Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Safety in Bear Country

Throughout the course of this blog, I've tried to show how complex bears are and how little we really know about them. Considering that, we have to wonder how accurate our ideas about staying safe in bear country really are. Most of those safety pamphlets that are readily available in almost all national parks are not written by scientists or experts, but by law firms representing the parks themselves, lawyers worried about litigation who feel that pushing fear and danger will reduce the chances of a lawsuit. While most of the advice is accurate and helpful, some is not...and some could even make a bad situation worse.

For example, the advice given in these pamphlets does not differentiate between the two principle types of bears one might encounter. Instead of saying "if you see a black bear, you should do this" or "if you see a grizzly, you should do that", we are told simply "if you see a bear (of any type), do this". That in itself is not very smart advice as the rules vary depending on the bear. Black bears are normally shy and timid animals, easily intimidated and provoked. Stand your ground and make eye contact (yes, make eye contact!) to show that you are the dominant in the situation, and the bear will back down. Break eye contact even for a moment and the bear may take advantage and charge. Not to worry, though, as most black bear demonstrations of aggressiveness are only bluster and are signs of the bear's fear and nervousness, not a prelude to an attack. Talk to the bear calmly. Do not raise your voice, shout, or wave your arms as most safety pamphlets tell you to do. Hold your ground, be the one in control, and the situation will resolve itself. Grizzlies on the other hand are naturally dominant animals and will react aggressively to any dominant behavior exhibited by intruders. Like the black bear, hold your ground to show that you will not be bullied (do NOT make eye contact) and lower your head and turn it - and perhaps even your whole body - to the side. This is a display of submission and peaceful intent that most wild animals recognize. Speak quietly and calmly. This will keep you calm and in turn will keep the bear calm. Raising your voice and waving your arms could be interpreted as a display of aggressive intent and could lead to an attack.

One piece of advice given is to play dead when attacked by a bear. While that is true if the bear perceives you as a threat to his space or his young, you only have to read any one given bear attack book to find an account of someone who misinterpreted this advice and played dead upon sighting a grizzly. The result, obviously, was a vicious attack, as dropping to the ground in a fetal position is a display of weakness to a dominant animal. A bear that is only concerned with removing a perceived threat will usually break off an attack when the victim plays dead. In the case of a predatory attack, this strategy would be suicide. In that scenario, fighting back is your only option, to show the bear that you will not be easy prey. An attack in defense of cubs would only be likely in grizzly country, as black bears and even polar bears do not aggressively defend their young.

But all of these situations, the little pamphlets tell us, can easily be avoided by hiking in groups and never alone. Supposedly, a large group of people can appear intimidating to a bear, but guru grizzly conservationist Doug Peacock has controversially challenged that opinion. He claims (and I agree) that hiking alone and being quieter can lessen your chances of a bear attack as you are a silent, unobtrusive visitor. Shouting, singing, and clapping can anger a bear, in particular a sleeping bear, and whistling can sound like a wounded animal, so those could be very risky options for hikers. Remember, bears have exceptional hearing - some evidence suggesting in the ultrasonic range - and could react angrily to sharp, shrill sounds. Likewise, hiking in a group could increase the risk of an attack by being a louder and more obtrusive presence. A large number of people alone would not necessarily be more intimidating to a bear, but would give the hikers a greater sense of security and their body language would show more self-confidence than a lone hiker's would. There are no definitive right or wrong rules for hikers, except remain calm and composed. While bear bells are not especially effective, bear spray is, and will most often successfully defuse any situation that peaceful negotiation cannot.

Bottom line, bears are highly intelligent, complex animals, and they should be treated as such. If you're going to be spending any amount of time in bear country, the smartest thing you can do is educate yourself about bear psychology, body language, and communication. Unfortunately, with the exception of Stephen Stringham's When Bears Whisper, Do You Listen, there isn't a lot of available information on the subject. Stringham's follow-up, entitled The Language of Bears, is set to be released in spring 2011. While most books contain some measure of helpful information on the subject, these two will be the definitive works, but I unfortunately don't feel that I can devote much to the topic without having first read both titles and one is still a year off. Nevertheless, I'll try to compile as much as I can from what info I do have into an upcoming post.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Bear Intelligence

Because of the slow, plodding nature of bears, they're not really thought of as being all that intelligent, even though circus bears are trained to ride bikes and roller skates, play musical instruments, and other routines of such remarkable complexity that no other animal could master them. Most people overlook this instead of realizing that it speaks to a high level of intelligence and cognitive ability within the bear. In fact, they've been found to have a brain almost as convoluted as that of a human being and many biologists readily admit that bears are equal to the great apes and even dolphins in their intelligence. Some take that a step farther and claim that some bears have the IQ of a three-year-old child.

What's most interesting is that this level of intelligence and cognitive reasoning is not often observed among bears in the wild. A possible explanation for this is that a bear in the wild is so driven by the single-minded purpose of survival and finding enough food before the onset of winter that the full scope of what they're capable of must often take a backseat to wild instinct. Researchers like Else Poulsen and Doug Seus have shown that when a bear is kept in captivity, well-fed, cared for, and given a stress-free life, the other side of their nature becomes more apparent and takes precedence over instinct.

Doug Seus has worked with grizzlies for 33 years and says that never a day goes by when he's not amazed by what they're capable of. He says that his Kodiak Bart the Bear was at least as intelligent as a chimpanzee and was still not that remarkably intelligent as grizzlies go. He recounts a story in which a flash flood had washed a Coke can and a thorny hawthorn tree into a ditch alongside his Utah home. Bart attempted to retrieve the can but was deterred by the sharp thorns. Looking back and forth from the can to a two by twelve plank lying nearby, Bart picked up the plank and used it to press the branches down so he could retrieve the can.

Else Poulsen witnessed some of the most amazing evidence of intelligence while working with captive bears as a rehabilitator for a zoo. A grizzly would run her paws over herself in a washing motion to indicate that she wanted a bath and would use her nose to point to the part of her body that she wanted washed. If in pain, the bears would point with their noses to whatever it was that hurt and would then bite down on their paws to indicate pain. One young bear - shunned from play by two older bears - did the same thing, apparently to indicate emotional pain. The polar bears showed the greatest intelligence, one very pointedly demonstrating to Poulsen why frozen chickens don't make good toys: they thaw out in water! Likewise, Charlie Russell's bear Chico seemed to understand Russell's interest in bears and taught him a simple greeting that they shared only between each other.

Lily the Black Bear was seemingly smart enough to associate her den cam with Lynn Rogers. Whacking it with her paw during play, she gazed wide-eyed at the camera, sniffed it, licked it, and cooed reassuringly at it in the same way that she would to calm her cub, all of this apparently an apologetic gesture.

Larry Kaniut's Alaska Bear Tales tells the story of a hunter who encountered two grizzlies. He shot and killed one and pursued when the other one, a female, ran. He cornered the grizzly in a river trying to climb a steep embankment, but the slope was too muddy and she kept sliding back into the water. Trapped between the slope and the man, the hunter said the bear moaned and wailed when he raised the gun. Surprised, he lowered the gun....and then raised it again. He did this repeatedly, getting the same reaction each time the weapon was raised. Finally, he says that the bear lowered her head into the water and drowned herself. As disgusting and horrifying as the story is, if it's true it says a lot about a bear's cognitive ability and - for me - explains why some attacks against humans are so aggressive and merciless.

In Stephen Herrero's Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, the story is told of a radio-collared black bear being tracked on foot by a researcher while the man's father patrolled overhead in an airplane. In order to throw off his tracker, the bear built several nests in different locations, then entered a stream, backtracked 50 yards, and slipped into thick foliage. The man refused to give up and by late afternoon, the sun was melting the snow and rocks appeared. The bear used this to his advantage, stepping from rock to rock, leaving no trail behind. Finally the researcher picked up the tracks again and followed them until they stopped, disappearing into thin air. This time the bear had walked backwards, placing his feet precisely into his tracks, and went back in the opposite direction, eluding the man.

Ben Kilham's Among the Bears recounts his experiences raising several different sets of cubs in New Hampshire. Not only did his work show how impressionable they are in their youth and how one bad experience during that formative time can scar them for life, but also that they're capable of altruism, a quality that was previously only thought to be found in human beings. But not only did they show altruism for other bears, but for other forms of life that they encountered! They demonstrated how clever, intelligent, and adaptable to changes in their environment they really are. Testing that intelligence, Kilham presented them with a mirror, hoping to find evidence of self-awareness. In every case, the young bears reacted as if they were meeting another bear, but after sniffing the mirror and running circles around it to find the other bear, they seemed to decide that they were looking at their reflections. They were observed dragging objects in front of the mirror and playing while watching themselves. Kilham concluded that it would never be enough to convince most scientists, but it seemed to him a demonstration of some level of self-awareness.

Perhaps the best and most famous example of this level of intelligence being observed in the wild was with the Mud Creek Grizzly of Glacier National Park. The bear had been captured twice by biologists over a two year period for research purposes. Finally the bear decided he'd had enough of that and began to fight back. After a trap site had been set up with bait and cameras, he would sneak into the area, tear down the plastic strips that marked the trail to the site, set off the traps with rocks and sticks, steal the bait, gnaw on the camera until it popped open, remove the film cartridge, and smash it on a rock. This happened several times before biologists decided it best to leave the animal alone before it started taking its frustration out on people....as one research bear did in 2003. This bear was first captured by biologists during the Exxon-Valdez oil spill in Alaska and was tracked down, tranquilized, and captured every summer thereafter. When released for the last time, the researchers reported it as exhibiting "strong, abnormal aggression towards human beings" (Gee, I wonder why). A short time later, the bear was killed and identified as being responsible for the deaths of Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend. That should be a very clear warning to biologists and researchers whose actions towards an animal that they don't fully understand could end in disaster somewhere down the line. Unfortunately, it's a warning that I don't think many will even bother to acknowledge.

These are just a few of the countless examples of bear intelligence and cognition that are out there, so the next time someone says you're smarter than the average bear, you can rest assured that you're pretty well off.