Bear and human combination only funny in cartoons

Posted: Friday, April 22, 2005

Two bears run through a cartoon landscape carrying a couple of recently stolen picnic baskets. Close on their heels is an annoyed park ranger, upset that the resident clowns of his nature preserve have again pulled a fast one.

A funny scene — and, of course, total fiction.

In reality, interactions between humans and bears when food is involved rarely turn out to be anything but tragic.

Every summer on the Kenai Peninsula, someone is invariably injured or killed in a bear attack.

As Alaska's back yard, the peninsula annually offers hundreds of thousands of people the unique opportunity to experience nature in its most raw form. Moose, bald eagles and bears are neighbors with whom we're lucky enough to share our home.

However, with the casual familiarity of living in a land teeming with natural wonders also comes some level of responsibility.

It's hard to imagine how the recent bear attack on a Soldotna jogger could have been prevented. Sometimes, bad luck and timing can lead anyone into a potentially deadly encounter with Mother Nature. But the incident does afford us the chance to again examine our relationship with bears and remind ourselves of some simple things we can do to prevent similar attacks from occurring.

During the spring, bears are cranky and groggy. They've spent an entire winter slumbering inside their dens, living off the fat reserves they built up during a summer of gorging on salmon. Now they're thin and hungry, and likely wandering around unfamiliar territory in search of an easy meal.

The bear that attacked the jogger was believed to be feeding on a winter kill moose carcass. But biologists also believe it may have eaten oats — a food that doesn't grow wild here on the peninsula.

The first thing people can do to reduce conflicts between man and bear is to make sure all potential food sources are secure and inaccessible to bruins.

Bird feeders, trash cans and pet food often serve as cheap meals for these bears. And the more time bears spend associating humans with food, the worse the results usually are — for man and beast.

When surprised, bears — like all animals — must make an instant decision on whether to run or fight. Another way people can prevent bear attacks is to not scare them.

When moving through bear country on the peninsula — virtually everywhere outside the cities and towns — people should make every effort to watch the trail ahead of them and make a bit of noise from time to time.

Bears don't normally want to be anywhere near people, and by letting them know you're nearby, they'll usually have enough time to get out of your way.

Not all brushes with bears are avoidable. Sometimes people simply happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It's for these times that pepper spray can be a valuable tool to carry.

Many people like to carry guns into the wild, but a gun often isn't nearly as practical as a dose of spray when dealing with an angry bear. A bullet may not stop a bear, while pepper spray seems to be highly effective in turning them away.

Remembering bear basics is something everyone should do this summer. Bears are a wonderful neighbor, and we're lucky to live in a place that's home to a thriving wild population.

But they need to be left alone.

The biggest thing the public as a whole can do to prevent dangerous bear encounters is to ensure that bears don't have access to human food. Secure garbage, don't leave pet food out and never leave food out while camping.

Remember, a bear carrying a picnic basket may be funny in cartoons, but in reality it's no laughing matter. Please, don't feed the bears.

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