Ask a Zookeeper: The Dynamics of a Bear Attack

Brown Bears, Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
 Thanks for tuning in for my second installment of my brand-new "Ask a Zookeeper" series!  This post comes from two sources:
  • Lydia Kang, who writes: "How would a bear kill a person? Like, what happens in a mauling? Are we talking torn out throats, or disemboweling... Sorry, I know it's gruesome, but I wanted to know for one of my previous WIPs and I never quite got the answer."
  • Donna Perugini writes: "Some of the questions you get really make me curious. I think you could even open up psychological profiling here along with the zookeeper section. Seriously! Not all bears (black, brown, grizzly, etc.) are the same regarding their aggressiveness."
Excellent questions and ideas, ladies! You're in luck, because I occasionally taught Bear Awareness classes in Alaska, and my husband and I follow the rules VERY closely when we go camping in bear country. (Let the record show, however, that I wasn't always up-to-date on my bear knowledge. Growing up in Florida, I didn't even enter brown bear territory for the first time until a trip to Glacier National Park on my honeymoon. During that trip, I was so petrified that I rarely made it far on our hikes, and a chance encounter with a deer on one nearly sent me into hysterics.)

Upon my arrival in Alaska, I took it upon myself to learn absolutely everything there was to know about bear attacks, thinking it was the only way I'd ever convince myself to enter the woods again. I also became obsessed with my zoo's brown and black bears (Jake, Oreo, Zayk and Mavis), and I watched them as often as I could--memorizing the way they moved, the way they reacted to things and the clues they gave off when they seemed excited or irritated.

Jake the Brown Bear, Photo Courtesy of Me
What impressed me most about the time I spent working around them (and the time I later spent helping raise the orphaned brown bears the zoo would occasionally receive) was the amount of intelligence the bears displayed--especially in regard to problem-solving. It was staggering, but it was also intensely helpful, because intelligent animals tend to act in predictable ways, and this is paramount when dissecting something as complex as a bear attack.

Many people split bear attacks into two categories: black bear attacks or brown bear attacks. (Brown bears and grizzly bears are essentially the same thing; the phrasing differences are mostly semantics.) I think, however, that it's infinitely more helpful to split bear attacks into two different categories: DEFENSIVE attacks or PREDATORY attacks.

Brown Bears, Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
DEFENSIVE attacks are the ones we are FAR more likely to encounter in the wild: we've stumbled upon a bear, startled it, blocked its access or threatened its food, gotten between a sow and her cubs, etc. These attacks are typically not as life-threatening as predatory attacks, because the bears will generally stop attacking us as soon as they feel like we are no longer a threat. (Slightly heartening, I suppose, but still not delightful-sounding by any means.)

Defensive attacks by brown bears are far more common than defensive attacks by black bears (though still uncommon in the grand scheme of things), because black bears evolved in habitats with lots of trees. When black bears feel threatened, they typically just scoot up the closest one. Brown bears, on the other hand, evolved in more open areas, so they are more hard-wired to stand their ground.

If you ever encounter a startled bear, remain calm and do not run. Here are some tips from
  • Speak in a low monotone voice so the bear can identify you as human.
  • A bear may charge in an attempt to intimidate you – usually stopping well short of contact.
  • If contact is made, or about to be made, drop to the ground and play dead. Protect your back by keeping your pack on. Lie on your stomach, clasp your hands behind your neck, and use your elbows and toes to avoid being rolled over. If the bear does roll you over, keep rolling until you land back on your stomach. 
  • (In response to your question, Lydia, when bears attack to kill, they typically swipe at the chest or back and then finish their prey off by biting its neck or head. At that time, they usually go for the entrails. Gross, right?)
  • Remain still and quiet. A defensive bear will stop attacking once it feels the threat has been removed.
  • Do not move until you are absolutely sure the bear has left the area.
Black Bear, Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
PREDATORY attacks are incredibly rare, but they are exactly what they sound like: attacks where a bear is purposefully seeking us out and intending to kill and eat us. This is the stuff nightmares are made of, so it's obviously important to react differently.

Here are some more tips from Any bear that continues to approach, follow, disappear and reappear or displays other stalking behaviors is possibly considering you as prey. Bears that attack you in your tent or confront you aggressively in your campsite or cooking area should also be considered a predatory threat.
  • If the bear does not respond to aggressive actions such as yelling or throwing rocks and sticks, you should be prepared to physically fight back if it attempts to make contact. 
  • Try to be intimidating: look as large as possible. If you are in a group, stand close together to give the illusion of size.
  • If you have bear spray, emit a deterring blast, preferably before the bear is within twenty-five feet. This gives the animal time to divert its advance.
  • If the attack escalates and the bear physically contacts you, fight back with anything that is available to you. You are quite literally fighting for your life.
(Ironically, black bears are responsible for the majority of predatory attacks, not brown bears. This is why popular wisdom suggests only fighting back during black bear attacks and playing dead during brown bear attacks. Who knew?)

Zayk the Black Bear, Photo Courtesy of Me
Lastly, here are some great ways you can AVOID bear attacks all together, courtesy of
  • Keep your eyes open for signs of bears. Footprints, droppings, trampled vegetation, clawed up tree trunks, overturned rocks, ripped up rotting logs.
  • Invest in some bear spray before entering bear country. Know how and when to use it.
  • Hike in groups. This gives you people to talk to, making noise is important to warn bears of your approach.
  • Feel the wind. If you are hiking into the wind, your scent will not reach bears ahead of you and the chances of encounter are higher. Be aware and consider making more warning noise.
  • Feel the land. Hiking across open meadows, ridges, or hillsides provides the opportunity for spotting bears at a distance. Hiking in gullies, thick forests, or along streams masks noise and scent and increases possibility of encounters.
  • Dispose of garbage in bear-proof containers, if they are available.
  • Hang all food, garbage, and smellable items in secure bear bags. Locate two trees about 200 feet from your campsite and at least 20 feet apart. Hang your smellables between them at least 12 feet from the ground.
  • Never eat or even bring smellables into your tent. This includes toothpaste, perfume, snacks, gum.. anything with an odor. This also includes the clothes you cooked in - put on different clothes for sleeping.
  • Cook at least 200 feet downwind from your tent. Even better, stop and cook your meal a mile before stopping to camp. Don't even open your food or garbage bag in camp.
  • Clean all dishes immediately. Do your washing 200 feet from camp.
  • Make sure you leave a spotless campsite. Remove all reason for a bear to visit this location looking for food.
Last but not least, don't forget that bears are very reclusive animals. They are hoping to avoid you just as much as you are hoping to avoid them. Just remember to let them know you're in their neighborhood, and behave like a well-mannered guest.

Thanks for tuning in for the second edition of my "Ask a Zookeeper" series, and please let me know if you have any questions for future posts.  My next question is about Capuchin monkeys, and I will be posting it in two weeks!