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Don't Bring a Gun to a Bear Fight - Explore

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Don't Bring a Gun to a Bear Fight

Bear standing in Denali
A study out of Brigham Young University today comes down pretty firmly against using firearms in the case of bear attacks:

Experts say the gun largely provides a false sense of security — and would be similar to trying to shoot, and stop, a small car careening toward you at speeds of up to 35 mph.

It’s not that firearms don’t work, but many people can’t load or aim them quickly enough in the panicky moments of a bear attack, according to a recent study by bear researchers at Utah’s Brigham Young University.

“It’s more about how you carry yourself than whether you carry a gun,” said wildlife biologist Tom S. Smith, the study’s lead author.

In this Smith agrees with Charlie Russell, the maverick Canadian bear researcher I had the pleasure of visiting in Kamchatka and profiling in these pages. Russell's approach in what is perhaps the thickest concentration of brown bears in the world is far more revolutionary than refraining from shooting them; he speaks to them in a friendly, disarming voice, avoids eye contact, doesn't run, doesn't carry a gun, and has never had occasion to use the bear spray he carries as a last-ditch backup.


If bears didn't have to fear people, Charlie and Maureen wonder, would people have to fear bears? Charlie poses his theory of "extreme trust" like this: "If a bear likes and trusts you, he will not hurt you." He emphasizes that he does not recommend this approach to anyone else, and accepts the possibly fatal consequences for himself. "One mistake," he notes, "would undo my whole life's work."

While visiting Russell, my wife and I would go for walks with him and his then-partner Maureen Enns, always encountering bears.

We notice that when we startle bears, they look at us suspiciously while avoiding direct eye contact, which can be a sign of hostility. Out in the skiff one day, we spot a large, increasingly agitated male. Marian is sitting in the bow, staring transfixedly. "Relax your shoulders," Maureen advises softly. "Now turn and look a little bit to the side. When you show your side you're showing trust." It works; the bear settles down and moves quietly off.

Like Tom Smith says, it's about the way you carry yourself. See video below for some remarkable images from Russell's research.


--Paul Rauber / photo by istockphoto/dhughes9

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