Most people don’t know how to survive a cougar pounce or weather a cloud of Africanized honeybees. But everybody knows you should play dead when attacked by a bear. And that’s what might get you killed.
In case you missed it – Bear Myths Part 1: Mothers & Cubs
Can we start by pointing something out? If you’re considering “playing dead” on your list of realistic options, you’re either an experienced woodsman (woodswoman?) or you’re really good at lying to yourself. I don’t care what kind of bear it is, most people can’t pretend to be asleep while their little sister tickles them, so I don’t know how the average guy (gal) expects to endure claws in the eyes and puncture wounds to the thigh.
I don’t mean to ruin the experience for you, really I don’t. Everybody should get to play dead at some point in his or her life. I’m just guessing if most of us ever get that chance, we’ll likely end up doing a Marv impression before running for our ever-lovin’ lives.
Of course, running away is the last thing you want to do. Odds are the bear is still trying to decide what to make of you, this strange-smelling creature that stands tall but looks weak. The bear may even stand up on two feet, like you’ve seen in the talkies – though this just means it’s trying to get a better view/smell of the situation.
Bonus bear myth: the hind-legs-move is almost never an aggressive posture. The bear is simply trying to determine whether you’re a threat or a tasty treat, and one surefire way to convince it you’re the latter is to behave like prey – i.e., by running.
So, you’ve decided not to bolt away screaming. Perhaps you are simply paralyzed with fear. (If you live through this, go ahead and tell everyone it was the first one.) But now the bear is charging toward you like a fluffy demon and all you can think is how prescient your last tweet of #YOLO will seem when they find your eviscerated carcass.
Grizzlies are extremely territorial, cranky and like your office Debbie Downer, they hate surprises. But just because you happen upon one doesn’t mean you should hit the deck.
Playing dead is the Hail Mary of survival literature, the move you make when all others are exhausted or unavailable. Depending on the specific situation, grizzly attacks can be avoided by withdrawing from the area, making yourself seem nonthreatening, calming the bear, surrendering your food, dodging the charge, climbing a tree, or dropping an object like a camera for the bear to investigate while you escape. There’s also capsaicin-heavy pepper spray, non-lethal noise rounds, your fists or the 44 magnum. (Plenty to be said about bears and guns; maybe in Part 5.)
The point is, once you’re on the ground you have forsaken all of the above options and trusted your life to the Fates. Of course, if you have no other options it means you went into bear country without doing your research or buying bear spray, so you’re probably pretty cozy with the Fates already.
And if that’s the case, then hell, let’s show you how to be the best little cadaver you can be!
Hit the ground face down. Your neck will make a nice chew toy for a grizzly maw, so cover that bad boy up with arms, elbows and hands – and DO NOT LET GO. Keep your backpack on if at all possible. Splay your legs to keep the bear from rolling you over.
Fellas, I know this will seem counterintuitive, but if there’s one thing more important right now than your Charlie Brown, it’s your vital organs – and the only thing protecting them is a non-cotton tee and a bellybutton. Not to mention, getting flipped will expose your tender face. Also, bears often start their feast by disemboweling their prey.
But you’re not getting disemboweled, Bittel Me This-er. Not today. Keep your head down and wait for the bear to lose interest. Then wait a little while after that to make sure the bear has left the area. (In an alternate reality, you’ve just woken up from unconsciousness after bear mauling. Resist panic. Scan the area. Then seek shelter or help immediately.)
Just one caveat. If at any point you get the feeling – excuse my word choice – that the bear is no longer investigating and is, in fact, beginning to eat you, then you have permission to flail. Pound for pound, you don’t stand a chance against a grizzly so you better fight dirty. Aim for eyeballs, punch its nose or stick your fingers in its considerable nostrils – for honor has no place in a bear fight.
A grizzly’s interest in a human is most often territorial and playing dead is a submissive posture designed to reduce the bear’s stress. However, because black bears are far less aggressive, any interest they show you should well be deemed gastronomical. When it attacks, it plans to eat you.
Which means playing dead is officially off the strategy list.
In case of black bear attack, prepare to stand and fight. Make noise. Push up your backpack, stick out your chest or fluff up a poncho – anything that makes you appear bigger than you are.
Whatever you do, don’t run. That will confirm what the bear already suspects, that you got picked on in high school. Also, don’t try to climb a tree. Black bears climb faster than one of those ESPN lumberjacks.
If none of the above deters the bear from attack, unleash hell as you would with a grizzly – though if your hell is anything like mine, it only comes in one speed anyway. Grab any nearby weapons, including rocks, sticks or cooking pots. If all goes well, a kick to the snout or frying pan to the face outta dislodge the bear and earn you storytelling rights for life.
Though I should probably make you aware of just one thing: if a black bear really wants to eat you, isn’t just trying to scare you away from a sandwich or keep you away from a berry patch, then you’ll probably never see it coming. Black bears stalk their prey and can move through the woods with surprising silence. In any event, your rock-em-sock-em reaction should be the same. Just be prepared.
Know what’s a lot easier than adopting the defensive strategy of an opossum? Never putting yourself in that situation. (Besides, you don’t have the opossum’s super-healing abilities.)
Contrary to popular belief, grizzly bears are not sitting out there waiting to ambush hapless hikers. They have enough on their minds trying to pass on their genes, keep their cubs from being murdered and put on enough weight so they don’t starve to death over winter. Defending territory from weekend warriors costs energy, energy they’d prefer to save for real threats like each other.
So help them help you. Make lots of noise while you hike. Talk with your pals, wear bear bells, sing songs or clap your hands from time to time. In “Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance,” Stephen Herrero is quick to qualify the whole topic of bear attacks:
I do not want to leave the impression that suddenly meeting a grizzly bear just about guarantees injury. Such is not the case. In the first place, most grizzlies are tolerant of people. Each year hundreds of thousands of people visit grizzly country on foot and few injuries occur. Even when suddenly confronted at close range, most grizzlies flee without any aggressive action.
God, could you be more self-centered? It’s like all you ever want to know about is YOU. Is a bear going to eat YOU? What should YOU do in the event of bear attack? How do YOU avoid ending up in a bear’s tummy?
Well, I’ve got news for you. A bear’s diet doesn’t rise and set on the human. Far from it. To see what tiny creatures they much prefer to grab a bite with/of, hop over to Bear Myths Part 3: Carnivore Carnage.