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Credible account of Alaska bear mauling -- but not without a few errors

Rick Sinnott
Typically, coastal brown bears aren’t as aggressive as their Interior Alaska cousins, which are usually called grizzlies. mackenzieandjohn / cc via flickr

On the back cover of Keith Rogan’s book are photographs of him taken before and after – minutes before and minutes after – being mauled by a Kodiak brown bear. Not a pretty sight.

But then a mauling never is. Rogan described his experience in “A Kodiak Bear Mauling: Living and Dying with Alaska’s Bears,” published by Terror Bay Publishing.

Bear maulings are rare. Victims are members of an exclusive club. Because each attack and every recovery are unique, every survivor’s story is worth listening to, especially if you live in or plan to visit bear country.

Rogan’s Kodiak mauling

Rogan was mauled in 1998 while hunting Sitka black-tailed deer on Uganik Island in the Kodiak Archipelago. He was crossing an alder-choked ravine and stumbled onto a sow with four cubs. She was only 10 yards away and fell on him in the blink of an eye. Too close and too quick for Rogan to raise his rifle, the sow bowled him over and proceeded to administer a drubbing.

Rogan estimates the violence lasted less than a minute. He recalls many of the blows and his defensive moves in great detail. He remembers repeatedly rolling onto his stomach after the bear flipped him onto his back. He recalls the bear’s breath smelled like a dog’s. He remembers yelling for help. But other scenes either went unregistered or his mind erased the memory. He can’t recall hearing his hunting partner shooting the bear off him.

The U.S. Coast Guard had transferred Rogan to Kodiak eight years earlier. He wasn’t an apprentice deer hunter and he’d survived numerous encounters with Kodiak’s bears. Typically, coastal brown bears aren’t as aggressive as their Interior Alaska cousins, usually called grizzlies. But like many who live in close contact with the big bruins, Rogan had grown complacent. Just that morning, he and his buddies had rousted a large male brown bear out of its bed on the trail so they wouldn’t have to detour a long way around. It’s possible that their hubristic behavior contributed to the violence of his mauling, because Rogan believes that a boar was also at the scene, less than 30 yards away, and it was the same bear.  That almost certainly intensified the sow’s defensive attack. Karma, Kodiak-style.

A 186-page digression

For anyone writing a book about a bear mauling the biggest hurdle is the brevity of the attack. The bear came out of nowhere and vanished as quickly as it appeared. Its motives aren’t always clear. How does one create a book from a memory lasting less than a minute? The mauling is always going to be the turning point, but engaging readers for several hundred pages requires something else.

Other books about bear maulings have emphasized other aspects of the experience. For Hugh Glass, who had to reset his broken leg before crawling 200 miles after his jittery companions took his weapons and left him to die, the aftermath was more horrific and lasted much longer than the mauling. Jim Cole survived two grizzly bear attacks 14 years apart. Temporarily blinded in the second attack, he inched his way, alone and without a trail, over three miles to the nearest road. Afterwards, he dedicated the rest of his life to studying, photographing, and preserving bears. After Patricia Van Tighem and her husband were severely mauled,  she suffered through 30 facial reconstructions and dozens of shock treatments for depression.

Because her doctors failed to treat her chronic infections aggressively, Van Tighem was tortured by severe pain for all but a couple of the 17 years chronicled in her book. Although her memoir ended on a note of hope and redemption, four years after it was published, Van Tighem committed suicide.

Rogan was badly injured and almost lost an eye, but he hasn’t received shock therapy, he’s only been mauled once (so far), and he was fortunate enough to hop a helicopter ride back to Kodiak. Casting about for something to write about in addition to the hunt, the mauling and its aftermath, Rogan reeled in a 186-page digression. At least that’s how it seemed to me. The book’s first page described locking eyes with the sow. But the author doesn’t return to Uganik Island until page 187.

To his credit, Rogan managed to make those 186 pages entertaining. He revels in his love for Kodiak Island, its bears and its people -- blending island history, bear biology and stories of friends and acquaintances. Then there are Rogan’s other close calls with Kodiak’s big bears. It’s not an ideal way to write a book, but it works.

Correcting a few errors

Being mauled by a bear doesn’t make one an expert on bears or even bear maulings. Rogan has read extensively and talked to experts, attempting to attain a post-graduate education on his experience. For the most part, the information he provides is accurate.

Nevertheless, because I’m encouraging you to read Rogan’s book, I feel a need to respond to some of his statements.

Differentiating between brown and black bears, Rogan claimed black bear claws “resemble those of a large dog, designed more for digging or gripping surfaces.” But black bears claws are sharp and curved, enabling them to climb trees, a rare skill in a dog. Along the same lines, he says “…the European brown bear (like the American grizzly) cannot climb trees.” This will come as a surprise to those victims who climbed a tree only to have the bear follow them up the trunk. Brown bears aren’t as adept at climbing trees as black bears because of their blunter claws and larger size, but some can do it -- particularly if they can use large, closely spaced limbs as a ladder.

Rogan believed: “Many (if not most), bears killed and recovered after attacking a human are found to have previous injuries, which contributed to its subsequent behavior.” Certainly some bears have previous injuries, and some injuries may predispose a bear to attack a person, but nothing I’ve ever seen suggests that many or most bear attacks are precipitated by previous injuries. Most bear attacks result from people surprising brown bears, especially those guarding a large carcass or defending cubs, or approaching habituated bears in campgrounds. There is no reason to believe that previous injuries are what precipitate attacks in surprise encounters.

Later he contradicted himself, stating “Most of the time there is no apparent reason for an attack … Bears simply attack because they are bears.” That’s also wrong, in my experience. There are always one or more reasons, although sometimes they must be surmised. Rogan admitted that surprising a brown bear was a key element in many attacks. Believing that bear attacks are unpredictable relinquishes our personal responsibility to learn how to avoid situations where attacks are most likely and, when push comes to shove, how to fend off a mauling by reading a bear’s body language.

Sometimes Rogan relies on his memory more than he should. He wrote “A few years ago, right in the city of Anchorage, several people jogging in parks were taken down through the course of a single summer.” A little focused research – for example, a Google search using the words “bear mauling anchorage 2008” – would have easily found articles describing the three brown bear maulings in 2008. One was a jogger, one a biker, one a midnight stroller, and all three were within yards of a salmon-spawning stream. In a fourth attack, not widely reported, a woman walking her dog was scratched by a black bear that seemed to be focused primarily on the dog. Jogging isn’t the only high-risk activity on trails in bear country. But Rogan’s main point, that jogging and cycling are risky behaviors in bear country, is right on the money.

Shooting as a last defense

When Rogan addresses using firearms for bear protection, he focuses far too much on hitting the bear in the brain, claiming, for instance, “you still have to hit an object little bigger than a softball (the bear’s brain) for a guaranteed ‘stop.’” He goes on to recommend shooting a charging bear in the nose “because a shot there will center the brain.”  

There isn’t one person in a thousand who can reliably hit the nose of a charging bear in the few seconds before contact, particularly if his or her rifle has a scope, which is a major handicap with a moving target at close range. One of the top experts in the field, Dr. Stephen Herrero, author of “Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance,” says: “Head and neck shots should not, as a rule, be attempted with a charging grizzly bear, because these targets are too small.” He and others recommend aiming at the center of mass, which will be just under a charging bear’s chin.

Discussing the number of bears killed in defense of life or property, Rogan writes, “Most of those hides (presumably) are from bears killed in legitimate self-defense.” It’s true that prosecutions for shooting bears unnecessarily are almost unheard of, but that doesn’t necessarily make most of the shootings “legitimate.” Wildlife enforcement officers and district attorneys are unlikely to bring a case to court unless it’s likely to be a slam dunk. I can only recall two cases in the 16 years I was the Anchorage area biologist. Both resulted in convictions.

In my experience, most shootings in defense of property could easily have been prevented. In fact, state law requires exhausting “all other practicable means to protect life and property” before shooting these bears.  In most cases, the bear has the better argument for a ‘stand-your-ground’ defense. Furthermore, bears cannot legitimately be shot as a result of the improper disposal of garbage or similar attractions. But these provisions are almost never enforced. Many bears are shot because they have been attracted by garbage or someone felt threatened by the bear’s presence even though they could have easily retreated into a house or other safe haven. Nevertheless, a judge’s or jury’s threshold for what constitutes a justifiable “threat” usually depends on the often embellished testimony of the shooter.

An average Joe

Rogan appears to be an average Joe, which accounts for much of the charm of his book. I can easily imagine one of my hunting buddies writing a similar account of a day gone bad.

In the event, the life-altering event, he acted well. The choices he made after the bear knocked him down almost certainly minimized his injuries and may have saved his life. For example, when the bear repeatedly flipped him on his back he quickly rolled back onto his stomach, allowing his pack frame to absorb many of the powerful blows and bites.

Other advice in the book is equally useful. Hunt or hike with a partner. Carry a gun big enough to collapse an adrenaline-fueled brown bear, even when you’re hunting a 100-pound deer. Or carry bear spray where it can be deployed in one or two seconds. Rehearse how you’ll protect yourself if a charging bear makes contact. Be capable of administering first aid.

To his undying credit, Rogan still admires bears. He unabashedly asserts “one of my greatest joys” is watching and photographing bears and other wildlife. This ongoing respect, even admiration, of victims for bears is a common thread in memoirs of recent bear maulings.

Rogan puts it better than anyone else: “Life is too short to hold grudges.”

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Contact him at  rickjsinnott@gmail.com