You’d think it would go without saying, but bears are pretty dangerous animals.
The large, lumbering creatures can weigh up to 700 lbs. and run as fast as 50 km/h (depending on what kind of bear you’re dealing with). But the animals are also deeply misunderstood.
While we might think of them as vicious beasts, bears, in particular black bears, rarely attack humans. On the entire continent of North America, since the year 1900, roughly 63 people have been killed by them. Even in the case of the more violent grizzly bear, the Canadian Encyclopedia reports that “About half the cases of attacks by grizzlies in national parks are inflicted by bears who have lost their insularity as a result of having foraged on food or garbage, or because of repeated exposure to people.”
In other words, these attacks aren’t usually caused by the factors you’d expect. (You probably thought Mama Bear was your biggest threat, right? Wrong.)
That’s why we reached out to the folks at Parks Canada. Masters of outdoor safety, they helped us shed some light on some of the unexpected ways you might threaten or encourage a bear to come close.
Because the last thing we want you to do, is what these people did at Banff National Park earlier this week:
So you’ve encountered a bear, what do you do?
Do Not: Try to distract it with food
It might seem like a good idea at the time. A bear is staring you right in the face, there’s a cooler with a steak in it nearby. Why not throw the meat behind the bear and run, hoping for the best? The problem with that approach is you’re essentially rewarding the animal’s aggressive behaviour, “thereby increasing the likelihood that it will repeat that behaviour again,” Parks Canada reports. Even if you do distract it long enough to get away, you might be putting the next person who encounters that bear in greater danger. Not to mention you could get hit with a $1,000 fine from Parks Canada, which is exactly what happened to this family:
Do Not: Run away or panic
Again, your instincts will tell you this is a good idea. It’s not. Running away from a bear could trigger a pursuit. And since you can’t run 50 km/h, you will lose that race.
Instead, stay calm so you can better read the animal’s body language. A bear may stand on its hind legs during an encounter. While that may appear scary, this is usually just the bear trying to catch your scent to confirm you are not its prey. It may also swing its head, make huffing or snorting sounds, swat at the ground or bare its teeth at you. “These behaviours usually indicate that the bear is stressed, acting defensively and asking for more space. Attacks rarely follow,” Parks Canada reports.
Do: Yell or make noise, and use objects to make yourself look taller
Bears see humans as a threat just as we see them as a threat. Usually when humans encounter one, they just want you to go away. To do that, speak calmly yet firmly to the bear while slowly backing away (hold sticks or objects above your head to appear larger, if possible).
Do not: Travel alone
Parks Canada believes the best way to survive a bear encounter is to never encounter one in the first place. This is easily achieved by making general noises, which can be done simply by carrying on a conversation with those around you (this applies especially to cyclists and joggers). Strength in numbers, people!
Do: Leave your backpack on
If you’ve tried all of the above and the bear is still coming, then it’s time to get messy. Parks Canada staff recommend carrying bear spray at all times, so now would be the time to use it. If the animal is still able to make contact with you, play dead. Lie on your stomach with your arms crossed behind your neck. Your backpack, meanwhile, will provide protection to some of your organs. If the bear stops attacking, wait until it’s completely gone before moving. If it continues, fight back any way that you can. Shove a stick in its freaking eye if you have to, this is survival.
That all said, Canada’s national parks are remarkably safe. And your odds of encountering a bear are very slim. We just want to make sure you know what to do if it ever happens, because we can’t bear the thought of something happening to you, dear reader.