What should you do if you’re charged by a black bear?
It’s happened thousands of times to Ben Kilham, the bear behavior researcher and orphaned cub rehabilitator I wrote about in my Sierra Magazine article on bear intelligence. He has some advice.
(Full disclosure: It’s a bit embarrassing to admit, but I’ve never been able to remember what one is supposed to do, apart from not running. Do I drop and curl up? Wave my hands and shout? Blow a whistle?)
First of all: understand that nearly all charges are “false charges,” also known as bluff charges. They’re a basic part of black bear interactions, something they do routinely with one another, and not necessarily aggressive at all.
“Say you’re on a quiet trail and come across mom with cubs,” Kilham told me. If she charges, it’s because “she sees you as an aggressor and is trying to delay confrontation long enough for communication to take place. If you understand what is going on, you can communicate to the bear that you are not a threat and that you are not weak. In three to five minutes, she could care less about you. ”
Here’s what Kilham recommended. Needless to say, your mileage may vary; this is provided for informational purposes only! But Kilham has been charged thousands of times without being attacked, so he certainly knows what he’s talking about.
Me: Everyody calls bears unpredictable.
Kilham: I say they’re perfectly predictable. They communicate as plain as daylight. Everything they’re going to do, they tell you ahead of time.
Stephen Herrer spends a lot of time telling people how to defend against grizzly attacks. If you’re attacked by a grizzly, lay down on your stomach — and if by a black bear, fight it off. But the problem is that people don’t know what an attack is. An attack is when a bear is taking you off your feet, not false charging.
If you can’t remember that distinction, and lie down when a bear false charges you, it will come over and enforce dominance. Probably bite you.
Me: What should you do if you’re false charged?
Kilham: Stand there. Talk softly to the bear. Let him you know you won’t hurt him. I always say, de-escalate the situation. If you yell and scream like they tell you to, and scare the young cubs, you’ve escalated the situation. Always de-escalate. Don’t worry about getting big and yelling and screaming, because then you’re out of control. You’re not in control of your emotions.
Me: Should you assume that any charge is a false charge?
Kilham: If a bear is charging you, it has a reason. If a bear is predatory, it’s going to stalk you. It’s not going to signal. It’s going to be quiet.
Always show strength, not weakness. Face down your competitor.
Me: So don’t walk backwards?
Kilham: If you’re in a situation where the bear is false-charging you and you’ve communicated that you’re not a threat and you see its demeanor change, you can safely walk away. Three to five minutes will determine if you’re a threat or not.
Me: So you should wait that three to five minutes.
Kilham: I do. I’ve spent two and a half hours with a mama and cubs after being false-charged and circled. It’s just a matter of her finding out who you are and being able to keep track of your scent. Then they go off and feed, leave you with the cubs, and could care less about you. They can make that determination.
Me: How many times have you been charged by a bear you didn’t know?
Kilham: Lots of times. And charged by bears in general, thousands of times. But most aren’t even going to false charge you. Most will want to go hide in the bushes and have nothing to do with you.
NOTE: Last fall was a particularly bad one for New England’s black bears, and the Kilham Bear Center cared for more than 70 orphaned cubs this winter and spring. It stretched their finances pretty tight. If you’d like to help, you can donate here.