How to Engage with Bears: Lessons from a Viral Bear-Shoving Video
In this episode of Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist looks at a news story from the west coast that involved bears, dogs, people, and at least one bad decision.
If you were watching television or cruising social media at all last week, you may have seen a story and video clip about a teenage girl who drove off a bear that was engaged in a scuffle with her dogs. Now I don’t normally tear stories from the headlines, but when I saw the commentary from reporters and comments from the public at large, I felt that maybe this would be an opportunity to address the topic of intentionally engaging with bears.
If you haven’t seen the video yet, I’ll describe what I saw. In California, a brown bear with two cubs were walking along the top of a block fence between yards, walking toward a house where there was a camera, maybe a security camera as it is fixed and shooting from above. Multiple dogs come running from the house barking at the bears, sending the cubs running back the way they came. The sow, or female bear, starts swiping at the dogs while staying balanced on the fence. At one point, it seems the bear briefly gets a hold on one of the small dogs. At this point, you see a girl come running out of the house, and she went right at its head and gave the bear a shove. The bear loses its balance, partly falling backward from the fence into the neighbor’s yard. The girl herds her dogs back inside and the bear turns to head away back down the fence.
The bear made a bad decision and led her cubs into a bad situation. This bear knew where it was going, and obviously had been raiding trash bins, grills, or backyards in the area before. She was teaching her cubs bad habits; they will definitely grow up to enter yards to look for food in garbage bins. I always hear that you should never get between a mother bear and her cubs, but if you watch the video, the sow acts swiftly to defend the cubs from the dogs. The cubs have been well trained to seek safety at the first sign of danger. Mama bear is defending the cubs, but by distracting and engaging the dogs, not by attacking them. The bear is not exactly in attack posture and is completely unprepared when the girl pushes it back.
The teenager is being heralded as a hero who saved her mother’s emotional support animal from potential injury or death. This story could have ended badly for certain, for the girl or for the dogs. Although all the headlines say she pushes a brown bear, the bears are actually California black bears, genetically similar to our black bears, but with a brown coat likely because of the difference in climate and habitat. They are omnivores and are smaller and less aggressive than grizzly bears, which are true brown bears. I would estimate that bear was maybe 200-250 pounds, kind of hard to say, but definitely bigger than the dogs—or the person—that attacked her. That’s right, she was in the wrong place at the wrong time; the dogs attacked her, then when she fought back, the human attacked her. Now maybe she learned her lesson, maybe that sow and her cubs are going to go back to eating insect larvae, grubs, and plants, but that is not certain. I can tell you that if that exact scenario occurred here, wildlife managers would be forced to try to capture the sow and her cubs and euthanize them.
This is a tricky time of year for dealing with black bears. There are sows with this winter’s cubs in tow looking for food. Sows that have yearling bears are starting to kick them out on their own, so that they can be receptive to breeding again. The yearlings, on their own for the first time, get into all sorts of trouble foraging near homes and business and destroying property. Finally, the boars, or male bears, are ready to breed, sort of like the rut season for deer or strutting season for turkeys. Male bears may thus be more aggressive or combative than usual, willing to travel and cover more territory to find receptive females. In no circumstances should you seek conflict with a bear. Back away, do not block their escape, but do not make them feel threatened. The only exception would be in a situation where the bear has clearly made up its mind to attack you, then fighting back is obviously your only option.