Why are people attacked by bears and what lessons can be learned?

by Paul White

This was not a subject that I had given a great deal of thought until a documentary film company requested my assistance with their production. They asked me if I knew of anyone that had been attacked by a bear? I had heard of bear attacks locally but I didn't know anyone personally that had gone through such an ordeal. I decided to investigate further, starting with a conversation with the village doctor. To my surprise she knew of nine people! Over several weeks I managed to trace all nine survivors and asked if they would participate in the film which would include an interview. All nine agreed to tell their story.

Before I continue I must inform the reader that most bear attacks can be avoided and those survivors that we interviewed acknowledged this. Incredibly none of the interviewee's showed any animosity toward bears and expressed a healthy respect for the animals that attacked them. Although I am an advocate of bear conservation and always want to portray them in the best possible light, it is important to remember that these big and powerful animals can be extremely dangerous in certain circumstances.

Rather than recount all nine harrowing stories, I thought it would be sufficient to concentrate on one. The elderly gentleman in the photograph above was badly mauled by a bear more than ten years ago when looking for his horse. After grazing all day on the local communal meadow, his horse usually made its own way home at dusk. When it failed to return he decided to go and look for it, alone and without a torch. He walked along a narrow track lined with bushes until he reached the meadow where he thought he would find his horse. By this time it was dark and he was unaware of a large bear in close proximity until it attacked him from behind. It grabbed him by his head and dragged him into the bushes. He said the bear was extremely powerful and he could do nothing to defend himself, he was convinced that he was going to die.

During the attack he remembered thinking of his father's advice as a child telling him to 'play dead' if  he was ever attacked. This is exactly what he did, but the attack continued and the pain became so unbearable that he screamed at the bear pleading for his life. He said he fainted at one point and the bear must have walked away. When he regained consciousness he could see the bear not far away from him. He laid still and tried to breathe as shallow as possible hoping the bear would disappear, but it turned around and walked back towards him. He believed the bear wanted to make sure he was dead and with one eye slightly open he could see the bears face loom in close to his own. Only centimetres away the bear started sniffing his face checking for signs of life. He remained still and held his breath not wanting to trigger another attack. The bear satisfied that he was dead stepped over him, but unfortunately one of its hind paws landed directly on his head crushing his face and sending him into unconsciousness again.

When he regained consciousness for the second time he managed to crawl back to the village where he found help and was rushed to a specialist centre for extensive facial reconstructive surgery. Along with several broken bones and multiple flesh wounds, his skull had been crushed close to his brain and he had literally been scalped. His account of that terrible event left him in tears and the film crew visibly shocked. We offered to stop filming, but he wanted to continue, explaining that if his experience could prevent just one attack he wanted to tell his story.

Circumstances that may lead to a bear attack:-

When bears come close to or enter villages, they do so for one reason, in search of food. They seek high calorific foodstuffs in autumn to lay down fat for winter hibernation. They raid gardens climbing trees in search of apples, plumbs and pears. When a villager comes between a hungry bear and food you can imagine a number of  possible negative outcomes for both people and bears.

Another common situation that can lead to a dangerous encounter is when someone leaves the village on foot, in darkness looking for a cow or a horse. Domestic livestock graze during the day on communal meadows that surround the village. In the evening these animals walk home, but if they don't return the owner will look for them.

Forest workers (loggers), hikers, campers, rangers, transhumance shepherds, in fact anyone that ventures into the wilderness could potentially meet a bear, but it is how these encounters are dealt with that can influence the eventual outcome. Situations that lead to the most dangerous confrontations are startling a bear on a forest trail, approaching a bear with cubs and coming between a hungry bear and food.

Why are some bears more problematic than others?

Many people will have heard of the 'bin bears of Brasov'. These are bears that live in close proximity to the nearby city of Brasov and they associate humans with food discarded in bins on the outskirts of the city. Bears venture to these sites early morning, evening and during the night looking for food. If they are not satisfied with what they find they often become more daring venturing deeper into the city. There was one recorded mauling of a man on a park bench just a few hundred metres from the city centre. These 'problem' bears are tranquilized and moved to dense forests far away from the city, but an habituated bear does not forget old tricks to find food and will soon seek bins in nearby villages. Residents often report raiding bears with tracking collars around their necks which usually indicates the presence of a relocated bear.

Bears often look cute and cuddly, but you must keep in mind that they are wild animals. They can appear cumbersome and slow, but in reality they have explosive power with the ability to outrun a man or climb a tree. They should be respected and you should keep your distance. Never try to feed a bear believing that you are being kind. Always remember the adage "a fed bear is a dead bear", as bears that get a taste for our food often turn to scavenging which can lead to conflict situations with humans. If you see a bear on the side of the road never feed it and never step out of your car to take a photo of it. Both scenarios can be dangerous for both you and the bear.

In this following article I discuss useful Safety Tips: Bears. Please remember that as long as you observe sensible safety precautions when out in the wilderness you will have a safe and pleasurable experience.

Recommended reading:-

Why feeding bears is worse than you might think (June 24th, 2019) by Douglas Main (writer and editor at National Geographic focusing on animals and wildlife.)