Our instincts respond to the kind of fear bears trigger

There’s been a lot of bear encounter stories lately, it seems.

Last week, I interviewed Colin Dowler about his harrowing encounter with a grizzly on a logging road above Ramsay Arm northeast of Campbell River. Wow, that was gripping to listen to being in the jaws, literally, of a large carnivore. On July 28, Dowler was significantly chewed up by the animal and managed to escape after stabbing it in the neck with a 2-3 inch folding knife.

Then last week, a another local woman encountered a black bear in the Oyster River area. It appears her dog triggered a defensive response from what turned out to be momma bear. Black bears are small – but only in comparison to a grizzly. That encounter was undoubtedly terrifying, although brief.

There’s been a grizzly hanging out north of Campbell River since early this summer. It being one of the occasional males that seem to wander across to Vancouver Island from the mainland. It hasn’t bothered anyone yet and if people leave it alone, it hopefully won’t bother anyone.

Bears are a fact of life here in British Columbia and elsewhere and warrant a great deal of respect. There’s reason to believe grizzlies are expanding their range on the coast to include Vancouver Island. If they haven’t started denning and breeding here already, some people believe they inevitably will soon.

Now, the debate is over what to do about them. It’s easy to say we just have to learn to live with them; that they won’t bother us if we just learn to understand them and learn to read their signals. But when you’re facing a 350 lb. animal with three-inch-long claws and teeth seemingly as long, it’s hard to stay focused on communication issues.

One of my closest grizzly encounter has been in Glacier National Park in eastern B.C. where I went for hike, solo, on albeit a popular hiking trail. As I strolled along I came across a fresh pile of bear scat right in the middle of the trail. Dang, I thought, if it had been off to the side or a few feet away, I could ignore it but it was right there in the middle of the trail. Like a calling card.

I decided to walk down to the nearby river and think about what I was going to do. I didn’t want to cut my hike short. I was only about one-quarter of the way through it. As I contemplated this, two other small groups of hikers passed by on the trail and I figured, okay, they didn’t care so I’m going to continue. The rest of the hike passed by uneventfully, bear-wise.

But you know, a fateful decision one way or the other and, man, you’re facing what has to be the greatest fear we humans have evolved to endure.

Forget our over-active imaginations thinking there are otherwordly apparitions around us or evil spirits hiding under the bed. Our fight or flight instincts have evolved to deal with large carnivores that can rip us apart with little effort.

They are our worst nightmares.

They’re what our species has come to respect so much that it is imprinted on our brains, down to our very synapses, so strongly that our brains have evolved to take the decision-making power away from us and place it with our instincts.

It has been determined that our survival is dependent on us turning around and fleeing the very moment we realize what we’re facing. And not waiting until we decide what to do consciously. That has not been determined to be evolutionarily advantageous.

But having said that, I do, actually, believe that we can learn to live with bears, cougars and wolves and the right knowledge can allow us to co-exist safely. It’s been shown many times to be true.

It’s just nice not to have to put it to the test.

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