Bears Show More Restraint Than Ferocity

“Not all bears are Yogi and Gentle Ben.”

“A bear gives no warning before it attacks.”

“Don’t go into the woods. There are bears in there.”

THESE are the warnings I grew up with.  Everything I read and heard portrayed wild bears as brooding, hungry, and short-tempered.  Books and magazines told and retold of killings, noting little distinction between black bears and grizzlies. 

I discovered from my childhood pets (snapping turtles, snakes, etc.) that wildlife danger is often exaggerated, but I had no experience to help me understand bears.

My experience with bears began 30 years ago, in 1967, when I started working with Black Bears as a student aide for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. On my first day, when my boss told me that a treed bear had descended and run right past him, I couldn’t imagine a threatened bear coming that close without attacking.  I knew there had been bear incidents in national parks, I knew people had even been killed, and I was apprehensive.

My apprehension soon turned into fascination.  I moved to Minnesota in 1968 to begin a Black Bear study that became my life work.  I studied bears as a profession and photographed them in my off time. 

Part of the fascination was the power of the bear.  Bears charged or lunged at me.  Bears I thought were drugged in dens sometimes turned out to be inhospitable.  Bears in culvert traps slapped at the peepholes when I looked in.  I thought I was having close calls and I remained cautious. 

But, over the years, I realized that not one of the hundreds of “close calls” had ended in contact.  Charging bears always stopped, even when I was capturing their squalling cubs. Threatening bears always ran when I jumped at them or threw rocks.  Furious bears in culvert traps became suddenly timid when I opened the door for them to escape, exiting only when they saw an escape route that was clear of people.

Inhospitable bears that startled me in dens did not bite, seeming content with my undignified retreats.  I  became convinced that the Black Bear is characterized much more by restraint than by ferocity.  I still wondered about the killings by Black Bears (about 35 so far this century across North America) until I put them in perspective.

When I realized how minor the threat actually is from Black Bears, a new research door was opened for me—trying to study them up close like Diane Fossey did gorillas. 

To my surprise, Black Bears were more accepting of a person than I had imagined possible.  At first the bears were as apprehensive of me as I initially had been of them.  They expressed their discomfort with the usual lunges and bluff-threats that Black Bears do under those situations. 

I still jumped back when bears bluffed particularly convincingly at close range.  Eventually, we both developed a comfort and trust that allowed the bears to go about their peaceful activities and me to expand my attention beyond the bears themselves. Soon our research team was walking through the woods, day or night, watching undisturbed bears forage, play, nap, and mate just a few feet away for 24 hours at a time.

The information is helping forest managers preserve the best bear habitat and is helping campers deal more knowledgeably with bears.  Other researchers are adopting this technique in other study areas.  Some of the results are embodied in the bear exhibit that was created by the Science Museum of Minnesota which we hope to include as part of the North American Bear Center.—Wildlife Research Institute