There have been 61 fatal attacks by Black Bears in North America since 1900. Compared to the 17,250 people murdered in the USA in 2016, I’d say man is probably a bigger threat to itself than Black Bears are to it. Louisiana, home to an elusive ‘swamp’ subspecies of Black Bear, had 11.8 murders per 100,000 people in 2016. Black Bears are not predators, gaining most of the energy in their diet from foraged berries and nuts in the Northwoods. Many people mistake a ‘bluff charging’ or ground slapping bear as a bloodthirsty aggressive bear, although in 50 plus years of research Dr Rogers has concluded that these behaviours arethose of a nervous animal. In my 4 weeks in Ely, none of the ambassador bears or wild research bears have even indicated that they may be about to attack. The closest I have come to injury has come from my own negligence: Tasha once caught me with a swiping paw because I looked away while feeding and left my hand by the fence. This week, Ted ended up sucking my thumb having mistaken my pale digit for a peanut. As he tested the flesh with his worn-down incisors he looked up, wide eyed, in complete shock and seemed equally as surprised as I was that my thumb was now inside his mouth.
Field assistants to Dr Rogers at the Wildlife Research Institute are in the same boat, having never even been scratched by a bear in their combined decades of service. The reason for all of this? Black Bears are not predators or hunters, they simply do not have it in them. They do not have the attack to defend or to kill instinct, with most of their dietary energy coming from foraging for wild blueberries, strawberries and raspberries in the Northwoods. They’re also rather partial to some of the nuts and catkins found in the area, even trying their hand at browsing on the young shoots of Rye Grass and Clover in the spring. These dietary habits can all be traced back to their evolutionary history in the Upper Palaeolithic, and indeed to the role they have evolved to play in the ecosystem. As they evolved in competition with the more predatory and aggressive Grizzly and Giant Short-Faced Bears, Black Bears almost took a backseat and became adapted for foraging and feeding on another, untapped resource.
These evolutionary legacies, as they are often called, also explain why Black Bears can often be chased away with a tennis ball and a few well chosen insults. Living in an environment of Dire Wolves, American Lions and the previously mentioned bears, Black Bears chose flight rather than fight as the best way of defending themselves-this is also why Black Bears retain the ability to climb so effortlessly throughout their lives. These are incredibly timid and intelligent animals, completely misrepresented by both history and our society; the worst they would do after being chased is give a stern stare to remind you that you’ve forgotten your manners.
The story reads completely differently with Brown Bears and consequently Polar Bears, which share a close common ancestor. As mentioned, Brown Bears are much more naturally aggressive towards humans, especially in defence of their cubs: 70% of Brown Bears attacks come from females being separated from their young. This said, attacks are the exception to the rule rather than the rule itself with most attacks being prompted by human error. Tim Treadwell, who lived alongside Brown Bears in Katmai NP for 13 summers, made the grave error of mistaking the bears’ trust for love; a lapse in concentration, a moment of complacency and overconfidence around a starving, 28-year-old male cost him, and his wife, their lives in 2004.
The well-known Grizzly Bear is a subspecies of the North America Brown Bear. Brown Bears are found across the northern hemisphere, especially in Scandinavia with other subspecies living in Northern Spain and parts of the Alps. Grizzlies tend to live inland in North America while the Coastal Brown Bear, as the name suggests, lives closer to the Pacific Ocean allowing for the famous pictures of spawning salmon being caught mid-air by hungry bears. Coastal bears, due a more predictable and reliable food source, tend to be less aggressive than Grizzlies. The fact that aggression and attack rates even differ between subspecies suggests that rules of thumb should not be drawn about species. Family wide rules should definitely not be drawn; perhaps the timid Black Bear’s reputation has suffered from being lumped together with the more aggressive members of the Ursine family in folklore.
For the most part, bears ignore humans. Brown Bears in Katmai National Park will often pass within feet of visitors and photographers, their minds more closely focussed on reaching the next receptive female or fighting off the next challenging male. The same is true of Black Bears. Although timid for most of the waking year, they become more captivated by the idea of food and of fattening up for the winter as the season draws on (hyperphagia), meaning human presence does little to deter them from their path.
Their aloof manner is somewhat concerning, considering the many threats human beings pose to bears. In Minnesota, the average age of death for a Black Bear male is between 2 and 3 years old. Yearling and younger bears are often quite naïve about the perils of their world for the first few years, meaning they go to hunters’ baits and they cross roads in the face of oncoming trucks. Once they have learnt more about their environment they won’t forget it, given their incredible long term and spatial memories which allow them to find the same berry patches year after year in the seemingly endless Northwoods.
Animal intelligence is something human society has always struggled to understand. It is incredibly difficult to comprehend or even conceive a different form of intelligence that may exist in animals, especially when these creatures don’t share our linguistic capabilities. However, we need to continue striving to do so-otherwise bears will continue to be demonized for generations to come and soon there’ll be nothing to comprehend.