Play dead or fight? The answer might surprise

Posted: Sunday, February 12, 2006

One day in the Yukon, two girls went for a walk.

Sooner or later, a bear started following them.

One girl decided to go for help. The other girl decided to play dead.

Guess who made the right decision?

As the story unfolds, the girl who played dead stayed still while the bear sniffed at her. She continued to lie there as the bear started chewing at her leg.

When others arrived, they scared the bear away pretty much by pitching a chunk of wood at it. The girl survived but was badly injured.

As John Hechtel, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist tells the story, he just happened to be working in Canada around the time of the chewing.

Hechtel, a bear aficionado and regional refuge manager for the state of Alaska, remembers eavesdropping on some Yukoners discussing the bear-chews-girl incident. He was worried to discover that many didn't seem to know it was a bad idea to play dead in that sort of casual bear encounter.

"She was kind of acting like something to eat," he explained.

Of late, Hechtel says he has gotten over his early reluctance to tell people how to behave around bears.

Incidents like the one in the Yukon helped him realize that a lot of people just don't know what to do, he said.

Hechtel spoke to a Juneau crowd on Monday at Centennial Hall in the first of the annual Science for Alaska lectures. He said it doesn't really help them to know "a list of rules" about bear safety if they don't know a little bit about bear psychology.

Two kinds of bears

When you meet a bear, it's a good idea to determine if it is defensive or not, Hechtel told the Juneau crowd.

That bear's attitude toward you could range from one end of the spectrum to the other - from curious to outraged - but if the bear is a defensive bear, steps should be taken to "tell" the bear that you are not a threat, Hechtel says.

That merits a discussion with the bear, in a calm voice.

It may also mean carefully exiting the bear's personal space.

If the bear is moving toward you, it's important to stand your ground, Hechtel says.

If the defensive bear stops moving forward - perhaps bouncing on its legs - that's a good time to slowly back away, seeking to give the bear back its personal space.

There's always a caveat, Hechtel says.

For example, it's critical to understand that your behavior could trigger a change in the bear's attitude. Communication is a two-way street, after all.

For example, a bear may start out peeved that you entered its personal space, but it may decide that you are fun to chase if you turn tail and run.

It might even work to play dead with a defensive bear, he said. That's probably something "rarely to use," Hechtel said.

Hechtel defines nondefensive bears as all kinds of bears except defensive ones.

Here's a sampling:

• Pushy bears: One of the worst things a person can do is fail to stand up to a bear that is being pushy (such as following a person on a trail), he said. That could mean anything from banging two cast-iron skillets together to yelling at the bear to go away.

• Predatory bears: Definitely rare, but he said they must be fought aggressively.

• Curious bears: Standing ground is important; other subtle human body language can let a bear - perhaps a young cub - know when it is coming too close, he said.


When it comes to defending yourself against a bear, the best weapon isn't a bell, spray, or shotgun.

It's your brain, Hechtel said.

Unfortunately, a lot of people don't seem to know what to do, or they know what to do but do something else instead.

"Excessive fear of bears can increase your risk," Hechtel said. On the other hand, so can lack of adequate respect, he added.

Hechtel said it is important to carry a bear deterrent - either a gun or pepper spray - when traveling in bear country.

Pepper spray is a good choice for people who don't feel comfortable wearing a firearm.

One perk of pepper spray is that it can help some people feel more confident in standing their ground, Hechtel said.

Neither gun nor spray should be used against a bear until it has become aggressive, Hechtel said. Another good tool used to keep bears away from a cabin, fish rack or camp is an electrical fence.

Hechtel said a classic case of a person who could have benefited from an electrical fence is Timothy Treadwell. The eccentric young bear activist plopped his camp in the middle of a brown bear trail network in the Katmai National Park wilderness. Treadwell and his female friend were eaten by a brown bear that approached the tent one night.

Another device that can help keep bears from entering a camp area is a Critter Gitter. The device uses an infrared beam to monitor animal movements within a certain zone. If the device is triggered, it emits high-pitched sounds.

If a bear tries to enter a tent, it's a good idea to strike back with whatever you have on hand. Hit it on the snout with a pair of binoculars, Hechtel suggested as one example.

On the other hand, if a bear rambles around the campsite late at night, not bothering anyone, it's probably a good idea to not draw its attention by yelling or kicking in the tent, Hechtel advised.

For more information about bear encounters, Hechtel and others have produced a video called "Staying Safe in Bear Country," available at the Juneau public libraries.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at

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