By Paula Musto
The first thing Maddy Watson will tell you is that she loves bears and she loves her dogs. The second thing she might mention is that you can never be too prepared when hiking in bear country, which is practically anywhere in Western North Carolina.
Watson is a volunteer with Defenders of Wildlife, a national conservation organization dedicated to protecting wildlife in their native habitats. Recently, while on a local trail with her dog Lennon, the Asheville resident experienced a black bear encounter that demonstrates the importance of knowing bear behaviorism. Here’s her story:
While walking one afternoon, Lennon started acting skittish and I had this gut feeling there was something in the dense, wooded underbrush. We kept on walking anyway, as gray squirrels, various birds and chipmunks are the only wildlife we typically see on our usual trail. Suddenly, a juvenile male black bear stood up out of the foliage.
Keeping calm, I let out a firm, “Hey bear!” and slowly backed away. I never turned my back and continued to speak loudly and firmly. Once Lennon and I were about 40 feet away, the bear dropped to all fours and charged. My brain registered that this was a juvenile but still large, wild animal and it was intentionally charging us.
I went into protection mode and began to yell loudly. The bear stopped mid-charge, backing into the foliage. I knew he wasn’t really gone and that he might greet us again, so I remained alert. Shortly thereafter, he greeted us again, lurching out of the foliage and once again charging. I yelled as sternly as possible, holding my position with my petrified 50-pound pit bull mix behind me. Thankfully, after his second charge, the young bear decided it was in his best interest not to approach us again (a good decision on his part) and we left the area.
Watson described her jolting experience to Ben Prater, southeast program director for Defenders of Wildlife. Amused but not surprised, Prater remarked, “Teenage bears are punks.” Watson suspects the bear she encountered may have been recently “kicked out of the nest” by its mother and was testing the waters to see how big and bad he could be. Such behavior is called “bluff charging,” and happens when a bear decides to size up a human it has encountered to test the person’s reaction. Watson’s response was correct.
“The frightening thing about my experience is that it occurred in an urban area on a trail frequently trafficked by families with small children and dogs of all sizes,” she says. “I wonder about the outcome if this bear had chosen to charge someone unfamiliar with black bear mannerisms and a pet or child had been hurt. The likelihood of having a negative encounter with a bear is slim, but it’s smart to always be prepared.”
A lifelong wildlife conservationist, Watson has made it her mission to tell others about outdoor safety measures to prevent human-wildlife conflict. For our sake and for the sake of the animals.
“As visitors to the wilderness, we must do what we can to ensure we do not come into direct conflict with wildlife,” says Watson. “It can be dangerous for both us and the bear; if a bear attacks or poses a direct threat to humans, more often than not, the animal will be put down.”
Watson offers the following tips to keep you and your pets safe:
• Keep your dog on a leash. This gives you a better chance of controlling your pup. Some bears may interpret aggressive dog behavior as a challenge.
• Carry bear spray and make sure it’s easily accessible. On the day of her close encounter, Watson had packed her spray can deep inside her backpack, out of reach when she needed it.
• If you encounter a black bear, wave your arms and make yourself appear bigger. Yell loudly and speak firmly while backing away slowly. Have your spray in hand ready to engage.
• Letting bears know of your presence is the best way to deter unwanted encounters. Most attacks happen because the bear was startled. Hike in groups of two or more and make noise while on the trail.
• Do not run. Black bears can run at speeds of up to 35 mph, faster than Olympic sprinters.
Grateful she had a positive outcome, Watson cherishes her experience though she’s not sure that Lennon feels the same. “Words cannot express the love I have for these animals, even the rowdy teenage black bear that charged me and my dog,” she says. “To be able to witness firsthand the natural territorial behavior of a juvenile black bear is something I will never forget.”
Paula Musto is a volunteer for Appalachian Wildlife Refuge, a nonprofit committed to wildlife conservation. Visit AppalachianWild.org to learn more about wildlife.