07.09.11

How to Not Get Eaten

A hiker was mauled to death by a grizzly in Yellowstone this week, the latest in a rash of attacks. Carolyn Sun has five handy tips should you find yourself in the woods with a tall, dark stranger.

On Wednesday, a hiker was mauled to death by a mama grizzly in Yellowstone Park, the first deadly attack in 25 years. On the same day, a 51-year-old barely survived a bear attack in British Columbia. The next day, the body of a 72-year-old woman was discovered half-eaten by grizzly bears in—again—British Columbia.

Is it me or are bear attacks on the rise?

“There’s a much greater chance that something will happen to you just walking home than to me [walking] in Yellowstone,” points out Al Nash, chief of public affairs for Yellowstone. This June the park yielded 634,316 visitors; the last three summers have been record-breaking in terms of visitors, with attendance peaking in July.

But Nash says he’s not worried about the high-profile attack affecting tourism. “Most visitors to the park make their plans months in advance, because you need to with the camp grounds.”

Visitor statistics won’t be available until the end of July. However, this is the first time in 25 years there has been a fatal bear attack at Yellowstone, and it’s unlikely to happen again.

Nonetheless, it may yield dividends to learn how to prevent and escape bear attacks should this improbable event occur. There are many myths about how to survive encounters—including hitting sticks together and running in a circle. Some websites even suggest different ways to deal with the two bear species that are indigenous to North America, the grizzly and the black bear.

If you’re close enough to identify the species of a bear, you’ve got bigger concerns.

Black bears are reputedly better tree climbers than grizzlies, and some survival guides advise you to climb a tree if you spot a grizzly. San Diego Zoo’s animal keeper, Rick Schwartz confirms that black bears are excellent tree climbers because of their shorter, cleated claws. But, he offers, “If you’re close enough to identify the species of a bear, you’ve got bigger concerns.”

The deceased Yellowstone hiker, who’d been hiking with his wife, spotted the mama grizzly with her cubs about 100 yards off. They immediately walked in the other direction—but when they looked behind them, they saw the grizzly charging towards them.

What can be done? Here are five tips for surviving a close encounter with a bear:

1. Avoid being in that situation in the first place. Nash reiterates that hikers should beware hiking trails in bear country where you can’t see too far ahead of you. “Make loud clapping noises or sing loudly,” he advises, in order to give the bear ample time to get out of your way. Wear bells if you are prone to get tired of singing. Schwartz adds that hikers should “touch base with the rangers in that area before hiking to ask about the animals.”

2. While facing the bear, back away slowly. Black bears are less aggressive than grizzlies, but they can still tear you from limb to limb. Retreat.

3. Carry bear spray and have it easily within reach. It blinds the bear and makes it difficult for it to breathe. If a bear is hurtling towards you, aim and fire that the spray in its face. Then run.

4. If you don’t have a can of bear spray handy…Stop, drop to your belly and throw your arms out to the sides with your hands on the back of your neck. This makes it difficult for a bear to tear into your vulnerable belly and the position of your arms will make it harder for it to flip you over. Make your vital organs inaccessible.

5. Play Dead. “Bears survive on nuts and berries,” according to Schwartz of the San Diego Zoo. “They’re not usually eying you for protein.” When bears attack, it’s usually because of a perceived threat. Going limp could be your best move.