Photograph by Paul Nicklen, Nat Geo Image Collection
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Bear attacks are rare, and a new study indicates many can be prevented if humans understand why bears become aggressive.  

Photograph by Paul Nicklen, Nat Geo Image Collection
Living With the Wild

'It Wasn't the Bear's Fault.' Grizzly Attack Survivor Stories

Survival rates for bear attacks are high. And those who have been mauled are often forgiving.

The late Jim Cole never thought of himself as a high-stakes gambler. He accepted risks whenever he ventured into the wild country inhabited by grizzly bears. A black pirate’s patch over his left eye and scars deep on his face were all the testaments he needed.

Cole owned the rare distinction of having been mauled badly twice by grizzlies—in incidents involving different bears and ecosystems in the lower 48—then surviving to share the lessons he learned.

Just two weeks before he died, the 60-year-old wildlife photographer and passionate hiker mused on my front porch in Bozeman, Montana: “How lucky I am,” he said, “to still be ambulatory and in a place to bring more respect for the Great Bear.”

Not everyone injured by a bear would be so forgiving. But a few high-profile encounters across the United States this year have raised the question of how to live alongside bears:

  • Just Sunday, 62-year-old Alaskan Danny High was seriously injured by a brown bear while walking in the forest near Soldotna on the Kenai Peninsula. High reportedly wasn’t carrying a firearm or non-lethal pepper spray—the expert-recommended deterrent of choice—when he was attacked.
  • In early August on the other side of the continent, 52-year-old Laurie Cooksey was mauled by a 150-pound black bear in Virginia’s Douthat State Park while hiking with her three grown children. After being bitten and scratched, she kicked the bear and fought it off. It was Virginia’s first-ever bear attack on a human unrelated to hunting. (Related: "Black Bears Are Rebounding—What Does That Mean For People?")
Living With the Wild. As bear populations rebound across the United States, and as people increasingly move into their habitat, bear-human run-ins are inevitable.  This is one of several stories asking: How do we live with the predators?

For millions of Americans with trepidation about wandering where wild bears roam, there is some reassuring news: The probability of being attacked is incredibly low. If you are attacked—as demonstrated by two of the three encounters above—chances are high that you’ll survive. And if you do survive, you may end up with surprising feelings about the bear that attacked you.

Hear a man who survived severe injuries when he was attacked by a grizzly bear explain why he feels guilty and says "it really wasn't the bear's fault." The attack happened near Cody, Wyoming, not far from the man's home, and also not far from Yellowstone National Park.

Avoidable Attacks

This isn’t windshield biology. It’s bolstered by known scientific data and a new soon-to-be published review of 140 years’ worth of bear attacks on people in Alaska, a state which has all three bear species (brown, black, and polar) and more total bears than any other. The analysis of 675 attacks is being prepared by noted researchers Tom Smith, a biology professor at Brigham Young University and Stephen Herrero, professor emeritus at the University of Calgary in Canada.

“There is a lot of mythology out there about why bear attacks happen,” Smith says. “If I wanted to make a key point, it is that the vast majority of these negative encounters are avoidable. People don’t need to go out into bear country and get hurt, nor do bears. These incidents are largely preventable but humans have to take more responsibility.” (Read more abou the study, and how to avoid bear attacks.)

While some believe that bears are becoming more aggressive, Smith and Herrero say the rise in incidents tracks perfectly with the rising human population and the rewilding of certain areas.

“Bears don’t have a unique response for humans. Everything they do is based upon what they’d do if they ran into another bear,” Smith says. “If we unwittingly trigger that bear-on-bear response, then it’s full-on and you better be ready. What you want to do is convince the bear that attacking isn’t worth it.”

Smith says it’s ethically irresponsible for people living in or visiting occupied bear habitat not to tote pepper spray. He also chafes at those who put themselves willfully in harm's way, such as the late Timothy Treadwell, who presented himself as having a special gift for communicating with bears by allegedly speaking their language.

In October 2003, Treadwell and a friend were killed and partially consumed by brown bears in Katmai National Park in Alaska. His dangerous interactions and demise were chronicled in Werner Herzog’s acclaimed documentary Grizzly Man. (Eighty-five percent of the bear attack victims in Alaska were men.)

People, Smith says, are no more able to get inside a bruin’s mind than a grizzly, black, or polar bear is able to telepathically comprehend a human’s thoughts. What’s vital is that people appreciate the instinctive evolutionary behavior that has taught bears to explosively ward off other bears and to constantly assess their surroundings through smell (foremost) and sight.

I Don’t Blame the Bear

When Nic Patrick of Cody, Wyoming was mauled by a mother grizzly with cubs in the South Fork of the Shoshone River drainage two years ago, he didn’t blame the bear. (See the video above for his story.) As Patrick, 65, was being rushed into town for medical treatment, he pleaded with wildlife officials not to take lethal action against the mother bruin, whom he said was only protecting her young.

Jim Cole told me in the aftermath of his close calls that he never felt any animosity for bears and certainly didn’t blame them. In over a dozen bear attacks I’ve written about in which survivors were interviewed, most didn’t blame the bear or want harm to come to it.

Based on his research into exit interviews with mauling victims, Smith says it’s a common sentiment for survivors to hold no malice toward the animals that injured them. And often, if attacks are deemed defensive, bears are not killed or removed from parks. (Related: "What Do You Do With a Bear That Kills a Person?")

The first time Cole ran into trouble with a grizzly was September 29, 1993 in Glacier National Park, when he accidentally surprised one on a trail. To show its displeasure, the bear bit into his scalp and chomped on his wrist as he tried to defend himself. He mended. In the aftermath, Cole’s interest in nature photography and his devotion to bear conservation increased. However, in addition to the earlier mauling, Cole had been bluff charged by other grizzlies on a couple of occasions, and repelled them with bear spray, acknowledging that he had sometimes pushed the envelope by entering the comfort zone of his subjects.

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Nature photographer Jim Cole was attacked twice by grizzly bears. 

In fact, after he was once ticketed by rangers for getting too close to bears, Yellowstone enacted regulations informally called “Cole’s Law” which mandate that people maintain a buffer of at least 100 yards between themselves and bears at all times.

In May 2007, some 14 years after his encounter in Glacier Park, Cole was bushwhacking through Yellowstone’s Hayden Valley, not far from where several other hikers over the years have been killed or wounded. Cole told me that bears in the valley were seen feeding on wildlife carcasses. And he admitted that he was breaking protocols by hiking alone, off trail, not making noise, hoping to take pictures of feeding bears.

He carried a can of pepper spray on a harness, but the undulating topography and high sagebrush obscured his view. Not long after he crested a rise and caught sight of a cub, he was knocked to the ground by a protective mother.

“She was pretty angry I was there,” he explained. “She could have killed me but she didn’t.” The sow instead raked her claws across Cole’s face, blinding him in one eye and badly disfiguring him. Then the bear and her brood left.

Cole later wrote a book about the attacks titled Blindsided. Ironically, it wasn’t a bear that claimed him. He died in 2010 in part from a heart attack.

Smith knew Cole, and says Cole’s love of bears impressed him. Yet, enthusiasm—perhaps lacking the caution of self-restraint, preparedness, and vigilant awareness in the backcountry—almost did Cole in. In most of the bear attacks Smith has researched, the vast majority would have been preventable through better judgment and bear spray.

“Interestingly, the most encounters resulting in no injury were the bear’s fault,” Smith says. “These data suggest that the majority of bears do not attack hapless victims at random, and that with better education and effort on our parts we can reduce the number of these unfortunate events considerably.”

Todd Wilkinson is an environmental journalist. His most recent book is Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek: An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone, with photographer Thomas D. Mangelsen. Follow him on Twitter @bigartnature.