Did you bring the bear spray, dear?

Experts weigh in on how to avoid black bear attacks—and how best to survive one

Did you bring the bear spray, dear?

Don’t keep food in your tent, and ideally, string it up a tree. Sing a jaunty tune as you walk. If attacked, play dead, and if that doesn’t work, fight like hell. This is the sort of wisdom Canadian hikers, campers and canoe-trippers have received for generations on how to avoid or, if necessary, manage contact with bears. More recently, don’t leave home without bear spray—a legally obtainable form of pepper spray—has joined the list. And Katy Yin can attest that sound bear management advice isn’t just for outdoorsmen anymore. In August, the 49-year-old Coquitlam, B.C., resident was happily tending to her garden when a 250-lb. black bear jumped her from behind, tearing her scalp open to the tune of 20 staples and breaking four of her ribs. The animal was only dissuaded when a neighbour ran into it with his SUV.

Even as suburban environments expand further and further into black bear habitats, experts agree this sort of predatory behaviour is exceedingly rare. University of Calgary professor Stephen Herrero, one of Canada’s foremost experts on bear attacks, says all but “an infinitely small proportion” of black bear attacks occur in the backwoods, not in backyards—and he estimates that on average, just two per year in all of North America are lethal. In places like Coquitlam, he says, most bears will act menacingly toward humans only if they feel threatened. And with a little foreknowledge and a lot of deep breaths, most encounters can be defused.

If the bear is just minding its own business, Herrero suggests calmly gathering up any children and pets in the area and heading inside. But if the bear fixes you in its gaze, you need to assess its temperament: is it acting defensively or predatorily? This is not as difficult as it sounds, but it may significantly raise your heart rate. A defensive black bear will “blow and snort and swat the ground and clack [its] teeth,” says Herrero, and it may “run at you and stop.” Resist the very understandable urge to interpret this as aggression, he advises. “Talk to it in a normal tone of voice, back up slowly and get out of its way,” and soon enough you’ll be pouring a stiff drink and dialing animal control.

The real indication of predatory behaviour is if you back away and the bear pursues you, he explains—particularly if it does so silently and is very obviously “focused on you.” At this point, it’s time to puff out your chest. “Shout at it,” he suggests. “Bang your garden tools together. Throw something at it. You have to do everything you can to convince the bear that you’re not something to eat.” It might seem like a mismatch, but fighting back is your best hope. And the last thing you should do is play dead. Turtling is an emergency manoeuvre that may convince a defensive grizzly bear you’re not a threat, Herrero explains, but it’s useless if the bear sees you as prey. Resourceful neighbours like Yin’s can help too. Normally, says Herrero, “you can redirect an attack just by entering into it, presenting yourself.”

That’s what you’d call cold comfort. And Tony Webb, founder of the North Shore Black Bear Network, among many other bear awareness activists, insists these encounters are easily avoidable. “A bear, really, is just a nose on four legs,” he says, and they’ll follow any whiff of food out of the woods. Bird feeders and garbage stored in unsecured containers or taken to the curb too early are the main attractants, he explains, but fruit trees are another significant concern. Pet food and uncleaned barbecues also smell like dinner. And while communities such as Rossland and Kimberley, in the B.C. Interior, have even organized volunteer fruit-picking initiatives, Vancouverites, with their more urban lifestyles, seem to be tougher to sell on basic anti-bear initiatives. Webb estimates 20 per cent of local homeowners still aren’t doing what needs to be done, despite garbage bylaws and a growing number of overly habituated bears being destroyed. “You only need one non-conforming resident to ruin it for the rest,” he laments.

So what motivates the remaining holdouts? “Selfishness,” Webb suggests. It’s a plausible explanation; modern families don’t want to keep old fish heads in their refrigerators for days on end or clean their barbecues every day. But no one wants his or her scalp torn off, either. Ideally, Webb hopes, Yin’s unfortunate encounter might finally convince the laggards that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure—or 250 lb. of black bear on your back.