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Saturday, May 28, 2005

Close Encounters of the Bruin Kind

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., May 28, 2005.)
Within spitting distance, he swung his square brown muzzle around, surveying the ground, then locked eyes with me.
I hadn't been that close to another living, breathing mammal since I rolled out of bed to go turkey hunting at 3:30 that morning. Unlike my sleeping wife, the bear was blowing steam out of his nostrils, just two steps away. You can't get that close to a bear in a zoo.

My first thought was to grab my camera, but he had appeared suddenly -- too suddenly for me to ease the camera out of the camo case that was slung over my shoulder. My second was the recent news of a woman who was mauled by a Pennsylvania black bear at a Poconos campsite. Third, I became very conscious of where the safety is on my turkey shotgun.

Three years ago, within 15 yards of where I now sat cross-legged on the ground calling a turkey, I had another monster boar a mere 12 feet from me. Both that one and this one were immense. Both had bellies sagging nearly to the ground. Both had big blocky heads with tiny eyes and tinier eyelashes. That first bear was huge, in the 500-pound range. This one might go a mere 350.

He looked suspicious as he slowed from a bouncing walk to a standstill. Within spitting distance, he swung his square brown muzzle around, surveying the ground, then locked eyes with me. He blinked. I probably did too. He blew steam from his nose. I held my breath. He finally turned and galloped away, thumping the ground and crashing through anything and everything in his way.

For me, that was a natural high. I don't know what it was for the bear. But for most of the rest of humankind, it would be scary. There is nothing wrong with having a healthy fear of black bears, but it doesn't take any particular courage to sit 6 feet from one in the right circumstances. It does, however, take respect for them.

Like all wild animals, bears are unpredictable. In addition, a black bear is also a powerful animal, capable of killing quickly. But usually, a bear has no incentive to attack a human. In Pennsylvania, hostile attacks on humans are rare, and always in the context of one of two specific circumstances. First, almost everyone knows that when a mother is with cubs, it's mandatory that you give all of them a wide berth. The maternal instinct is strong, and overrides her escape reflex. If mama perceives a threat to a cub, she will do her best to eliminate that threat. Think about it. Human parents do the same thing, but their instinct is mitigated by the mores of civilization.

Most of us realize we are neither fast enough nor strong enough to win a contest with a mother bear. But many foolishly think they can dance close to the edge of the second circumstance, and that involves food. Frequent encounters with bears feeding at restaurant dumpsters, campsites and roadside rests diminish some people's respect for bears to the point where bravado occasionally overtakes good sense and someone tries to hand feed a bear. Or, people are careless about the storage of food. Bears are not denied food in their own natural world, so they don't expect a human to deny them food.

We can't psychologize bears. We can't appeal to logic. And we can't assert our authority in the face of a powerful bear. There is only one thing we should do: obey the signs that read "don't feed the bears." For good reason, it's against the law in Pennsylvania to feed bears -- even from your bird feeder. Once bears become habituated to people, anything can happen. Someone will sooner or later get hurt, and a bear will have to be destroyed. So, don't feed bears, but if they raid your dumpster, garbage can, or campsite, back away and let them have what they want.

It's exciting to see a bear in the woods, especially up close. Next time I have a close encounter a bear, will I be afraid? Maybe. Every encounter is different. If it's a mama bear, I'll do my best to back away quickly and quietly. If it's food he wants, I'll let him have it. About bears, I'm not stupid.


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