Lessons from Katmai maulings should be used to prevent other deaths

Pondering recent bear attack

Posted: Friday, October 10, 2003

Earlier this week, two people were killed, then eaten by grizzly bears at Kaflia Lake in Katmai National Park on the Alaska Peninsula the first fatal maulings in Katmai's 80-year history. Then, the bears themselves were shot after threatening the rescue team among the only Katmai bears ever destroyed while being aggressive toward humans.

What a tragically ironic fate for two people who loved bears and wanted nothing more than to protect them. We can only hope that the lessons learned from this will prevent other deaths, both human and bear.

This tragedy hits me personally; for one of the victims, Tim Treadwell, was a friend. It also hits me professionally; for learning to live safely with bears is a passion we shared.

Tim was not a biologist, but a photographer and activist who visited hundreds of schools to teach children about these incredible animals animals that seem as smart as chimpanzees, that can be altruistically generous and which may be self aware.

Of all grizzlies in the world, those at Katmai are among the most tolerant, trusting and respectful of people. Indeed, coastal bears, with access to rich supplies of salmon and other foods, are far easier to live with than Interior bears which compete intensely for scarce foods. Bears treat people much as they treat one another. That's why the attack rate per bear-human encounter is so much lower on the coast than inland, and why we can view bears on the coasts much more safely than elsewhere.

No one in a tight group of more than six people has ever been mauled, and even groups of four are nearly always safe, so long as they behave wisely. With proper precautions, bear viewing on the Alaska Peninsula is safer than flying there and back. (A viewer/guide certification program is under development.)

The National Park Service is working diligently with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and with public organizations like the Bear Viewing Association to develop guidelines that adequately protect people and bears without being overly restrictive. Had Tim abided by these guidelines, he and his lady might be alive today.

Tim did not study bears as a scientist, but as their pal, as someone who loved them as much as anyone can love a pet or even a human friend. He believed that the bears were equally fond of him. He felt a spiritual bond. I can understand that; I feel it, too.

Yet even the most loving and lovable animals and people have the capacity for anger, fear and violence. If 2-year-old children had the strength and weaponry of 2-year-old grizzlies, few parents would survive their kids' temper tantrums. Worse, in a world with killer humans and dogs, it should be no surprise to find a few human-killing bears.

Tim knew this intellectually, but maybe not at the gut level. As recently as last July, he told me yet again that no bear would ever hurt anyone who genuinely loved them; unfortunately, humans are not the only objects of unrequited love. In particular, Tim believed bears wouldn't harm anyone who wasn't threatening them.

He gently criticized me for carrying pepper spray, although he agreed that bears naturally learn to avoid misbehaving by being punished for it. Being sprayed by a person does less damage them being swatted or bitten by another bear.

He also chuckled about people using an electric fence to protect their camp, claiming that normal bears don't come at night looking for people to eat. Not normal bears, perhaps; but what about abnormally predatory bears?

We don't yet know why Tim and Amie Huguenard were killed. Was it an accident? Was the bear angry at something else and took out his frustration on them? Was it simply angry by having people around?

Dominance attacks that merely hurt another bear can kill a human. Then, once a person is bleeding, screaming and struggling like prey, a bear may react accordingly. Once a person dies, meat is meat. Bears naturally scavenge dead bodies, animal or human as happened a few years ago to two people who drowned at Katmai.

Or, horror of horrors, were Tim and Amie hunted down as prey? One of the bears was an old emaciated male who may have been desperate to consume fat for his upcoming hibernation.

A second mystery is whether the bears that were found eating Tim and Amie were the one(s) that killed them. There are many grizzlies in the area.

Although I mourn Tim's failure to adequately protect himself and Amie from the occasional anger and rare predation by these bears, I salute his spirit. If he could speak from beyond the grave, he would surely hope that people would learn from any mistakes he may have made; he would wish that his death, like his life, would help teach people to live more safely and harmoniously with bears.

Would Tim and Amie have survived if they'd stayed farther from bears, chosen a safer camp site, and used the right kinds of electric fence and pepper spray? Possibly. I bet my own life on these precautions every year when I research bear behavior. (The only sprays I personally depend on are Bear Pause and Pepper Power.) But separation, site selection, fencing and spray aren't all I depend on. A fence can be barged through or jumped over. Pepper spray isn't brains in a can. Even firearms have limited effectiveness and are illegal in national parks.

Every adult and every child in bear country should learn basic skills and knowledge about why bears attack and how to avoid this for instance, by reading "Living in Harmony With Bears," a free pamphlet available from the Audubon Society Web site or by mail from Audubon's Anchorage office.

People likely to encounter bears should dig deeper and learn more for instance, by taking my course "Bears and Bear Safety" offered at the University of Alaska Kenai Peninsula and Mat-Su campuses or by reading my books "Alaska's Most Dangerous Game: Living Safely With Bears and Moose" and "Beauty Within the Beast: Kinship With Bears in the Alaska Wilderness."

Other key resources are "Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance" by Steve Herrero; the video "Staying Safe in Bear Country" by Herrero and John Hechtel, a biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game in Palmer; U.S. Geological Survey bear attack researcher Tom Smith's Web site at www.absc.usgs.gov/

research/brownbears/attacks; and the Inter-national Bear Association Web site at www.bearbiology.org.

Dr. Stephen F. Stringham, who lives in Soldotna, is a professor at the University of Alaska, director of the Bear Viewing Association, president of WildWatch Consulting and author of two books on living safely with bears. He was one of the first biologists to study bears at Katmai and has spent much of the past 30 years learning how to read a bear's mood and intentions, so that dangerous encounters can be avoided or resolved without harm to people or bears.



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