Biology Index
By Richard Bruce BA, MA, and PhC in Economics

Why Bear Safety Advice Keeps You Safe

There are about a million predatory mammals in the United States and Canada that can when they are full grown kill and eat an adult human. There are polar bears, grizzly bears, black bears, mountain lions and wolves. Furthermore, there are millions of coyotes that are too small to kill and eat an adult but plenty big enough to prey on our small children. Tens of thousands of these coyotes live in our cities and frequently eat our cats and dogs.

Yet only about one in a hundred million people is actually killed and eaten each year by the large predators, and the last time a coyote killed a child was in the 1980s. So the danger of being eaten by these predators is slight.

But why is this, and how can you decrease your chances of being eaten if you have a close encounter of the furry kind?

There is a lot of standard advice: do not run away, make noise, wear bright colors, try to look big, etc. I am not an expert so I will not disagree with this standard advice. I will, however, explain why the advice works, even though it is counter intuitive.

Predators Have to Know What They Can Safely Eat

Most North American predatory mammals live in environments where there are many animals that are dangerous to eat. Almost all amphibians: frogs and salamanders, are poisonous. The frogs legs we eat are not poisonous, that is why we eat the legs and not the rest of the frog. Beyond that there are venomous snakes, wasps, bees, ants, spiders, scorpions, and centipedes. There are also porcupines, the quills can work their way into the predator until they reach a vital organ and kill it. Even skunks could make a predator stink so badly that it might be difficult to hunt. It might die of starvation before the smell wears off.

A predator that simply ate anything that moved would usually die long before it got a chance to reproduce. Survival and reproduction is the name of the game, so predators have to know what is safe to eat.

Mother's Wisdom

Predatory mammals probably learn what is safe to eat from their mothers. If their mothers did not bring the animal back to the den and feed it to them, that is a good clue that it is not safe to eat. Furthermore, their mothers train them to hunt, and in the process teach them what it is safe to eat.

Their mother did not teach them to eat humans, if she had, we would have killed her and the cubs would have died. So if you face one of these predators you can be pretty certain that their mother did not teach them to eat people.

I know many people who have had encounters with these animals. Many have had several encounters, often at quite close range, but they came away with interesting stories and sometimes some property damage, but no injuries. Good training by the predator mothers was probably the secret.

Why the Standard Advice Works

If you meet up with predators you might want to reinforce their mother's training by following the standard advice. First, do not run away. You have been told that this will activate their hunting instinct. I think that hunger is what activates their hunting instinct and they are often hungry. The real reason you should not run is that animals that are dangerous to eat, like rattlesnakes, stand their ground. When you run you are saying you are safe to eat, when you stand your ground you are saying you are dangerous to eat.

When you stand your ground you are not just bluffing. You are dangerous to eat because you are part of a human society which will kill the predator, and probably several others of the same species if your fellow humans find evidence that the predator ate you. So when you stand your ground you are communicating good information which helps both you and the predator.

Perhaps the second most common bit of advice is make noise so you do not surprise the animal. These predators frequently have very keen senses so I suspect in many cases we are not surprising them. Making noise reinforces the message that you are dangerous to eat. Just as rattlesnakes stand their ground they also make noise with their rattles. It is frequently suggested that you wear bells to let the bears know you are coming. A common joke is, how do you tell good bears from bad bears? Answer, bad bears have bells in their poop. This is a good joke, but it misses the point that the bells are the human equivalent of a rattlesnake's rattle.

Another bit of advice is wear bright colors so that you will be noticeable. My advice is wear bright colors because that is another warning that you are not safe to eat. Poison dart frogs have bright colors to warn predators that they are dangerous, your bright cloths serve the same purpose.

We are also advised to make ourselves look big. For example, it has been suggested that people carry an umbrella and open it to look larger when they see the predator. Puffer fish do something similar. They fill their bodies with water so they blow up like balloons. It is often argued that they are trying to make themselves too big to eat, but it also has been suggested that they are warning predators that they are highly toxic. So maybe it is not the extra size that counts, the umbrella makes you look very weird. Perhaps the predators take that as sign that you are poisonous, venomous, or otherwise dangerous to eat.

Note that much of the standard advice is counter intuitive: don't run, make noise, bright colors. This is because animals that are safe to eat follow the obvious intuitive strategies, they run, are quiet, and hide. By doing the opposite humans and other animals that are dangerous to eat warn predators to leave them alone.

Bears of the Far North, Exception that Proves the Rule

So now you know why the standard advice works. But there are situations where it might not work. It has often been noted that polar bears, and barren ground grizzles are particularly aggressive.

Barren ground grizzles are called that because they live north of the tree line, where there are no trees and therefore the ground is barren.

Both polar bears and barren ground grizzles live in cold environments without amphibians which as mentioned earlier are almost always poisonous. Furthermore, there are no venomous snakes. In fact the only things that move and are dangerous to eat are porcupines and people, and while the range of the porcupines extends to the Arctic Ocean in some places, there are many areas in the range of the polar bears and barren ground grizzlies where the only dangerous animal is man. So perhaps it is not surprising that these bears are more aggressive with humans than more southern predatory mammals.

New Safety Tips

Up until now I have simply explained why the standard advice works, but I will now add some tips that are I hope very uncontroversial.

As these predators so rarely kill humans do not do anything very dangerous to escape them. I had a friend who was charged by a bear. He leapt off a cliff hoping that the water at the bottom of the cliff was deep enough, it was, or I would not have heard the story. However, bears will charge you, but if you stand your ground they will rarely harm you. It is safer to stand your ground than jump off a cliff.

Second, these animals are not tame or ethical. Do not try to pet them. The one story I heard from my friends where a person said a friend or a relative was injured was when the person who was injured tried to pet a wild bear. Don't pet them and give them their space.

Finally, do not give up healthy exercise just because there might be predators about. I would not go out if a large predator had been spotted a short time before, but do not let them keep you cooped up inside for long periods of time. You are far more likely to die of a heart attack brought on by a lack of exercise than a predator attack.

Policy Advice for Society

Finally there are a couple of points to be made for society as a whole. We have found that humans and large predators can coexist to a far greater extent than we thought possible. We can tolerate them in many cases. This is an important point for protection the ecology and biodiversity.

However, in those incredibly rare cases where an animal does become a man eater we must quickly kill it, and perhaps a few innocent animals too. People will say the animal is doing what is natural. Natural, perhaps, but clearly not normal. You are slandering almost the whole species when you claim that the actions of an extremely rare exception are normal. It is in the interests of humans and the vast majority of predators that are not man eaters that we either kill the rare man eater or perhaps confine them to a zoo.

This web page is based on a web page where I explain why predators don't eat humans. This page treats the topic at greater length and covers more predators.

I have applied the reasoning above to dinosaurs in my guide to avoid being eaten by predatory dinosaurs. It includes some fun stories about my friends and relatives very close encounters of the furry kind. Grizzly and black bears, oh my.

Or if you really like the stories about close encounters of the furry kind, I have written a collection of almost all my friends and relatives close encounters with bears. It is amazing how many people have gotten up close and personal with these predators.

There are many other web pages on biology that you can access through my biology index page

If you think I have made a contrabution to the safe enjoyment of nature or helping people coexist with wild animals why not link to this page?

Here is a link to a Reddit discussion of my explanation of why predator safety advice works check it out, make your own conments if you have a Reddit account.

Or if you want to make a comment or ask a question directly to me here is my contact information.

Last edited May 22, 2020

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