a wild animal.

STEVE: So let's get practical here for a bit, ...So what I'm going to do is, I'm going to describe some situations, and I'd like you to basically prescribe for the listeners what you think the best way for them to deal with the situation is.

DAVE SMITH: Alright.

STEVE: The situation number one. You're kind of jamming down the trail with your backpack on, and you turn a switchback... or come out into a clearing, and you're pretty darn close to a bear.

DAVE SMITH: One of the interesting things is probably one of the most significant changes on handling bear encounters over the past ten years, is it's been streamlined where you're initial response is the same, whether it's a black bear or a grizzly bear... So your first reaction should be to just stop and try to get your breath for a second and assess the situation. I mean, assuming the bear is aware of you, and at that point, when you start to consider your options, if you run, that will probably trigger a chase response from the bear, OK? So running is out. If you try to climb a tree... it's going to catch you before you get to the tree... So climbing a tree is generally not an option. If you slowly retreat, if it's a curious bear, it's going to say, this is a great game, and it's going to slowly follow after you. And if you just stand your ground for a moment, or just freeze in fear, that works perfectly fine, too. What you're saying to the bear with your body language, is if you come over here and touch me, it's going to cost you. I'm ready to fight. I'm willing to fight. That might be a total lie; you might just be frozen in fear there, but the bear doesn't know that. So the first thing to do is just stop and freeze, hold your ground and try to assess the situation.

STEVE: So do you want to make the bear aware of you if he isn't yet?

DAVE SMITH: Depending on the distance... I guess most grizzly bear charges occur when you startle a bear at about sixty yards or less, ...You know, if the bear's not aware of you, and you can slowly go back in that case, without alerting the bear, that's probably your best move... But if the bear is aware of you, I'd give it a couple second count. If it's a black bear, in all likelihood, it's going to go the other way. If it's a grizzly, you're within its personal space, and it might elect to charge you. And if it does, it's a thousand-one, thousand-two, thousand-three, and it's there, so there's no point in doing anything except standing there because even if it charges you, that's still your best option. ...if I had bear pepper spray or firearms, I'd ready them. But if it's just walking to you, there's no reason to pull the trigger or anything. But at that point, I'd sort of give it the right-of-way on the trail, and I'd do that by backing away at about a forty-five degree angle, uphill if that's possible, and keep your eyes on the bear. You've got to watch what it's doing.

STEVE: Ok. Let's talk about the next scenario: You are either in camp, or stopped for a meal break along the trail and you're approached.

DAVE SMITH: There's a couple scenarios. If're with a group of four people, and it's a black bear, I'd get together, stand together, make a lot of noise, clap your hands, yell, wave your hands over head, stamp your feet, lunge toward the bear. You can throw things, rocks, sticks, things like that, in the bear's direction and try to drive it off. If it's a grizzly bear, unless you're in a desperate situation where you needed to protect your food, I'd just start slowly backing away and watch the bear's response. Because predation is so rare, I'd always go on the assumption the bear was after my food, and had previous experience getting food in these camps, rather than the bear was after me.

STEVE: The last scenario is: You're ...settled into camp. Maybe you're even in your tent or even in your sleeping bag, and a bear comes into camp.

DAVE SMITH: At that point, I'm not going to stay in my sleeping bag, I can tell you. You want to drive the bear out of there. And you know, in a lot of those situations, I can tell you, if I had kids and it was feasible at all, I'd pack up and move because if there's a bear that's aware of you, and knows there's a camp there, and its still coming in, and its say, toward dusk or something, I think that bear might be back three or four more times in the night. In all likelihood its only after food scraps, and its obtained them before, but there's just been enough incidents where those bears will try to get into a tent at night that I'm not comfortable with that situation.

STEVE: Probably the next most feared animal when people are getting into the back country is a mountain lion or the cougar.

DAVE SMITH: Well, the interesting thing about the cougar attacks is that it's simply been that... These have all been predatory incidents. I don't have my, the exact latest numbers, but I'm going to say less than 100 cases in the past 100 years all across North America. But I do know that in at least half the incidents where people were killed by cougars, ...It's done and over before the person ever knows what's hit them. So you know, part of it is simply that cougars are generally most active at night and at dawn and at dusk... The time of day can make a big difference.

STEVE: OK. So let's talk about two kinds of potential encounters. You already mentioned one where you're on the trail somewhere, and you're ambushed. What can people do if anything?

DAVE SMITH: The main thing is fight back, and the secondary thing, if you and I, Steve, were out together, help your friend. Because there have been some incidents, ...sometimes involving parents and children, and it's real clear that the cougars, they might be following a group of people, and what they're doing is watching, waiting, stalking, and they're not going to go for the biggest person in the group. They're going to go for the smallest one... and in some cases the parents have gone, they've kicked the cougars, they've hit them with sticks, they've thrown rocks at them, they've been able to drive them away, and to the best of my knowledge, never has a cougar in that situation retaliated and gone after the adult trying to drive them away.

STEVE: Here's another incident then. You see one. Which I know is a lot more rare than them being around them and you not seeing them.

DAVE SMITH: ...I'd be on alert because for one thing, if they don't want to be seen, they won't be seen... and the first thing you're watching for, sometimes they will, in those situations, just watch people. Maybe they're just curious. Where you need to go on total red alert is if that cougar starts following you. And at that point the best thing to do really is just to turn and confront it. Unless you can get somewhere safe. You certainly don't want to break into a run or anything like that, but if you're real close to a group of people, real close to a hard-sided building, something like that, keep your eye on the cougar and try to move in that direction. Pick up a big stick or something that you could use as as a club, and of course, a lot of people use hiking staffs. Things like that will work.

STEVE: ...and the third category, and I know it's an over-generalization to lump them all together, but I think you can probably draw some generalizations out of hoofed and herd animals, ones that are generally not carnivores... How do we deal with these large hoofed animals?

DAVE SMITH: With buffalo, moose, and elk, they may be big, but they're a lot faster and a lot quicker than you'd think. A lot faster. So the whole key is just keep your distance. That's where most people mess up.

STEVE: And so I only have one scenario for those, and that is you turn the corner, or come out into a clearing and you surprise one.

DAVE SMITH: I'd just back away a little bit, and increase your distance from the animal.

DAVE SMITH: Hey one thing, can I throw in, Steve?

STEVE: Sure.

DAVE SMITH: You know, because we've been talking about a lot of situation when you're on a trail and things, and one thing I'm surprised that people don't do more often. If you've got kids with you, because we've got so many more families going out and doing recreational activities, whether it's, you know, serious hiking or just a little walk during the day. If you've got kids with you, sandwich them between adults. Because with bears, it's the first person in line that's likely to bump into a bear and be charged. With cougars, as I said, they're picking and choosing, and it makes it harder for them to get at anyone if there's an adult at the front or the back... So it's an easy little tip, but common sense tells you to do that.

STEVE: And I guess, kind of implied in all of your answers, is that the larger the group, the better in general in these situations?

DAVE SMITH: Yes. Especially with bears... Steve French from the Yellowstone Grizzly Foundation one told me, he thought that the way bears counted was one, two, and more. And when they get to more, they don't want anything to do with you. So there is strength in numbers, but it's only if you stick close together.

STEVE: So, just because I throw on a backpack and go into Sequoia Kings Canyon for an overnight, I'm not likely to wind up like Timothy Treadwell?

DAVE SMITH: Ah, No. You know, go outside and enjoy yourselves. You're more likely to have a blister.

STEVE: Dave Smith is the author of a couple of books by The Mountaineers Books, Don't Get Eaten, the danger of animals that charge or attack, and Backcountry Bear Basics, the definitive guide to avoiding unpleasant encounters. Dave thank you for appearing on the show.

DAVE SMITH: All right, thanks for having me, Steve, I really appreciate it.

STEVE: Do you have an experience with a large wild animal you'd like to share, or do you have comments on this edition of our show? You can call our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373. You'll find links to information about Dave Smith's books, and an extended version of this show, on our web site.

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Next time -- a Waterless Wilderness.

Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. Please click on the support link to make possible future editions of this free service. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham, as a public service of Effable Communications.

This has been The WildeBeat, program number eighty. Thank you for listening.

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