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Bear attack: Run for your life!

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: July 6, 2016
  • Published July 28, 2010

The bears are out in Alaska. No surprise. It's summer.

Encounters between people and bears are in the news. No surprise. It's summer.

Misinformation is spreading around the state like wildlife. No surprise. It's summer.

The bears are supposed to be trying to kill us, right?

"Kake resident Brandon Berkley, 17, is lucky to be alive after an encounter with a black bear sow Monday morning in Kake," reports the Juneau Empire.

Really?

But don't most encounters with black bears end with the bear running off and no one hurt? Well, yes. No doubt there are people reading this right now who've met black bears and had that happen. Black bears are actually quite timid creatures whether one meets them in Alaska or any of the many other states where they are now common.

OK, Berkley did have more than an "encounter." If his story is to be believed, he was knocked cold by a black bear. There are no witnesses.

But if he was knocked cold and the bear left him unharmed after knocking him out, as has been reported, that wouldn't be out of line with what happens in most bear attacks either.

Most people attacked by bears -- including the person writing this -- survive.

According to data compiled by the Wildlife Research Institute, people are 45 times more likely to be killed by a dog than by a bear, 120 times more likely to be killed by bees than a bear, and a whopping 250 times more likely to be killed by lightening than a bear.

Yes, Berkley is lucky to be alive, but only because everyone in the U.S. is lucky to be alive. Anyone could die in a motor vehicle accident later today because scooting around in cars is the most dangerous thing most people do. The odds of being hit by lightening are about 1 in 4.2 million. The odds of dying in a motor vehicle accident are about 1 in 20,000, and the calculated lifetime odds of death from driving can drop to near 1 in 100 if you drive a lot and for a long time.

Put down the cell phone. Put both hands on the wheel. Quit worrying about the bears. Pay attention. And drive defensively.

There is a 165 times greater chance a car will kill you than a firearm will, or some of those "dangerous" things about which the authorities keep warning people. The chances of being killed by exploding fireworks? One in 39 million.

And yet, you're still more likely to be killed by fireworks than attacked by a black bear sow with a cub like Dane Havard wasn't this week in Anchorage.

"What you don't see on the video, because of where the camera was shooting from, was the sow charging at the man who tried to free the cub, but she did not attack him," reported local TV station KTUU.

Surprise, surprise, surprise. Of course "she did not attack him."

Black bear sows -- unlike grizzly bear sows -- rarely attack. Bear researchers regularly take cubs away from black bear sows to study them (they give them back) without much of a problem. Havard was in a similar situation. He was trying to free a cub caught in a dipnet. He couldn't, but the sow eventually ripped the net apart and freed the cub.

She also huffed and puffed and tried to threaten Havard, which is what sow black bears do. Sow grizzlies, on the other hand, don't threaten; they attack. That's why it's a good idea to know how to tell the difference between block-headed grizzly bears and pinched-faced black bears if you're living in or visiting in Alaska where you might, as the Anchorage Daily News reported this week, meet a whole family of bears.

"A brown bear cub rescued after a boar attacked its family near King Cove has arrived at the Alaska Zoo," the newspaper said.

"Attacked its family...." Almost makes the bears sound cute and cuddly, doesn't it?

They're not. They're no more cute and cuddly than they are unusually dangerous. They're wildlife. They live by their own rules. One of the rules for sow grizzlies (often called brown bears in Alaska though there are cinnamon-colored black bears that also look brown) is that they try to protect their cubs from "boars," as in boar grizzlies, because bears don't really have families as people know families.

Male bears are solitary critters. They show up around other bears only to feed or breed. If they run into other bears in other circumstances, they will likely as not try to kill them. Some have theorized that grizzly boars try to kill grizzly cubs to bring grizzly sows into estrus so they can breed them again.

Fortunately, the bears can tell the difference between other bears and people, and tend to avoid even approaching the latter because people have a nasty habit of putting bullets in bears. But only in the summer At least in most of Alaska.

In the winter, the black and grizzly bears are safely tucked away in hibernation, and there are no problems. But the polar bears...

Ah, the polar bears.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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