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Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Bears on the Prowl: Avoiding Bear Attacks in the Wilderness

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Bear Pictures : Black Bear on Hind Legs
photo courtesy of Tim Floyd
A black bear walks into a doctor’s office. A Yellowstone grizzly (brown) bear mauls a park visitor. What is the common theme? According to Luanne Freer, MD, who is a world-renowned authority on wild animal behavior and attacks, it’s a likely combination of two factors – habituation of these wild animals because of human encounters and lack of human understanding of just how hazardous and unpredictable these animals can be.

At a recent meeting of the International Society of Travel Medicine, I had the privilege of lecturing in a session alongside Dr. Freer, who shared some very important observations with the audience. The information that is perhaps most important from a bear behavior perspective is that a sow with a cub is always dangerous, because the urge to protect her young makes her ferocious in any situation. The evolutionary reason for this is that the sow must protect her cubs from the male grizzly bear, which will kill cubs for the purpose of inducing the sow to once again mate in order to bear more young. In the case of the most recent attack in Yellowstone, a sow and cub were surprised by the victim, who was taking photographs of bears. Photographers are notorious for approaching wild animals too closely.

According to Dr. Steve French, who authored the chapter of bear behavior and attacks in the 5th edition of the textbook Wilderness Medicine, here are the rules for avoiding a bear attack in the wilderness:

1. Do not provoke animals. Do not corner or provoke a bear.

2. Never approach an animal when it is with young.

3. Do not disturb a feeding animal. Do not explore into its feeding territory or disrupt mating patterns.

4. In bear country, hang all food off the ground in trees away from the campsite. Never keep food or captured game inside a tent. Use proper food storage to keep food away from bears. Cook at a site away from the sleeping area. Do not sleep in clothes worn while cooking or eating.

5. Make noise when hiking, particularly on narrow paths or through tall grass. If you confront a brown (grizzly) bear, avoid eye contact and try to slowly back away. If you confront a black bear, shout, yell, throw rocks or sticks, or do whatever you can to frighten off the animal.

6. If attacked by a bear, do not try to outrun it - you can’t. Cover your head and the back of your neck with your arms and curl into a fetal position or lay flat on the ground, face down, in order to protect your abdomen. If you are wearing a backpack, keep it on for additional protection. Use your elbows to cover your face if a bear turns you over. After a bear attack, remain on the ground until you are certain that the bear has left the area. More than one victim has successfully protected himself during the initial attack, only to arise too soon (before the bear has lost interest and left the area) and be mauled during the second attack..

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Tags: Backpacking , Bites & Stings

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.

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