By Pete Zamplas- “Pisgah” the black bear gave me a sudden first-hand experience dealing with a bear up close, when he came up to my front door just before I opened it.
I heard rustling on the front patio, on a night before Thanksgiving. Thinking it was again the neighbor’s wandering cat, I instinctively opened the door and was ready to shoo the trespasser away with words and gestures.
Instead, there was Pisgah who is part of a bear family that roams my neighborhood in Flat Rock. I was about to head out the door, and drive into town. With the front door wide open and having no screen, there was only about two feet of air between the two of us.
Pisgah stood still, on his four paws. He and I looked at each other. One of us would flinch and flee.
What to do? Summoning lessons from wildlife officers and others in dealing with bears, I promptly put them into action.
One instinct was to slam the door, before the big young male barged into my house and wrecked havoc. In the entrance area were two large fish tanks, with tasty snacks for Pisgah.
Closing the door is a start, but not a cure-all. Some bears are clever enough to turn door knobs, as some videos on Youtube have shown. And Pisgah might be strong enough to burst in, despite locks. Further, this was a dangerous precedent and one does not want the bear to feel comfortable enough to return to the doorstep time and again.
So, it sure seemed best to somehow get Pisgah away from my door. This was a challenge of willpower. Just before slamming the door, I yelled at Pisgah as if he was that cat. “Go, go!!” I waved arms aggressively, and briskly slammed the door.
Next, I growled. Might as well sound like a bigger, badder bear. As a bonus, I barked loudly and in a deep voice as if I was a huge attack dog.
That combination worked. Pisgah scampered away. Whew! He has not returned to my doorstep in nearly two months since then, as far as I can tell.
They say to scare a bear or at least get to a standstill, both project much noise and motion. Reach up and wave arms. Bears are known to have limited eyesight. Thus a bear might mistake your flailing arms as an extension of your body height and width, and think you are super-sized and a worthy combat adversary. Think Paul Bunyan!
But what if the bear does not back down? Slowly retreating (ideally back into one’s house or, if not home, into a car to drive off) is better than suddenly running from the bear.
Also, maintain eye contact for less of a retreat and to see if the beast is charging. Turning away can trigger the bear’s predatory instinct. If it senses your fear, a wild animal can feel as the superior beast and go after easy prey.
Thus, a bear might simply test your willingness to stand up to it rather than be hell-bent to attack. If so, backing off slowly beats fleeing and inciting an attack.
On the otherhand, many say most black bears are less likely than grizzliers and brown bears to attack or even bully humans away, but might do so if provoked such as by sudden movement. This is the flip side to how much motion and sound can also best scare the bear away. Thus, before acting, one might sense the bear’s mood by whether it is growing and coming forward or acts passive.
Try to stay calm, if you will be still and await the bear’s moves. Also figure where you might go to, and gauge the location and situation. Encountering a bear in a public wooded area such as a state park — more his area than yours — beckons much more caution, giving the animal space and you retreating than standing up to defend your home against a close-up trespasser.
Thus, it is wiser to stay away from a bear than to move in on it such as to snap a photo. Distance is the first aspect of safety.
A major suggestion is when hiking in bear territory such as area mountains to make some noise continually, such as by talking loudly or wearing a bell. This is so you do not accidentally sneak up on a bear, and startle it into defensive aggression.
A bear may simply want you out of its path. If you retreat, do so slowly and talk in a soothing calm voice to reflect deference but not fear.
What if despite caution or making noise at the bear it still attacks? What are signals it is about to attack? They include swatting the ground with a front paw while snorting air, or lunging at you in a brief bluff charge to try to scare you away.
If the bear charges the a consensus suggestion is to fight rather than run, since bears reportedly can run faster than 30 mph and close in on you in a hurry and frenzy.
Hit the bear where you can get at it, and it hurts most. Best of all is to have a pepper spray handy. Spray just above the bear’s eyes, so the mist falls into its eyes, nose and throat. Spray again, and that might scare the bear off. No defensive move is foolproof, as bears are individuals and protective parents typically the most aggressive.
Stronger options are having a legally-registered shotgun or conceal-and-carry permit for a heavy-duty (.44 magnum) handgun.
If unarmed, then kick or poke the bear on its face (a tender spot) such as its snout or eyes. This can stun the aggressor, and gain you time to flee to safety.
Use something with a long reach such as a shovel or broomstick, rather than your limbs to avoid having to get closer to the bear. Those would-be defensive weapons are handy if by the door, with you if gardening, and in one’s car in case one is caught by a bear while getting the mail.
If an undeterred bear closes in on you, then throw something (such as your hiking backpack or better yet a bag of food) at it or even to the side. This might distract and befuddle the bear, and slow its pursuit.
If the bear makes any contact on you, one suggestion (beyond a quick and earnest prayer!) is to play dead. This removes you as a threat. Also, a bear prefers a live meal to eating cadavers. Fall to the ground. Roll onto your stomach, and cover neck and the back of your head with your hands.
A further tip from the Get Bear Smart Society based in British Columbia is to spread your elbows and legs wide, so the bear cannot flip you onto your back and claw at your face and torso. Once its attack ceases, stay still until well (even a half-hour later) after you hear the bear leave the field of vision.
Of course, I did not ask Pisgah to wait a minute on the porch while I got my camera to capture the surprising moment. But I do have a photo of him, from a few weeks earlier. In fact, a major reason I added the barking was that seemed to work the last time a bear resembling Pisgah was spotted.
My neighbor called me about 9:30 p.m. one night in late September, that a good-sized male bear was up a tree. The furry fellow was 50 feet up a large tree. He had zoomed up there after the neighbor’s two dogs barked at him in the dark. Pisgah apparently could not see how small those dogs are. The smaller, elder dog is a prototypical relentless pesky yapper.
Bears are notorious for compensating for poor sight with superb smell. Thus if one cooks food while camping, it greatly increases risk of a bear coming near. They are also attracted to such scents as toothpaste, lotions, bug spray, and air freshener you might spray onto garbage to try to mask its scent.
Clever tips for camping out is to eat outside the tent, and even sleep in clothes different than ones worn while cooking that can absorb food smells and draw bears to you as you sleep.
These days people’s homes are prone to bear adventures. The critters figure how to access garbage cans, tipping them over for the lid to fall off or even pulling off the lids. Then they go through trash bags, looking for food scraps. Three grown cubs recently entered one of my neighbor’s garage.
Bears are more desperate food hunters when their natural foods such as acorns are of less supply than usual in the wild, and if their prior habitat now has human development, wildlife officers note. The old adage about bears hibernating throughout winter is no longer so true. Typically, they hibernate only after they first fatten up their nutrition reserves.
Pisgah tore apart two bags of mine in the wee hours, before the morning garbage pickup. Another neighbor called me about it, so I re-bagged the extensive debris. It was that night that Pisgah went a step further. Once it was dark out and he could sneak more undetected, he came right up to the house and poked around. He got to a storage box on the porch, and what I heard was his knocking off a large box atop the other one. The last time I heard a similar sound, I caught the neighbor’s cat clawing about and scared him off.
This much bigger visitor is named Pisgah after football-crazed Canton’s Pisgah High School Black Bears. Perhaps this actual black bear came to my door to rub in how the football Bears went unbeaten in the Mountain Six, outdoing two of our four teams in Henderson County (Hendersonville and East Henderson).
Neighbor Crystal Smith, a retired teacher, recounted a close bear encounter a half-decade ago. It was on a Friday during dinner time while, there was still daylight. “When I opened my front door, there he was!” He strolled up her driveway, though a few feet from her front door. “I was startled. Although I’ve heard all the suggestions for scaring away black bears who are not supposed to be dangerous, it is frightening to see one so up close and personal,” she said. “Fortunately, I was at my front door, and not already in the garden pulling weeds.”
When she or neighbors see bears often on the prowl, she wears bells and might even drive down her drive to get mail then back to her garage.
Here are more tips on how to avoid bear visits at home or in the wild, and what to do when one comes toward you:
Do not feed bears, or leave out bird seed or even bagged food garbage. Once a bear finds food, he/she tends to return to that spot expecting food again. We have a neighbor that puts food out for the bear family, and one next to me who has much bird feed and welcomes bear sightings. So Pisgah has reason to be nearby.
A bear might figure out what time of day the food is out. Pisgah apparently knocked over my empty trash can a few other nights. This was in a routine change before I put tied garbage bags in the can, once it was light and soon before the G-men were due to arrive.
The most dangerous bear tends to be a parent (often the mother) with its cubs, in being over-protective of its young. A bear will also defend a habitat such as a makeshift cave, and food source such as an animal carcass.
Pisgah has not returned to my doorstep, as far as I can tell. He continues to check out trash cans, and any number of the bear family have been recently spotted.