Black bear attacks on humans are rare but often begin as scuffles with dogs, experts say

The dog may run to its owner for protection as the bear follows close behind.

September 05, 2019, 6:28 PM

Predatory attacks on humans by black bears are extremely rare, but experts are offering insight as to how some of them may start after a woman was killed in Canada by a black bear while searching for her dogs.

A "disproportionate number" of attacks by bears on human are related to dogs, Lynn Rogers, research scientist for the Wildlife Research Institute and founder of the North American Bear Center, told ABC News.

A 62-year-old Minnesota woman died over the weekend while she was looking for her dogs in the woods in Rainy Lake, Canada, just a few miles over the border from Minnesota, authorities said. The dogs, yelping and barking, later returned to the cabin, but the woman never returned and was later found with a bear standing over her.

Bear attacks involving dogs also occurred in June, when a California man was bitten after he kicked a bear that attacked his dog in his yard, in December 2018, when a Pennsylvania woman was dragged 88 yards in her front yard after a bear attacked both her and her dog, and in June 2018, when a man wrestled a black bear after it lunged at his dog at Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada. The dog in that case was killed.

In Minnesota, three of the seven unprovoked bear attacks recorded since 1987 in which the victim required hospitalization involved a dog, Dave Garshelis, a bear research scientist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, told ABC News. None of those attacks were fatal, Garshelis said.

PHOTO: Closeup portrait of a wild Black Bear Sow in Ontario.
Closeup portrait of a wild Black Bear Sow in Ontario.
M. Lorenz Photography via Getty Images

Often in those types of cases, the owner gets hurt when he or she tries to intercede in the scuffle, or the dog runs back to its owner for protection and "next thing you know the bear is 2 feet away," Garshelis said.

Knowing what to do in the event that a dog encounters a bear is a "tough call" because the situations can be so unpredictable, Garshelis said.

He suggested arming yourself with some type of weapon, such as a gun or big stick, "especially if the dog is running back to you for protection." In one of bear attacks that occurred in Minnesota, a person in the group bashed it over the head with a canoe paddle, he said.

"That's the only thing you can do," he said. "The normal reaction for the bear would be to leave."

Yelling or banging pots and pans may do the trick as well, Garshelis said, while Rogers advised using pepper spray to encourage bears to retreat.

"They don't go away mad," Rogers said. "They just go away."

PHOTO: Closeup of a wild Black Bear in Ontario, Canada.
Closeup of a wild Black Bear in Ontario, Canada.
M. Lorenz Photography via Getty Images

An article on the website for Orvis, a retail company that specializes in fishing, hunting and sporting goods, suggests that dog owners "quietly and quickly leave the area" if the bear has not spotted you, but if it has, to "keep your dog close and calm, avoiding sudden movements."

Fatal black bear attacks on humans are so rare -- more so than any other species of bear -- that they occur on average of once per year across North America, Garshelis said. In addition, about one black bear out of 1 million will attack a human in a predatory manner, Rogers said.

The reason why the attacks by black bears seldom occur isn't because the bears stay away from humans, the experts said. In fact, they are often attracted to people's food sources or get used to the presence of humans.

However, black bears are typically not aggressive and fear the "repercussions of attacking someone," Garshelis said.

"They just don't want to attack people," Garsheilis said. "They're kind of timid animals."

PHOTO: Wild Black Bear Sow in Ontario, Canada
Wild Black Bear Sow in Ontario, Canada
M. Lorenz Photography via Getty Images

Black bears may have developed their apprehensive nature during the ice age, when they faced rivals such as saber-toothed cats, dire wolves in packs, huge American lions and the giant short-faced bear, the primitive species that weighed more than a ton, had powerful jaws and could run fast with it's long legs, Rogers said.

"Black bears wouldn't have stood a chance against any of those," he said. "They developed an attitude of run first, ask questions later and stay by trees."

During more than 50 years of studying bears, the only time Rogers ever got "nipped or slapped" was when he was trying to put a radio collar on a bear without using tranquilizers, which he found would cause them to lose trust and make them harder to observe in the long run, he said.

In addition, most bears will run away from a dog that's chasing it, Garshelis said, while Rogers said bears are quite easy to drive away.

"I've never found a bear that I couldn't chase," he said.

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