BEAR: You were expecting a growl or something? Black bears don’t actually growl you know.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: They don’t?
BEAR: Nope. Sometimes we grunt or moan. We chomp our jaws and clack our teeth together and make a kind of a huffing sound. Sometimes we swat the ground with our paws. Those are the sounds we make when we’re unhappy. When we’re happy, we’re usually pretty quiet.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Really, no growling?
BEAR: Nope. Dogs growl. Bears—we’re so over that, evolutionarily speaking. Start growling and the next thing you know you’re licking your butt. Would you lick your butt?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Ah, no. That would be undignified.
BEAR: Well then.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: And to be clear, you’re a black bear, right? Not a brown bear, not a grizzly bear.
BEAR: That’s right. Real-deal Ursus americanus. There aren’t any brown bears—grizzly bears—in eastern North America.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Okay, well, we’re here because bear safety is a hot topic on hiking social media pages these days.
BEAR: Dude, I know. People love to bring us black bears up on hiking social media—I’m convinced that half of the people who do that are just bored and trolling for reactions. And so many of the people who respond have no idea what they're talking about--they're just repeating bear myths. You know trolling for bear dirt is right up there with trolling on Lil Nas X’s Montero music video. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: You know this? How would you know about social media?
BEAR: Popped out of the woods in front of a hiker a few weeks ago and the guy freaked out and dropped his i-phone.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: You five-fingered a guy’s i-phone?
BEAR: That’s five-clawed technically. And no. Some bears will try to get stuff from people by false charging them. Waste of energy if you ask me. Five out of ten people are wusses when it comes to black bears—just walk across the trail twenty feet in front of them and they’ll wet their pants and drop their packs. Thus the new i-phone. Was gonna give it back to the guy but figured I woulda made matters worse if I chased after him with it. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Okay, so should people be afraid of black bears and run away?
BEAR: You’re asking me to give away trade secrets, and you know what they say. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Yeah, if you tell me then you have to kill me. . .
BEAR: . . .EAT you. If I tell you I have to eat you.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Right. So would you?
BEAR: Dude. You ever heard of a black bear eating a human being?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: I’m sure it’s happened, no?
BEAR: Listen. According to available stats, two people were killed by wild black bears in the northeast in the last 70 years. Last time was 2002, in New Jersey (don't get me started on Jersey bears and their 'tudes). For New England, you have to go back to the 1940s when a bear was "suspected" of killing a guy in Vermont who was hunting bears. Statistically speaking, a person is more likely to drown in their bathtub or die of a dog bite than get killed by a black bear.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: So, with those odds, I’m probably a heck of a lot more likely to die in a car accident while driving to a trailhead.
BEAR: Right. But you’re not afraid to get into your car. Isn't that interesting?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Also, I hear that you eat a lot of veggies. . .
BEAR: Ruins our image, huh?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: So what gives?
BEAR: Dude, give me a break. We already get no end of crap from you guys—for instance, in Maine over 3,000 of us are shot each year—all in the course of us just minding our own business out in the woods. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: But those are licensed hunters legally hunting. . .um. . .ahem. . .
BEAR: . . .and you homo sapiens kill each other too, pretty often actually—last year alone. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: OK, OK. I agree. Too many of us are asshats, it’s absolutely true. So tell me about the chomping of teeth and huffing thing you do—and the false charging—not growling but it does sound scary—can’t blame a person from freaking out when you do that. . .
BEAR: Here’s the deal. We know you’re the apex predator on the block. We know you human beings have more than a few screws loose. So we’d just assume not be seen by you. So, most of the time, we hide. And when we don’t hide, we run. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: But sometimes you charge people.
BEAR: Yeah, but probably 95% percent of the time we hide or run. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: How come you never hear about bears hiding from people. . .
BEAR: If a tree falls in the forest, and no one sees it. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: But you’re so big—how can you hide?
BEAR: Hide from you guys? Really? Dude, you’re freaking amateurs. We’re wild animals. We’re well camouflaged to blend with the shadows in the forest. And we can smell and hear you a mile off—hear you even without your stupid bear bells. And did you know that we have a better sense of smell than dogs--five times better than that of a bloodhound in fact?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: No, I didn’t know that. So OK, 95% of the time you’re hiding or running away, and you can do that because you’re usually aware of us well before we’re aware of you. Let’s talk about the other 5%.
BEAR: Yeah, about that. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: That.
BEAR: Okay. So—when you do surprise us—which is pretty uncommon—we get freaked out. I mean, you guys are unpredictable and capable of anything. So I bump into one of you guys and I think: is this guy stalking me? Is he packing? Is this the end of me?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Oh, come on.
BEAR: No, really. Homo Sapiens= apex predator. Your ancestors booted our ancestors out of their caves and started wearing our skins, and it’s gone downhill from there. You still hunt us. Nothing has changed—and no, don’t get me started on that Uncle Tom of a bear with the stupid hat that you guys use on the trail kiosk posters, give me a break. So you freak us out, and in a close call the only thing we can think to do is to encourage you to back off before you get any ideas about skinning and eating us--
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: I suppose that’s fair. But it’s still a pretty freaky experience, out in the woods. So tell us how we can all get along. . .
BEAR: Well, for starters, don’t make things worse. Don’t be a dick. We’re already scared, so don’t yell and scream at us, throw things at us, wave hiking poles at us. . .don’t do things that make you appear more unpredictable to us than you already are. If you act like a maniac, can you blame us if we assume you’re going to attack us? All bets are off if you escalate the confrontation.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: OK, I get it, don’t escalate an already bad situation by carrying on like a crazy person. . .
BEAR: And—dude!-- don’t run away.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Why don’t run away?
BEAR: Because it implies you have a guilty conscience and really were messing with us. And that can tempt us to chase you, so that you’ll be even more scared and will tell all your asshat friends not to ever **ck with us bears again. It’s like, “Yeah, YEAH? You want some of this? Huh? You wanna mess with the bears? See what you get when you mess with the bears, hummie? See?!”
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: So what should we do?
BEAR: Abide, dude, abide. Have an ordinary conversation with us. Say Excuse me, bear—you know, show some manners. Be as calm as you can and talk as calmly as you can. Eventually we’ll be able to tell you’re chill and want to be left alone, too. Could take up to five minutes—but that’s one of the most exciting five minutes you’ll ever tell your grandchildren about. Amiright?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: There’s that. But OK, what about that i-phone. . .
BEAR: Er, yeah, well, not all of us are well behaved. Some of us have picked up some bad habits. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: About that. . .
BEAR: Always one bad apple in the bunch. . .and you guys always fixate on the bad apples. I mean, have you actually watched your television news lately?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: OK, good point, train wrecks make good headlines. But trains running smoothly never make the news.
BEAR: Right. And bad boy bears make all the headlines.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Tell me about these delinquent bears.
BEAR: Happens in areas where you guys come to camp a lot. Happens for different reasons—maybe you guys start providing handouts to bears for the fun of it, so you can take bear selfies even though you know you ought not to, or it happens because you carelessly and routinely leave your food around where we can find it. Or maybe you guys get freaked out and drop your backpacks when you see us. So we take advantage and pretty soon we learn how easy it is to tweak you into “dropping the cookies.” But it’s like robbing a convenience store, you know? Not exactly grand theft, but if you do it enough you’ll get caught. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: By the rangers?
BEAR: Yeah. Caught and shot. Sad.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: “A fed bear is a dead bear?”
BEAR: They say that, but can you blame us for wanting to eat?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: So let’s say that a person does everything wrong, and pisses the black bear off, or the bear is a really, really badly behaved bear, and it does attack. Now, you guys outweigh us, you have claws, you’re faster than us, you can swim and climb trees better than us. . .
BEAR: Well, don’t play dead—that’s just plain stupid. If another human being were attacking you, would you play dead? Fight back, dude—what have you got to lose?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: OK, one last scenario. Mother bear and cubs.
BEAR: Human mother and toddlers.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: What?
BEAR: Are your mommas any less protecting of their children? Just don’t be foolish. Don’t assume you know the gender of a bear and its maternity status. If you see bears, or bear cubs, and you aren’t in a confrontation with the bear, walk away immediately and keep going. Don’t make a fuss and scream. Don't linger to take photos. Don't try to get a closer look. Just go. If momma gets upset and confronts you, try talking her down. Be calm. Eventually she’ll probably realize you don’t mean any harm, and she and the cubs will go away. She’s more interested in raising her cubs than she is in getting into a tiff with you. She'd rather you were just somewhere else. Think about it.
Credits: I inserted good links into the interview to back up the bear's assertions. A lot of this information is supported by the research and experience of bear expert Ben Kilham. Read more about Kilham, his research on bear behavior, his publications, and his non-profit bear cub rehabilitation center in New Hampshire here and here. Consider making a donation to support Ben's work with orphaned bear cubs.
Photos: open source, public domain.