The truth about black bears

By Ryan R. Robbins

We fear that which we don’t know. So it’s not surprising that in the wake of the July 19 killing of a black bear in Bangor’s Fairmount neighborhood by a Maine warden there have been numerous myths and downright false claims about black bears bandied about.

Supporters of the decision to kill the 150-pound female bear claim that the action was necessary to protect the public’s safety, especially the safety of the children living in the area. However, the hackneyed “public safety” justification does not make the state’s actions ironclad, especially when the facts do not support the state’s decision.

The black bear is no more inherently dangerous than a human being. In fact, the black bear is decidedly less so, despite the claims by bear hunters, who argued in the 2004 bear baiting campaign that hunting with bait is necessary to protect the public. These hunters are either woefully ignorant or care too much about keeping up their bravado persona.

In the last century, only about 60 humans have been killed by a black bear despite millions of encounters annually. Most of the time, outdoor enthusiasts here in Maine have no idea they are in the presence of a black bear. This is because the black bear’s evolutionary history has kept it an extremely shy and timid animal. When a black bear smells a human coming, more often than not it flees into thick vegetation or scales a tree.

And bears that are used to humans are no more dangerous. They may even be less so.

“I conclude it is mainly wild black bears found in rural or remote areas – where they have relatively littler association with people – that occasionally try to kill and eat a human being,” bear researcher Stephen Herrero writes in “Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance.”

Out of 500 injuries caused by black bears between 1960 and 1980, Herrero found that only 35 involved a major injury. Most injuries are scratches.

According to the North American Bear Center in Ely, Minn., which is headed by Lynn Rogers, the world’s foremost expert on black bears, for every person killed by a black bear, 60 will be killed by a domestic dog, 180 will die from a bee sting, 350 will be killed by lightning, and 90,000 will be killed by another human being. Only one in every 600,000 black bears will kill. But one in 16,000 humans will commit murder.

Yet we do not, as public policy, kill strangers acting erratically or kill dogs that are running loose.

But fear is a powerful drug. It is what causes people to subscribe to the widespread myth that you should never get between a mother bear and her cub unless you have a death wish. It is what causes people to characterize a black bear’s expressions of anxiety as expressions of aggression.

It is the grizzly bear mother to be wary of in the presence of cubs. An estimated 70 percent of human deaths caused by grizzlies involved the presence of a cub. To date, there have been no confirmed human deaths caused by a mother black bear protecting her cubs. Three times in the last 13 months I have been close to a mother bear and cub at Bangor’s Rolland F. Perry City Forest. In two instances, the mother and cub fled. In the other, the cub fled up a tree while the mother remained hidden while I spent an hour watching the cub.

I used to believe the myth that a mother bear with a cub is bad news. When I was 9, I encountered a cub in my backyard while riding my bike. I was so scared, I jumped off the bike and ran back to the house. But when I began researching black bears after seeing a handful around City Forest beginning in 2005, I soon realized I had been ignorant. In some cases, the mother black bear will simply abandon her cub but remain nearby. In rare cases, the mother may initiate a bluff-charge, in which she will rush toward an uninvited visitor in hopes the visitor leaves. But because the black bear did not evolve to be a fighter like the larger grizzly, which needs to be able to fight because of its wide open habitat, the black bear rarely ever makes contact on a charge, even if repeatedly provoked.

When a mountain biker at City Forest surprised a mother bear with two cubs in June, he reportedly told WLBZ-TV that the bear “growled” at him. The Associated Press reported that the bear “bellowed” several times.

However, black bears do not growl, and they may even lack the ability to do so. In 40 years of researching black bears, neither Rogers or his associates has ever heard a bear growl or roar. Nor have I in the nearly three years I have been observing the bears around City Forest.

What black bears do, however, is huff, snort, smack their lips, and clack their teeth. Their most common expression when surprised by a human is to huff. The sound, a powerful and loud series of breaths, is not an expression of aggression, though. It is actually an expression of anxiety, not unlike the hyperventilating a person does when having a panic attack. Rogers and his team of researchers came to this conclusion when they observed a black bear fall out of a tree and go through the ritual.

Unfortunately, the truth often gets in the way of telling a good story, which may explain why nobody has yet elaborated on the descriptions of the Fairmount bear being “disoriented,” “wound up,” and “agitated.” You would be disoriented, too, if you wanted to retreat to your home but couldn’t because you were surrounded. You would also be nervous. In all likelihood, the bear was simply expressing anxiety – a good thing if you’re not looking to be attacked.

Instead, we as a society act more on our fears without trying to understand the fears of others. And that is why a black bear was needlessly killed and we will not educate ourselves to eradicate the myths surrounding one of our region’s greatest and most beautiful assets.

A version of this column appeared in the July 31, 2008, edition of the Bangor Daily News.

© 2008, Ryan R. Robbins. All rights reserved.