One Bear’s Bad, Last Human Encounter

Candice Gaukel Andrews June 9, 2015 17

It’s estimated that today in North America, there are 600,000 black bears. Unfortunately, whenever black bears and humans come into contact, it is always the bears that suffer. ©Justin R. Gibson

Almost a year ago, in July 2014, Washington state experienced the worst string of wildfires ever in its history. The first fire began on July 8 near the Entiat River. Then, on July 14, a lightning storm started dozens more across the eastern Cascade Range. When it was all over, more than 350,000 acres (about 550 square miles) had burned.

Thousands of wild animals—including bears, cougars and deer—in the area’s forests lost their lives in these fires. But one, small bear beat the odds.

In the past few weeks, the story of “Cinder” has been covered in the news; even a children’s book has been written about the black bear cub. For me, however, the method of her release back into the wild is an even more telling narrative: not so much indicative of her instincts but of ours and how we treat “the others” with whom we share the world.

Instilling fear of us

Black bears survived because of their ability to climb trees. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

After the fires subsided, Cinder crawled on her forearms into the yard of one of the few homes left standing. All four of her paws had received third-degree burns. Following several months of intensive-care efforts—first at a California wildlife center that specializes in treating burns and then at Idaho Black Bear Rehab, Inc.—she made a remarkable recovery. Wounds that were once thought unable to heal did. The decision was made to return her to the wild.

By that time, however, Cinder had 10 months of positive and regular human contact behind her. She would have to learn to fear humans in order to survive. So just before her release back into her native Washington, she was subjected to some simulated, worst-case scenarios that we humans routinely dish out to bears. She was confined in a steel trap, while dogs on the outside barked at her at close range. Then, when the trap’s door was opened, not only did the restrained dogs continue to bark but rangers fired cracker shells (mock bullets) around her to scare her off, deep into the woods.

While the video of her release is hard to watch for that reason, those tactics were necessary. To keep her safe, sadly, her last contact with people had to be a severely negative one.

Offering a sincere apology

Today, whenever bears come into contact with humans, no matter how naturally or innocently it happens, it is always the bears that suffer. We traditionally act on the conviction that even if there is no human harm or death, a black bear that dares to venture close to us must die.

Startled black bears usually run away, such as this one in Yosemite National Park. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

In fact, black bears have killed 63 people across North America since 1900. That means that your chances of being killed by lightning, bees or domestic dogs are vastly greater. The 600,000 black bears of North America kill less than one person per year on average, while one out of 16,000 people commits murder each year across North America. You are more likely to be killed by one of us.

According to the North American Bear Center in Ely, Minnesota, black bears today are actually timid, a trait they developed partly because they evolved alongside powerful predators, such as American lions, dire wolves, saber-toothed cats and short-faced bears, all of which became extinct only about 12,000 years ago. Black bears survived because of their ability to climb trees and their inclination to run first. The timid ones passed on their genes to create the black bears of today. Startled black bears now will most often retreat, preferably to a tree.

Most of the rare black bear attacks are defensive reactions to a person who is very close, an easy situation to avoid. Even then, injuries that do occur from these encounters are usually minor. Bears that visit bird feeders, campgrounds and garbage cans almost never kill people, even though these bears have the most contact with us by far. They are simply looking for food and can easily be chased away in most cases. Perhaps as we learn more about black bears, fewer and fewer of us will feel that we must shoot them on sight.

I feel that we owe Cinder, and all bears, an apology. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

A small item reported on the North American Bear Center website, however, does give me hope. It says that the residents of Hemlock Farms, Pennsylvania, peacefully co-exist with black bears. Seven thousand residents share their seven-square-mile town with more than 20 black bears; at three bears per square mile, that’s a higher density than is found in any national park. The residents in Hemlock Farms feel that seeing a bear is not a problem but a pleasure.

Unfortunately, Hemlock Farms isn’t the rest of us yet. So, to Cinder, I must apologize. I’m embarrassed for my species. I’m sorry we had to treat you like that on what is hopefully the last time you will see any of us.

Run away as far as you can, little bear. Forget about us—and please, please, whatever you do, forgive us.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy

17 Comments »

  1. Liv L'Estrange July 28, 2015 at 12:53 am - Reply

    We have to start treating bears like all other dangerous animals. We don’t shoot sharks if we see them in the water do we? We just have to be careful and stay out of there habitat as much as we can. I wouldn’t want an intruder in my house.

  2. Karen Butler July 5, 2015 at 4:33 pm - Reply

    I’m so glad that Cinder could return home! Sadly there is much humanity must learn to realistically co-exist with nature. As humanity spreads like a virus, nature slowly becomes destroyed. Sad, but true.

  3. Julie Rose June 23, 2015 at 5:24 pm - Reply

    Thank you for this bitter-sweet story. I have had encounters with black bear. The 1st in West Virgina in the mountains – accompanied with fear. She walked along parallel to me about 30 feet away for about a 1/4 mile distance – I did everything opposite of what I read about how to handle encounters with bear. My heart raced (showed fear) I picked up the pace (don’t run or hast pace) and the most obvious – don’t stare it in the eyes. Most of the time our eyes were locked. The 2nd in the Appalachian trail in PA with a group of friends camping. She had her two cubs in a nearby tree showing them how to steel apple juice sippy containers that were in closed cooler on the picnic table not more than 15 feet from us. This time I was in awe at how creative and quiet she was and I calmly walked away (cant say the rest of us remained cool – one being a park ranger – go figure). The 3rd was in Tannersville NY on a hike with a friend and I saw baby cubs nearby playing which meant mama bear is near by. So we pretended not to see them and continued on our way – I felt adoration. The 4th encounter was in the presidential peaks NH when I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Familiar now with this feeling I looked through the woods to spot a black bear looking at me. The fact I felt it’s presence and energy from a far distance (about 1/2 mile away) gave me a sense of awe and respect for bear. If we recognize and respect that bear had domain of the vast land before we developed and called it ‘our land’ I can say yes, we can indeed GO BACK TO co-existing with bear.

  4. Gerry Wootton June 23, 2015 at 4:50 am - Reply

    I have met several black bears in the woods – for the most part they neither bothered me or vice versa. It requires some tact and edicate. I’ve never found mature black bears overly timid but respect their space. I’ve watched one foraging for bugs and grubs in dead-falls, smashing logs into splinters with exceptional ease – one is no match for their physical strength. I’ve had a few young bears clear off at incredible speed and a young female outrun a truck on a dirt road – one is no match for their speed; in any case, don’t run away as their native response to an apparent challenge is to bite the ‘loser’ in a stand-off on the rump – one’s rump, even in chainsaw pants, isn’t made for that (if motivated, they can climb trees pretty fast too). Bears dislike surprise so act accordingly – when they know you’re in the neighborhood, giving them space and not acting wildly, they respond in kind. The only time I got in difficulty with a bear was when I accidentally approached too quietly but quickly resolved the situation by being loud and proud and backing up very slowly.

    Do not feed the bears; don’t litter which is almost the same thing. A friend of mine got into serious trouble with a tame bear when he tried to ‘share’ an ice cream cone with it: to teach him a lesson, the bear swallowed the cone and his hand and would release neither until sedated. Bears like food – a lot – and most seem to know that humans have the good stuff. Having open and/or partly eaten good stuff about and/or leaving dirty dishes, containers or wrappers lying about is an open invitation. On the plus side, a bear can do a very thorough job of degreasing a barbecue.

    Based on archaeological evidence, bears were numerous in the great lakes area and comprised a substantial portion of native diet – today’s populations, such as they are, are relatively small; they’re mainly a problem in conjunction with modern civilization where we’re rather cavalier with garbage – especially food waste, pet food and other bear treats. An animal that can sniff out a few fat grubs inside a log – no surprise – can surely find the goodies where we left them (reconsider that half-eaten chocolate bar in your pocket).

    In my experience, racoons are much more of a problem than bears in the wild and will work much harder to get at your food – and they only look cute. All in all, I’d much rather meet a bear in the woods than a bull moose.

  5. Carol Seay Rommel June 22, 2015 at 11:24 am - Reply

    Valid and compelling statement Thomas Sawyer

  6. Karen Burt June 15, 2015 at 6:26 am - Reply

    Amen Thomas! Mankind’s selfishness indifference and greed for more & more prevents us from being able to really co-exist with nature. Until we learn to not be wasteful, self centered, ignorant and uncaring and become selfless and teach our self and our children to care what happens to our environment we will continue to destroy this eco system of this planet. It all comes down to morality! God help us to spread good morals to our friends, family and others and forgive us for the atrocities we have caused and are causing by being irresponsible with this world we live in.

  7. Mary Martin Weyand June 14, 2015 at 6:33 pm - Reply

    I love and respect bears. How really sad that we had to scare him away to save him! Agree with you and Tom Sawyer. Appreciate the update about Cinder. May he live a long and fruitful life.

  8. Brian Magee June 13, 2015 at 4:14 pm - Reply

    I hope that this black bear is able to survive not only in nature, but from the violence of man themselves specifically with poachers.

  9. Larry Klink June 11, 2015 at 2:15 pm - Reply

    Humans and wildlife have interacted throughout the history of our species. But now that our numbers and technology have come to dominate the planet, wildlife has become an attraction for voyeurism when we visit parks and a nuisance when they come into our space.

  10. Sabine Prather June 10, 2015 at 7:53 pm - Reply

    Thanks for a clearly written synopsis of human relationships with other predators. It’s sad but true that we wouldn’t be likely to look kindly at a an approaching bear, even if it seemed friendly. We need a new way to interact.

  11. Birgitta Osborne June 10, 2015 at 5:46 pm - Reply

    We have to be careful not to encourage human / bear interaction; the results are almost always bad for both. These are Wild animals, not disney characters who will understand that you didn’t mean to get between them and their food, or cubs.

  12. Birgitta Osborne June 10, 2015 at 3:19 pm - Reply

    As a former resident of Hemlock Farms I feel I must point out that many of the residents there look at the WILD animals as some sort of pets. Some leave food out for them, including the bears. This makes for a potentially dangerous situation not only for the humans but the animals as well. Many of the residents are only summer folks, who go back to their regular houses at the end of the season. Who feeds the animals once they leave? The bear and other wild animal populations increase because of the readily available food during the summer, and then starve the rest of the year because they can’t get enough of the food they are used to getting from people. The only reason there are so many bears in Hemlock is because there is enough food being obtained from people to support the unnaturally large population. I have had several encounters with bears in Hemlock that could have turned out badly if I was not already familiar with how to behave around bears from my time in the park service. I actually had one of the security officers in the community tell me that they were harmless! The sad reality is that the only safe bear is a bear that is afraid of people, and does not see us a food source. Please remind people that these beautiful and magnificant but WILD animals are not pets, and they cannot safely be treated as such!

    • Debbie Viess July 4, 2015 at 4:49 pm - Reply

      Thanks for your reality check post, Birgitta. Far too many folks here in North America treat wild animals in the wild as Disney characters, or worse, as harmless pets.

      Bears have personalities, issues and bad days, just like we do! Sometimes you encounter a nice-ish bear, just minding its own business; other times, it sucks to be you, big time. Black bears as well as brown bears have indeed predated actively upon human beings before, in recent times, and not just struck out in anger after a surprise or to defend a cub.

      For a full list of recorded human/bear attacks as well as all of the available details and dates, check out this excellent Wikipedia article:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fatal_bear_attacks_in_North_America

      What most surprised me was that fatal encounters were actually more common between black bears and humans than with brown bears and humans: 72 vs 71.

      This is NOT to say that I hate and fear any bear, but I respect the hell outta ’em. I have had a black bear walk up on my tarp where I was sleeping solo, sans tent, in Sequoia NF; I had apparently laid my tarp out on his or her trail by the creek. Despite the fact that the creature was close enough to pet, and there was a bear-shaped blotting of that starry starry night sky, I was conveniently paralyzed with fear (i’tis true that happens!), and so did not sit up in surprise to get myself smacked. The bear, after testing his footing on my weirdly crunching tarp, just slowly walked on by. Took me a good bit of time to get back to sleep tho, what with all of that adrenaline coursing through my body!

      I also walked with brown bears in Alaska, or at least on their trails, as I searched for fungi and and other botanical wonders on a couple of recent trips, crawling around on my hands and knees, in a state of bliss. My wake-up call was when I would see fresh moose scat (they are much more dangerous than bears) or fresh brown bear scat, just inches from my nose, at which point I would attempt to sing. Not easy when you can’t pucker or remember a tune, literally, to save your life! Their tracks were bad enough tho … man, those are some loooooong claw marks!

      But in fact, no bears bothered me over many weeks in Alaska in prime bear habitat.

      Not so for a local Cordova, AK gal last summer, whose dogs pissed off a brown bear along a salmon stream, and it caught her, instead! She got munched, played dead, but not quite long enough, got munched again, played dead almost for real, then walked herself out 1 1/2 miles to her car, and drove herself to a hospital! That’s Alaska tough. She made it, but it wasn’t pretty.

      In fact, the human rescuers saved that cub’s life, so I would say it was a positive encounter for the bear, over-all. Many months of human care and kindness, and then, when dogs attack! What it probably feels now is a strong hatred for dogs, so keep yours on a leash in that release area! A steel cage is no leg hold trap, the way most bears get caught. I understand the sentiment of not wanting a bear dependent or too trusting of humans, but it’s funny how we get it wrong so much of the time.

      I love being in the wilderness with wild animals. But I never take them for granted, or think that I am top of the food chain. Cause in some places, still, we are not.

      IMO, that;’s a good thing. But not when you are the food.

  13. Jennifer Scudellari June 10, 2015 at 12:38 pm - Reply

    I couldn’t bring myself to watch the video, but I can guess what it was like. Great article; great apology!

  14. David Kane June 10, 2015 at 12:02 pm - Reply

    Nice work, Candy!

  15. Denise Fachko June 10, 2015 at 12:01 pm - Reply

    Very sad, but beautifully written overall!

  16. Thomas Sawyer June 10, 2015 at 8:56 am - Reply

    The rest of “modern civilization” should watch and learn from the good people of Hemlock Farms. A story which is heard far too often-the deeper mankind encroaches into the wilderness areas, the more the natural wildlife suffers because of mans indifference towards them, and their own greed to monopolize the natural habitats that these animals occupy. Co-existence can only be achieved by those who understand that this world is meant to be shared and not dominated by any one species, especially by man.

Leave A Response »