Sneak attacks from black bears baffle scientists

Realistically, you won't get eaten by a black bear. But if you do, it's likely to be young, male, and single.

Recently scientists studied the history of black bear attacks. For the most part, the news it good. Only 68 attacks have been documented in the last one hundred and nine years. Unfortunately, over 85 percent of them happened since the 1960s. And here's the creepy part: they're all sneak attacks.

Most people believe that the quickest way to get killed is to get between a mother bear and her cubs. That may well be true. It's never really been tested, because no one is stupid enough to try it. Black bear mothers help people along in that respect by grunting, growling, stamping the ground, and generally making people want to wet themselves and run away. It's an effective defense, for both the bear and the human.

Fatal black bear attacks occur when people don't get the chance to get scared away. Over ninety percent of the fatalities have been when bears are hunting, not defending. Attacking bears are almost always young, male, and hunting their victims rather than scaring them. They tend to creep up on people, and then charge them in a surprise attack. Some male bears were sick or injured, which may be why they tried to creep up on slow-moving, foul-smelling humans rather than something tastier, but with the limited number of cases there was no way to be sure that the injury had caused the bear to attack.

The extreme majority of male bears attacking humans was a surprise, which leaves researchers wondering if there is some major behavior or habitat difference between young male and female bears.

Sneak attacks from black bears baffle scientists

Researchers are quick to point out that bears kill far fewer people than dogs, bees, and other animals that people think of as relatively harmless. There are usually only two fatal black bear incidents per year. The creatures are known to be timid for their size. Famously, one black bear in New Jersey was treed by an orange tabby cat. It turns out that the majority of these attacks have been in areas of expanding population in Alaska. Scientists think the attacks are a result of a population of black bears coming into contact with humans for the first time. This is actually encouraging news. It means, as time goes by, black bears and humans can peacefully coexist even when the human population expands.

In the meantime, how to prevent surprise bear attacks? Hike in groups of two or more. Avoid areas where there have recently been black bear sightings - rangers notice a pattern of increasingly aggressive behavior before an attack. If a bear actually charges, don't play dead. Researchers say the best way to get out alive is to fight back. That's right. Fight the bear. The paper itself didn't include any helpful tips on how to do that. (This blogger's first instincts are wailing, prayer, and copious tears.) Most sources just recommend hitting the bear in the head and snout with anything on hand. And remember, get through this and you'll never have to buy your own drinks again!

Via Mountain Nature, Vancouver Sun, and The Journal of Wildlife Management.