This is what to do when you see a bear

Brown bear [Photo by Rasmus Svinding ]

We’re right on the precipice of summer, which means we’re approaching the peak season for camping, hiking, outdoors, and, oh yeah, bears. This warm season’s bear encounters have already begun, including one involving a man wrestling a black bear in an attempt to save his dog.

The man was lucky enough to survive, as was a woman who was attacked by a bear in Saskatchewan’s Meadow Lake Provincial park on June 18. Casadi Schroeder was staying at a cabin with her family in Jeanette Lake, where they’d seen a black bear being scared off the day before by other campers. The next morning, she awoke to see the bear had returned, and it was tearing through their window screen. Her husband scared it away by banging on the window, but when Schroeder went out to warn others about it, the bear attacked her, mauling her leg.

“All I remember is his teeth, ripping into my legs,” Schroeder told the CBC. “Like, he would bite and then tear, bite and then tear all over my legs.”

Schroeder’s husband came running and kicked and punched the bear until it retreated. Casadi required 34 staples in her leg.

Instructions on what to do during a bear encounter can vary a lot, depending on the type of bear and the circumstances of your meeting. However, when you’re face-to-face with an animal that can bite through a cast iron skillet, you may find yourself unable to recall the finer details of how to behave. And in reality, there is no absolute consensus about what to do if you see a bear.

However, there are certain best practices to stick to, and we’ve collected them here. This is our no-strings-attached all-purpose guide to what to do if you find yourself sharing space with one of North America’s most dominant predators.

Start with the don’ts

When you’re facing down a bear, what you don’t do is just as important as what you do. So as you assess the situation, says the National Park Service, and make sure to avoid doing anything that could aggravate it. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t block its escape route (it may want out of the encounter as much as you do.) Don’t run. And don’t, for the love of god, go in for a selfie.

Assess the situation

How you behave should depend on the bear itself. Is it far away, minding its own business? Then your best bet is probably to get out without disturbing it. Is it behaving aggressively? You may need to prepare to take defensive action. Does it have cubs? Make sure to give it an extra wide berth.

Hand holding bear spray
[Photo by Joel Krahn]
It’s a good idea to carry bear spray, and to take it out when you first notice a bear, just in case things go sideways and you need to use it.

Let it know you’re there

Ideally, you should always be making noise when you walk through the bush. “Bears don’t like to be surprised,” writes Linda Masterson in her book Living With Bears: A Practical Guide to Bear Country. She says that mountain bikers speeding down trails are at particular risk of surprising a bear. “Some cyclists attach a can with pebbles to their bikes, or add bells or other noisemakers.”

If a bear knows you’re in its space, speak calmly and let it know you’re there so it can see you’re no danger to it. Though if the bear is 300 feet away and hasn’t noticed your presence, making a quiet exit is probably your best course of action.

Back away slowly

Ideally, your bear encounter will end here. Back away without making any sudden movements, says Bearsmart, and hopefully you and the bear will go your own ways.

Next steps

Let’s say you’ve followed the above instructions, but the bear is still with you. Perhaps it’s following you, or it’s behaving aggressively. Don’t panic. There are still things you can do.

If a bear approaches or follows you:

Stand your ground, says Parks Canada. Don’t back away if a bear begins to approach you, as this may awaken its urge to chase you. Wave your arms to make yourself look bigger, and stand on something to make yourself taller if possible. Shout firmly at the bear. You know, something like: “Hey bear! Leave me alone!”

If a bear charges:

A charging bear is a terrifying sight, but try not to panic. Researchers with the North American Bear Centre found that bears that charged usually stopped before reaching a person and didn’t actually attack. However, if you run, you may trigger the bear’s predator instinct, so stand your ground. If the bear bluff charges, back away only after it has stopped. During a charge is also a good moment to break out your bear spray. If it comes within 15-20 feet, blast the spray a bit above the bear’s head so it will fall into its eyes — though try to notice the direction of the wind so you can avoid spraying yourself. (Check out WildSafe BC’s instructional video on how to use bear spray.)

If a bear attacks:

Here’s where it’s helpful to know what kind of bear you’re dealing with. Most bear encounters are with black bears, and they can be scared away if you fight back. According to National Parks Service biologist Kerry Gunther, going for the nose is a good tactic. And use whatever you can find (rocks, sticks) to show it you’re not easy prey.

However, if a grizzly attacks, fighting could make things worse. “[Grizzlies] have an aggressive nature, and if you use the same behavior back at them, you could make the situation worse,” Gunther says. So when a grizzly bear makes contact, drop to the ground and covering the back of your neck with your hands. And keep your backpack on — it’s one more protective layer between you and the bear.

If a bear tries to eat you:

Ok, regardless of what else we’ve said, if a bear is after you not as a meal, and not for defensive reasons, you need to fight back. In an interview with the Globe & Mail, bear-attack expert Dr. Stephen Herrerro was asked what misconceptions there were about bear attacks, and answered, “The most tragic one is people playing dead during a predacious attack. Because in that circumstance, the bear just keeps on chewing.” Playing dead will only encourage it to begin its dinner. So if a bear decides to consume you, you need to do everything in your power to show it that this will be the toughest, worst meal it’s ever had.

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