You know, there are way too many theories out there amongst the inexperienced, as to how to respond to wild creatures investigating or challenging people. Nevertheless, there are a few principles to keep in mind:
You have to know why they are there, what they are thinking and doing, and what your options are…
Scenarios I’ve been in (bears, primarily, but marmots, raccoons, deer, and mice, too):
1. You just met face-to-face on the trail with neither of you knowing it was going to happen = they don’t want to have anything to do with you and will find a way to get away. Stand Tall, mass together as one entity, and assess its subsequent behavior. GET BIG (passive offense), show no fear, make noise, and prepare to ramp up offensive maneuvers, if needed.
2. You see it off in the distance doing its thing and wonder if you’ll be safe going around it or passing it by. It’s focused attention on its current project or purpose does not appear to include you (it hasn’t even noticed you). It means you no ill will and doesn’t really care about your presence that far away. Assess its behavior to make sure you and yours are not on its radar, verify that the wind is blowing from it to you, plot a course to not intercept, and go on past, but always pay attention to what it’s paying attention to. If it does notice you, how does it react? To immediately change course and move away? To focus in and smell the air to assess what you might be? To move closer to investigate (primarily a territorial posture of Grizzly and Brown bears)?
3. Its actions at a distance (coming closer to investigate) imply that it has no fear of you = Red Alert! GET BIG in posture and volume. Let it know that you see it, too, and are not afraid. Bears are not stupid and may be interpreting your presence in its “home” as coincidental, curious, threatening, or opportunistic. They, also, understand the difference between postures of defense and offense in nature and is assessing your reactions to its actions. Tell Mr. Zulu to put the shields up and phasers on “stun” while you direct Spock to scan for a recent kill or baby bears in the vicinity. It doesn’t want a fight, either, but don’t let it guess that you’re “easy pickings” and will run away at the first mild visual confrontation. Stand your ground, gather in a mass assembly, get as tall as possible, and appear to be a force to contend with. While it is still at a distance, watch how it reacts to your posturing (might it be protecting something and, thus, motivated to fight?). Do not run.
4. Closer quarters confrontations (within a hundred feet or a few second’s charge): Immediately assess why it’s there based on its actions and focus of attention (not curious, curious, intent, offended). Stand Tall, GET BIG, assemble together, and let it know you see it, too (growl back, yell, and don’t freeze or run). The “not curious” bears surprised by your presence, will leave. The “curious” bears may assess you, but will turn and leave. Bears with an agenda or intent want something from you or to drive you away, are not afraid, and will come right up to or through you (depending on species and habituation to mankind). GET HUGE, Stand your ground, and assess its reactions. Yield and back off, if it intends on hauling off with your backpack full of food, but never turn and run. Observe the efficient demolition of everything you have from a safe distance, recognizing that the bear wanted your food and not you. Assess damages once it leaves and begin repairs for the next few days.
5. In-tent and physical, face-to-face confrontations with Black Bears:
In-tent investigations may be born out of curiosity or attraction, but it knows that you are human, so has lost a bit of its natural fear of you just by being so close to you. It is smelling and assessing whether there might be something of further interest within the tent, but, also, wary of a fight. During the summer and when in habituated bear country, like in National Parks, highly populated/visited National Forests, or near mountain towns with accessible garbage cans or a city dump, never cook your meals where you sleep and put all smelly stuff in an approved bear canister far from camp. Yell or verbally GET BIG, bang the tent’s walls, shake the whole damn thing, and become a sudden and surprising presence, while mobilizing, flying out the door, and Standing Tall. Don’t blind it with your light – a scared bear is an unpredictable bear. Let it see and hear your protests of willing defense, then assess its reactions. If it turns, you can relax, but stand watch for a while. If it becomes defensive out of surprise, Stand, amass together in a united front, make noise, and don’t back down. Assess and adjust as needed.
Physical, face-to-face encounters where you are between it and what it wants. It is not afraid of you and may ignore and consider you as non-issue (all other humans in the past have run away). With Black Bears and in such close proximity (an arm’s reach), you don’t have the luxury of time to assess anything, just to react – but it won’t be expecting it! It underestimated that you might react at all and blew you off as irrelevant. Any other wild animal would, in this instance, spin, snarl, and fight. So, too, must you in this face-to-face, no-time-to-think scenario.
I say this because it happened to me one night in the middle of a National Park while I was “cowboy camping” beneath a tall Lodgepole Pine in a heavily-visited campground that bears patrolled nightly (but I wasn’t aware of this at the time). It was a cold, moonless night and I was deep within my mummy bag with its drawstring closed tight around my nose. My pack was leaning up against the tree and I was stretched out at the base of it, my head resting against the bottom of its frame.
Within just a couple of hours after I fell fast asleep, I “awoke” within the confines of myth bag to the imminent feeling that something was above and right next to my left shoulder. Having already had numerous encounters with bears over the preceding 5 months of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, I knew what could be going on – a big bear was sniffing my pack right next to me!
What happened next was on “auto-pilot” and completely based on an unconscious reaction to a perceived, but unseen threat (remember, this was during a moonless night in a forest, so everything around me was black!). In just a few movements, I opened my bag, stuck my head and right arm out, propped myself up on my left elbow, and swung my right hand out into the darkness to drive the threat away. I was still quite asleep.
I woke up when my hand sunk into 5-6-inches of fur! I’m sure that we were nose-to-nose, but I couldn’t see a thing in my blind rage. Surfacing to consciousness and realizing what I just felt, I yelled to my hiking partner, sleeping 30 to 40-feet away at the base of another tree, and struggled to find my flashlight laying nearby. Nothing happened. There were no noises after I hit the bear. It didn’t growl or hit me back. It just vanished!
Maybe, I got lucky. Maybe, I did the right thing in this scenario. However, I’m sure the bear was completely surprised and ran away wondering who the hell was this crazy human!
To summarize how to respond to wild animals in the wilderness setting:
1. Respect that you are in their home and don’t disturb them.
2. Look for, identify, and monitor all the animals around you. Know where they are and what they are doing and saying (they will tell you when a predator is nearby!).
3. Know something about them beforehand, what they do, how they communicate to each other, what their noises mean, how they commonly act toward humans, and what to do, if they get in your “space,” accidentally or intentionally.
4. Know who you are in relation to them and how to behave in their presence (Black bears are vastly different from Grizzly and Brown bears in their reactions to humans!)
5. Know how to assess their behavior, whether those performed in or without recognition of your presence.
6. Realize that Big, Threatening, and Aggressive posturing is respected in the wild and that no one wants to fight, but will, if something is to be gained (for food or protection). Be perceived as Big and strong, but don’t attack – unless you have to. Let them decide what they want to do, once they see that you won’t back down.
7. Weakness and self-doubt in humans is assessed and tested by aggressors. Don’t show it!
8. Don’t confuse them unto unpredictable reactions. Throwing stones to cause pain or blinding them with bright lights may not drive them away, as they do not understand these elements of cause and affect. They understand postures, noise, and movement. Use yours wisely.
9. Pay attention to what is going on (focus on the problem), but be aware at the same time of what is happening elsewhere and beyond the immediate area as you try to assess the animal’s behavior and why they are doing it (baby bears nearby, injured or sick animal, protection or acquisition of food, etc.).
10. Avoid, but monitor. Evaluate communications (what are your behaviors telling it and vice versa).
Radar on, all the time, when in troubled areas. Size and willingness is perceived as strong. Stand and scare at a distance; react with intent when face-to-face.
[Footnote: I have had numerous encounters with Black bears over my 50 years in the Sierra along the Pacific Crest Trail and in the Rockies along the Continental Divide Trail. I ran into them, face-to-face, along narrow sections of trail where there was no place to go to avoid each other. I scared one away from my camp at night. I had one knock down, drag off, and tear apart my pack during another night. I walked parallel to one for a few miles down the length of a long meadow while we both were aware of each other’s presence. The one in the attached picture was ripping apart a fallen, rotting tree trunk while looking for grubs, as I walked past it; it cared less about me. I had that one physical altercation with a bear and I nearly stepped on a sleeping mountain lion. If you’re out there long enough, you get to meet a few!
How I reacted to them may or not be the “officially recognized” correct way to do things, but find out what to do and how to behave from the land and wildlife management authorities where you plan on going].