Understanding Bear Behavior


Understanding, Mitigating and Managing Black Bear Behavior

By Ben Kilham

ChapteR from new book as yet unpublished

Copyright 2007 Ben Kilham

All rights reserved



My intention in this chapter is not to sell you some fancy way of dealing with nuisance bears; rather, I would like to empower you with the knowledge of how to read bear behavior, understand it and, when possible, how to apply it to manipulate bear behavior in the field. But first, we have to understand the basic principles of animal behavior, which are common to all species, including humans. For example, from observing a fish, we can learn how a bear or a human will react under certain conditions. Bears are not aliens from Mars, nor are we. We are all animals. I stress this because, from our own experiences with other people and our pets, we can draw an understanding of how that behavior applies to bears.

“The signaling behavior of animals can be compared with the crying of a human baby, or with the involuntary expressions of anger or fear in humans of all ages. We know that such ‘emotional language’ in Man is different from deliberate speech. The ‘language’ of animals is of the level of our ‘emotional language’.” (Tinbergen, 1974)


We can get to understand the emotional communications of animals, including bears, and then use this knowledge to modify their behavior with our own actions. It has been recognized since the time of Charles Darwin that any sound that is generated through the larynx of any bird or mammal is an “honest” sound. These sounds are emotional communications that are tied directly to the central nervous system. As humans, we pay little attention to this means of communication because of our fondness for intentional language and culture; yet, subconsciously, we receive and emit these emotional messages all the time. When enraged, all animals make harsh sounds; in contrast, they use soft-toned noises to make appeasement vocalizations. This form of communication also includes body language; we can sit down with other humans throughout the world and communicate our emotional states without any knowledge of each other’s language. The ear movements of a horse and those of a bear have the same meaning. Basic expressions on the face of humans and bears have the same general meaning, whether it is a pleasant facial expression, a frown or pure stink-eye. The mood of the bear can be determined by observation.



Now that we understand how bears communicate emotionally and honestly, we can take a look at how and why they communicate intentionally and how they lie or bluff. Intentional communications made to bluff, deceive or to alter another’s behavior are generated another way, through mechanical sounds or an action. The “squared-off lip” (i.e. the lip is drawn forward and appears square; the face looks long) is the switch, which is followed by any of the following actions in varying degrees of intensity: the chomping of teeth or lips, snorting or woofing (blowing air through the nose or mouth), huffing (inhaling and exhaling air rapidly), the swat and the false charge. Through the evolutionary process, this behavior has developed in bears over the last six million years, as ritualistic displays that help reduce the chance of attack; behaviorist Niko Tinbergen notes that these type of displays are used to intimidate or simply to increase or maintain distance. However, this behavior does not reflect the bear’s true mood. Bears are able to turn this behavior on and off like a light switch; it is deliberate.

Bears also use these same behaviors to communicate intentionally in a number of different contexts.  They can be used to intimidate, to modify behavior, or show displeasure.  They are also applied with a wide range of intensity reflecting the level of the bears concern.  Moods, on the other hand, come and go very slowly, e.g. once we become angry and it may take us a bit of time to cool off. It is necessary to analyze the bear’s mood when it is not displaying and its intentions when it is then apply both to the context of the situation. It may be a tough concept to apply in the field, but being false-charged or bluffed by a bear is actually a good thing; it means you have time to analyze its intentions and modify its displeasure or fear.

One reason bears perform these ritualistic or intentional displays to inhibit aggressiveness. As bears occupy very extensive areas and meet face-to-face infrequently, the ritual use of chomps, huffs and false charges actually serves to deter attacks that might occur were these displays lacking. As humans, we have our own rituals to repress aggressiveness. For example, we might offer a handshake to strangers or people we haven’t seen for a while. We do the same with strange animals we meet; we greet them too. Recently, a friend of mine who was helping restore an old barn was angry and offended when the owner of the barn came on site, walked by all of the workers and spoke only to the engineer. They perceived the owner to be an arrogant snob and might have quit had they not needed the work. In reality, he was terribly shy. The lack of standard aggression-inhibiting rituals brought on an aggressive response by the workers. Granted, the bear’s rituals of snorting, chomping, huffing and false charging are not as cordial as ours, but both serve the same purpose, i.e. they inhibit potential aggressive action.

Such ritualistic or intentional behavior in bears occurs whenever two unfamiliar individuals come together. Scientists have tried for years to define this behavior as belonging to various distinct categories, including aggressiveness, threat and even fear. In reality, it is not possible to draw one single specific meaning from this behavior because of the wide range of circumstances under which these displays are used; these acts are context specific. Here are just a few examples of these types of displays:

When a new cub is put into a cage with other unrelated individuals at our rehab facility, they will all display initially, but they become friends within hours. The display inhibits attack and allows time for communication and friendship to take place.

When Squirty, the female bear that I raised and have worked with in the wild for 13 years, first meets a mate, they are both unfamiliar with each other.  As a result, they both display with chomps, huffs and false charges. These displays may last for extended period of time, but as time goes on, they start making soft inviting vocalizations while still displaying, and they end up mating. Again, the display inhibits attack, which allows for communication and mating.

When Squirty has young cubs and wants me to leave, she displays, letting me know her intent without having to attack. Should I disregard her signals, she may kick it up a notch by cocking her ears, charging and giving me a face-to-face “huh,huh,huh,huh” vocalization. Under normal circumstances, she will also use a greatly modified false charge or give me a mock-bite in an attempt to let me know that it is time to leave. I consider these gestures that constitute a motivational use of ritualistic displays. The intentional display is used to convey a message or prevent an attack. Wild bears have also been known to use these displays to motivate people to drop food or knapsacks.


I’m often asked at this point; “how do you know the bear is false-charging and not attacking?” The false charge is done in combination with other bluff displays, like chomping, huffing and snorting and depending on the situation usually reflects the bear’s desire to delay or avoid direct confrontation.  Having said that, it is possible to escalate this kind of situation into an attack by acting in a reckless manner while in a bears’ critical distance (when a bear stands and displays rather than flees.)  Reckless behavior would breaking sticks, yelling or screaming, making yourself big by raising or waiving ones arms, or basically doing anything in which you could not anticipate a correct response.  A safe response would be to de-escalate the situation by standing erect and talking softly to the bear; signaling to the bear that you are dominate and not a threat.

In contrast, predators silently stalk their prey to avoid being detected. Predacious attacks by bears, however, are extremely rare.  I’ve watched Squirty stalk another bear that she planned to attack in order to punish.  While undetected by the other bear, she moved ever so slowly, carefully setting each of her feet on the ground and often stopping in mid stride.  Her ears were erect and facing forward as she closed the distance on her unsuspecting victim.  At the appropriate distance, she charged.  Her younger and more agile victim took off ahead of her and led the chase to and up a large white pine where she was able to take refuge out on a limb.  There was a motive for this attack as there are for all actions taken by bears.  In this case Squirty was punishing and educating her granddaughter for not understanding Squirty’s rules for sharing a portion of her home range.  Squirty was assigning her granddaughter her place in the family hierarchy.


Another behavior I have seen in male bears is what I call testing dominance.  Male bears when they first leave their mothers have little self-confidence and are prone to be propelled into dispersal after almost any conflict.  As they grow and mature they must develop a high enough level of confidence to challenge the largest and most dominant males in order to have an opportunity to mate.  As a result, between the ages of 2 and 7 they will actively challenge each other and sometimes other species to test their own levels of self-confidence or dominance.  This behavior is not unlike the behavior of some high school aged boys as their testosterone level begin to rise.

Squirty’s brother, Boy, came toward me in a confident prance after he returned from three weeks out of the area.  I did not see this behavior again until the large male that was courting Squirty in the “Bear Man” film came towards me the day she was to ovulate.


A bear that is surprised while its senses are compromised, e.g. while eating, may strike out without warning (dogs do the same thing); other than that, in my experience, bear signal their intentions.  In situations where bears are feeding on a carcass, they are concerned about other bears that may be attracted to the carcass by smell.  If a human suddenly appears in this situation he may trigger a preconditioned attack from a bear that was expecting that the situation might attract another bear.


It is important not to do anything to which you cannot predict the reaction of the bear, particularly when the animal seems reluctant to leave and is in close proximity (normally less than 25 feet). In relation to bears and many other animals, this distance is known as “critical distance” – outside this distance, bears are likely to flee; within this distance, they are hesitant as to whether they should attack in self-defense or flee, and a conflicted bear in this situation will perform the ritual displays described above. My advice is to stand erect, eyes toward the bear; don’t try to stare the bear down, have a normal expression on your face, and talk softly. Standing erect and keeping eyes toward the bear will keep him or her honest. Bears, like dogs and humans, may choose to enforce dominance when the opportunity arises. If you show weakness (by lowering your eyes, turning your back to them, lying down on the ground, or showing fear), they are more likely to take advantage and advance on you.

Think of someone you know who has been bitten by a dog, this person has probably been bitten more than once. Perhaps more commonly, your own dog only gets aggressive towards certain people or dogs, and not others. In both cases, the victim is sending submissive signals. Fear is your worst enemy when working with animals because they can sense it. If you are fearful, you are also unpredictable, and being unpredictable makes you a threat to the animal before you. On the contrary, talking softly conveys an appeasement message that the bear will understand, not the words, of course, but the tone. Talking softly will also help calm you down.

My advice of keeping your eyes on the bear conflicts with almost every other message given about what to do when you are in close proximity to a bear. I look at the bear to remain dominant (please refer to Case Study 3) while I decrease the threat level with my voice. Remember, predators attack from behind. Moths and butterflies have eyespots on their wings to deter predators. I believe the light brown patches behind cubs’ ears act as eye-marks to protect them from predators when they are too small to defend themselves. In the Sundarbans region in India, 200 people a year are lost to tiger predation. The victims are mostly woodcutters who are so involved cutting wood they were easy prey for the tigers. The wardens, who also work in the forest, were rarely taken – they stood erect and were watchful. As a solution to the problem, the woodchoppers were given eye-masks to wear on the backs of their heads.

The argument for averting stare is that a direct stare is aggressive and may provoke an attack. My experience tells me that this is not the case. The bear that gets too close is usually a sow with cubs. Her concern is how much of a threat you are. She is perfectly capable of assessing that threat. Give her a chance, and she will walk away from you, sometimes even leaving her cubs up a tree near you. I’ve been inside that critical distance with more than a dozen wild sows with cubs, and spent as much as 2.5 hours with them peacefully after being false-charged. Every female will have a different level of aggressiveness. Most of those wild sows and cubs that I have been with ran and hid nearby, waiting for me to leave.

Squirty is fairly aggressive, and has taught me a few things about being around sows and cubs. She has had five sets of cubs in the wild and is much more aggressive when her cubs are small than when they are older. The one thing I don’t want to do is scare her cubs. If I do, I get an immediate aggressive response. Yelling and screaming to scare a female bear away may inadvertently scare her cubs and could escalate the situation or trigger an attack. These animals are only dangerous if you make them so; the situation is in your control!

When you have an encounter with a bear, it is always important to try and put yourself “in its shoes”. Does the bear have any reason to harm you? Have you provoked the bear intentionally or unintentionally? Is the bear already nervous about other bears in the area?  Remember that bears, like all other animals, including humans, have four major drives: hunger, love, fight and flight (Lorenz, 1963). These drives are usually in conflict with each other.

You meet a sow with cubs on a trail, and you are torn between running and standing your ground. She is torn between running and attacking to defend her cubs. She would like to run, but her cubs are up a tree. She chooses to display aggressively in an effort to prevent you from attacking. You would like to run, but you know that she can run faster. You try to relax knowing that being fearful could be seen as a threat. You speak softly to her as a gesture of appeasement. She acknowledges your gesture by reducing the intensity of her displays. Eventually, be patient and allow the situation to resolve itself, she stops displaying altogether and her true mood is revealed with a relaxed facial expression. She slowly walks off. For obvious reasons, the drive to escape is generally stronger than the drive to fight; if she fights, she could be wounded or even killed.


The most dominant drive in a bear’s life is the drive to eat. Bears eat to store fat that they need to hibernate, reproduce, grow and endure food shortages. The bear’s need for food can be compared to some people’s greed for money; the temptation to take advantage of easy pickings is strong and often risky. My behavioral model demonstrates that bears have friendly relations with other bears that share food with them and combative relations with ones that don’t. It is my opinion that this is the reason why bears habituate to humans as easily as they do. The greater the number of people that bears receive food from, the greater the level of habituation (tolerance). My bear Squirty receives food treats only from me (not at my house, but in the forest where I meet her); she trusts no other human.  Although, Squirty like any other bear, could be corrupted with the irresponsible use of food. Through her life experience, she has become familiar with me as an individual, but has not become habituated or tolerant of people in general.

Bears actively share their resources, whether they are old moose bones, a berry patch or a birdfeeder. Temporal marking posts can be found at all of these sites, where the bears back-rub and bite saplings or trees to mark their claim to usage and the time they were there. The function of these posts is to facilitate friendships and avoid conflicts. The biting of the marked tree releases sap. The aromatic qualities of the evaporating sap advertise the site and the bear’s mark. Bears learn very quickly from other bears, both from the presence of scent from different individuals and from the experience of traveling with others. They learn through both olfactory and visual imitation. The latter is the main method used in human learning and is also an indication of an extremely high level of intelligence (the results of my work indicate that a bear’s intelligence is very close to that of a chimpanzee for reasons discussed elsewhere in the book). Bears also advertise food by means of networks of trails. These are not only visually apparent for over a mile from active feeding sites, but olfactory trails can also be followed from great distances away.  Bears routinely follow each other to find surplus food.

Bears are very conscious of their own security and prefer to feed where they feel most secure. This explains why they feed extensively in cornfields when there has been a mast failure and why they tend to take the birdfeeder into the bushes to eat the seeds. The drive to eat often leads the bear into risky behavior. Walking out into the open and entering someone’s yard constitutes very risky behavior indeed, and the bears are highly aware of that. They are usually timid and cautious; yet, in your backyard, their behavior is seemingly bold. Their drive to eat overcomes their drive to flee. These bears are out of their element. Constantly evaluating potential threats, they are looking for signs of aggression from the humans whose space they are invading, but they are not getting any.  Access to surplus food without aggression is a green light for bears.  People have been conditioned by years of media, myth and lore as to how dangerous these bears are and, as a result, choose to cower behind their sliding glass doors. Others are lured in by the bears’ peaceful expressions and mistakenly offer them more food. In either situation, the bears feel welcome.


Behaviorists have long known that the further an animal is from the center of its home-range, the more likely it is to flee rather than fight, and vice versa. Consider the Iraqis’ behavior when they were in Kuwait during the Gulf War versus when the U.S. invaded Iraq – they fled from Kuwait, but they chose to fight in Iraq, i.e. in their own territory. As Lorenz (1974) noted in his research on territories, as distance from an animal’s headquarters increases, the readiness to fight decreases proportionately as the surroundings become stranger and more intimidating to the individual. Tinbergen (1953) noticed similar behavior while observing fighting in sticklebacks, and reported that whether a stickleback fights depends entirely on where it is. When in its own territory, it attacks all trespassing rivals. When outside its territory, it will flee from the very same male, which it would attack when at home.

So why don’t we simply chase the bears away? The answer is, we don’t dare because we are not sure how they will respond. This uncertainty stems from the lack of scientific research on bear behavior and its low priority in the world of bear management. As a result, traditional methods of aversive conditioning of bears have been reactive and anthropocentric; i.e. many of these methods make a lot of sense to us, but make no sense to the bear. The truth is, in order to make the bear respond, we have to teach it how we want it to respond. I have fired guns over my cubs’ heads, and they just sit there without responding – they don’t watch TV; they haven’t learned how to respond. Poppers, bangers and rubber bullets… their effectiveness is only marginal because bears habituate to them eventually; they have to be taught to respond to them. Yet, I have watched two female bears have one encounter and respect each other’s marks for a whole year.

The lesson here is that bears respond to individuals, not to mechanical devices.  To make pyrotechnics and other devices effective must first personally establish dominance, that is, get the bear to turn and run.  The application of a device must be applied within 1.2 seconds of the act that it is meant to enforce.  This means that if devices are used generally without establishing dominance, they will have very little effect on the bear.  Dominance is established simply by pursuing the bear until he flees or run a way, the more persistent the pursuit, the more effective the engagement.  Bears mange their own resources with persistence, aggression and non-aggression.  Surplus food is expected to be shared and each bear uses persistence, aggression and non-aggression on other individuals to establish their place in the bears’ society.


When a bear seeks food from a human source, it in its own mind is not breaking any rules.  In the bears’ world there is an expectation that surplus food is shared, not only is there an expectation to share there is a corresponding expectation of reciprocity.  As a result, the sharing of food carries message of friendship and trust.  There is abundant evidence of this trust and friendship when humans share food with bears.  We as humans should understand this behavior, as it is a very important part of our own culture.  We invite friends over for dinner; we have community dinners and even state dinners, all symbolic of trust and friendship.  We don’t invite people over for dinner then call the police to accuse them of stealing food.  The behavioral message is simple, the best way to end what we consider the nuisance behavior of bears, just stop inviting them to dinner.  Bears punish each other to manage the sharing of surplus food.  One way we as humans can manage the bear nuisance problem is by punishing those who leave food and other attractants out that attract bears, then complain about bears’ actions when they show up for dinner.

The point is that our forests, for a number of reasons, fail to meet the food requirements for all of the bears all of the time.  Some of the reasons can be related directly to how we manage the land.  We tend to build our housing in the valleys, which is where their summer vegetative foods grow.  Jack-in-the-pulpit is New Hampshire's prime summer food for black bears.  Its root or corm is more nutritious than beechnuts or acorns.  It brings bears and humans closer than any other food source.  Bears will feed jack-in-the pulpit very close to residential properties with adequate cover and with very little risk.  The problem comes when people leave high quality food out in higher quantities and attract the bears to take on increase risk.  The summer vegetative foods would normally act as a buffer against failures of soft mast crop, but because human development has destroyed or impaired so much of this critical habitat, bears often have little or nothing to eat during food shortages or failures.  Bears are very intelligent and share information about food naturally; there isn't any loose human food that they can't find.  The loss of natural and critical summer habit, which would have acted as a buffer for other crop failures, the bears have simply replaced with loose human foods.   The bear population has benefited from the logging of the second growth forest creating short-term surpluses in the food supply, and suffered from over harvest of hard mast trees.  Generally, under these conditions, the bear population has responded and grown, only increasing the problems caused by the loss of critical summer habitat to residential development.

The single largest motivating force for a bear is food.  Currently bears are taking tremendous risks in order to secure food during natural food shortages.  The food that is available during these shortages is residential birdfeeders and garbage and agricultural crops.


There is no single technique that will resolve human-bear conflicts in the long term, whether you are using a human dominance technique, trapping and relocating individuals, or even shooting nuisance bears. We have a problem because residential areas with birdfeeders, garbage and other attractants often become the highest quality bear habitat. Removal of bears from these areas will only create an opportunity for the next bear to occupy the newly available habitat niche. The only real solution is to reduce the quality of this residential habitat by removing or securing sources of human food, such as birdfeeders, garbage and animal feed. All of these foods have two to three times the caloric value per unit of any natural foods and are offered in high volumes in most residential backyards. It is not unusual to find 5-35 pounds of black-oil, sunflower seeds out at a times or that much food in a garbage can. Dumpsters often have huge volumes of food and offer, as much as 40 to 100 pounds a week.

Bears, like all animals, prioritize the food they eat according to quality and quantity, as well as the risk involved attaining it. This explains why bears exhibit more nuisance behavior in months or years of natural food shortages than they do when abundant natural foods are available to them. If the food sources in problem residential areas are reduced to a minimum, these areas will no longer be worth the risk to the bear and the problems will cease. Consequently, the solution to the problem is not so much about managing bears, but about managing people.



Here are a few case studies that demonstrate how not understanding bear behavior can get you in real trouble:

Case Study One was originally reported on NBC’s Dateline, A Survivor’s Story. A man from New Mexico was driving along when his car broke down. As he was walking in search of help, he heard some noise off the road and thought it was a family camping that might have a cell phone. Instead, he bumped into a female black bear and her three cubs. She false-charged and he ran for a tree. She ran after him and bit him in the legs and buttocks. He climbed up the tree, she climbed up after him and knocked him out of the tree. She bailed out of the tree and met him on the ground. At this point, and even though he was covered in blood, he realized he had done something wrong – he shouldn’t have run. He finally stood up and looked at her in the eyes. That was the end of the story; she averted the stare and walked off.

[B. Kilham: Our friend in this case study invited the attack by running and climbing a tree. Once he realized he had made a mistake, he stood up to the bear and had the power to end the incident. A similar conflict between two female bears would go like this: The dominant female would run after the sub-dominant female, who would run away from her and end up high on a tree. Given the opportunity, the dominant female will plant a single canine into the other bear’s rear leg, a bite intended to communicate and establish dominance. Most of the yearling bears that I have followed post-release got this treatment, and I have myself experienced the use of “mock-bites” or “message-bites” by bears a few times.]

Case Study Two was published in Outdoor Life (Nov. 2003) and titled “Death Trap”, by William D. Brown. Caught between a sow and her cubs, a hunter finds himself in a fight for his life. Before going hunting, the author, Bill, and his outfitter, Sam, have a conversation about bears. Sam explains that a person was more likely to survive a grizzly attack than a black bear attack. In his experience, a person mauled by a grizzly was usually bitten and battered, but left to die and ripen before being eaten, whereas a black bear would kill outright and feed immediately.

[B. Kilham: Being fearful around animals invites an attack. This discussion was macho and just plain stupid.]

Later on, while Bill is busy with the hunt, he hears a commotion in a blow-down. Thinking it might be a bull moose rubbing its antlers, he moves downwind and advances towards the sound. At about 30 yards, he sees an aspen moving. “The grunts and heavy moaning had my adrenaline flowing. I carefully readied my rifle and raised my head for a peek. Two good-sized black bear cubs were playing in the trees. One was up the tree and the other one on the ground, not more than 20 yards from me. ‘Cute,’ I thought, then… ‘Oh no; where’s the sow?’ My mind was racing, and I heard movement behind me. I turned my head and saw her standing on her hind legs looking right at me. I was directly between her and the cubs. No doubt she was also getting a good nose-full of my scent, since I had so skillfully maneuvered downwind of the cubs, while she, in turn, had probably heard me and moved downwind of me. The hunter becomes the hunted.”

[B. Kilham: Fear and false-courage, drawn from being armed, rule the hunter’s mind. He is already anticipating that the bear is going to attack him. As it turns out, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. At this point, the bear doesn’t know that he is a threat. A bear standing on its hind legs is seeking more information, usually trying to locate scent. The hunter is inside her critical distance and, had he been trained in behavior as you are, should expect that the bear will display with chomps, snorts, huffs, swats and false-charges. If he had held his ground, kept his eyes on the bear and tried to calm himself and the bear down by talking softly to it, this encounter would have ended right here… but it didn’t.]

“I waited for a moment, dumbfounded. Then she charged. I jumped to my feet, waived my arms and hollered. The bear stopped and milled around. I fully expected her to run, as have other black bears I’ve encountered. She might have, except my hollering scared the heck out of the cubs. They started caterwauling, and scampered up a tree. The sow bounced forward a couple of times, snorting.”

[B. Kilham: Having misread the sow’s ritual charge as a real one, our hunter becomes a much greater threat by scaring the cubs. The stiff-legged bouncing is a heightened response to what the sow perceives to be an escalated threat.]

“I shouldered my rifle. She stopped about 30 feet from me and again stood up on her hind legs, sniffing the air. Then she dropped to mill around some more. I started to ease myself toward the trail. She continued to blow and snort and hold her ground.”

[B. Kilham: At this point he still could have salvaged the situation by holding his position, maintaining eye-contact and talking softly to her. She is still displaying, although with much greater intensity.]

“Without turning my back on her, I slowly moved away. I really didn’t want to be forced to shoot a sow with cubs.”

[B. Kilham: Not wanting to shoot her was noble, but backing away at this point was not going to be effective because our hunter has done nothing to lessen himself as a threat. Remember, she is perfectly capable of reading his behavior, and he is still scared and unpredictable. If she attacks, it is going to be in defense of herself and her cubs.]

“I moved off slowly, and had put about 30 yards between the sow and myself when she came at me again, crow hopping and, this time, snapping her teeth. I took off my hat, threw it in her direction and made ready to fire. She grabbed the hat and ripped it apart.”

[B. Kilham: Throwing the hat is an example of doing something without knowing what the response will be. He still had an opportunity to lessen his threat level. This poor fellow is still going in the wrong direction. As long as the bear is displaying, there is an opportunity to influence the outcome of the situation.]

“Then she ambled off in a direction parallel to mine. The cubs were still in the tree raising a ruckus. I was feeling more comfortable with the distance between the sow and myself.”

[B. Kilham: He had no reason to feel more comfortable – he still had done nothing to lessen himself as a threat. He’s toast.]

“I thought it would give me time to aim and shoot, should she charge. I was wrong. She was on me in the blink of an eye. Bears may seem slow as they lumber, moving both of their legs on each side at the same time, sort of rolling along. But not this time! To me, the sow looked like a fur rug in flight, shaking all over, teeth snapping. I remember trying to shoulder my gun, but it was too late. With the gun held low in my hands, she hit me. The rifle roared, its barrel buried deeply into her chest. The recoil and the force of her blow knocked me backwards. As I fell, I dropped the rifle and the bear was on top of me.” He ultimately killed the bear and was not injured in the attack.

[B. Kilham: If our hunter had spent some time and effort trying to understand bear’s behavior, this whole incident could have been avoided. When he first saw the sow, he should have held his ground, kept his eyes on her and talked to her softly. This fellow had the odds against him by entering the woods with preconceived and erroneous notions about how black bears attack and how dangerous it really is to stand between a sow and her cubs. These notions led him to be fearful and believe that his gun was the only thing that could protect him. When he hollered and scared the cubs, he escalated the problem, but he still had an opportunity to communicate to her that he was not a threat. He continued to worsen the situation by keeping his fear up. She continued to display, giving him an opportunity to respond. Ultimately, his actions brought about the attack.]

Case Study Three tells us about Mourn Maughan, a woman from Idaho Falls, Idaho, that was attacked by a black bear in Grand Teton National Park. The authorities tried to trap the bear. The incident was posted on 7th September 1998. The cinnamon-colored bear with unusual white claws gave 22-year-old Ms. Maughan an injury to her head after encountering the bear as she rounded a corner on the trail near String Lake. Maughan said she was making noise to warn wildlife, but the bear apparently didn’t hear it. She said the bear was 40 to 50 feet away when it rose on its hind legs. Maughan apparently did everything right – she backed away slowly and averted her gaze – but the bear approached her.

[B. Kilham: If she had held her ground and kept the bear honest with her eyes, the bear would not have approached her.]

She rolled up into the fetal position. The bear sniffed around her and then bit her on the head. 

[B. Kilham: Her second mistake was to get into a defensive position before the bear attacked. Had she stayed on her feet and maintained eye contact, she would not have been injured. Under stress, our victim could not remember when she was supposed to get into the defensive position and as a result, invited the bear to bite her. This is why I put so much stress on the importance of understanding the bear’s behavior and learning to make clear decisions in the field. Our victim’s next action invites the bear for a swim.]

Maughan then rolled off the lakeside trail and down into the lake. She started swimming, but the bear came after her. Fortunately, before the bear reached her, it was scared away by the shouts of another hiker.

According to the Associated Press, Grand Teton National Park officials used two oversized barrel traps baited with meat in an effort to catch the bear. This may have been the same bear that attacked and bit two hikers near Jackson Lake in early June. In that attack, the bear had been pursued by picture-taking tourists. The bear encountered the hikers in its flight-path.

[B. Kilham: Walking towards a bear is an aggressive act and may have an aggressive result when a picture-taking tourist does it unintentionally. In this sort of situation, the bear is likely to feel dominant.]


Darwin C. 1965. The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animal. The University of Chicago Press. Chicago, Illinois
Tinbergen N. 1953. Social Behavior in Animals. John Wiley and Sons. NY, NY
Tinbergen N. 1973. The Animal in its World, Explorations of an Ethologist 1932-1972. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA
Lorenz K. 1963. On Aggression. Harcourt, Brace & World. NY, NY

Kilham B 2002, Among the Bears.  Henry Holt and Company. NY, NY