Todd Orr did everything right. When he left his Bozeman, Montana, home to scout for elk in nearby Madison Valley last weekend, he went armed with two cans of bear spray, as well as the powerful handgun he uses for hunting. Entering the woods, he hollered, “Hey bear!” at half-minute intervals, to avoid surprising one. And when a female grizzly charged him, he fired the bear spray to create a fog-like barrier between him and the animal, keeping his finger on the can’s trigger until she was on him. As the bear broke his arms with her jaws and slashed his scalp with her claws, he curled into the fetal position, and kept his hands locked behind his neck, protecting his vulnerable spine and organs.
IndefinitelyWild is a lifestyle column telling the story of adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there, and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.See the Archive→
So Orr lived. And he recorded the now-famous retelling of the attack as he walked back to his truck to drive himself to the hospital.
But man, that still doesn’t sound like something I’d want to go through. Is there anything the rest of us can learn from Orr’s experience that could help us stay safe in bear country and prevent an attack in the first place?
Orr is currently recuperating from the surgeries that repaired his scalp, stitched up his wounds, and addressed the nerve and tendon trauma in his arms. We’ve reached out to request an interview when he’s recovered. In the meantime, Orr has provided an impressive level of detail across a handful of retellings on his Facebook page and website. From them, we know the following:
Orr had very little warning of the attack. “When I first saw the Grizzly and her two cubs of the year, they were approximately 70-80 yards away, and ran immediately into the timber upon seeing me…When I saw her charge from the trees, she was closer than before, so approximately 50-60 yards. At full speed, she could be on me in as little as just 3 seconds.”
He fired the bear spray, but it had little to no effect. “I gave her a full charge of bear spray at about 25 feet. Her momentum carried her right through the orange mist and on me.”
Playing dead, while shielding his vitals, saved Orr’s life. “I went to my face in the dirt and wrapped my arms around the back of my neck for protection. She was on top of me biting my arms, shoulders and backpack. The force of each bite was like a sledge hammer with teeth. She would stop for a few seconds and then bite again. Over and over…During the entire attack, I used every ounce of strength and determination I had to keep my face down, hands and forearms protecting the back of my neck, elbows locked down protecting the sides of my face, and knees and legs tucked under me to lock along my elbows and protect from as many angles as possible with minimal exposure of my body. Only one bite on my right side along the ribs and just above my hip, rolled me to the side for a split second where I viewed the side of the bears face, but I was instantly back in my almost a ‘ball’ position before she could get to me.”
The second attack was worse. “Her bites were deeper and would lift me off the ground when she pulled back, and then smashed me back into the dirt and squashed and almost hugged or pinned me. A very eerie and helpless feeling.”
Why Didn’t He Shoot?
As a fellow hunter, gun owner, and hobby shooter, I understand the question. Bears are one of the primary reasons we carry firearms in the woods. But the realities of self defense are often far different from the theories. Orr’s incident is a perfect example of this.
Bear spray was Orr’s first line of defense. “Bear spray has proven to be more effective than a pistol at stopping a charge, so my first instinct was to pull the bear spray. Unfortunately, she did not behave as 99% of bears in that situation do, and she continued her full charge attack. So I had about 3 seconds to notice the charge, pull bear spray from its holster, remove the safety clip, point and assess the situation.”
Making an accurate shot on a charging grizzly is extremely difficult. “No time for plan B and pull a heavy, long barreled and scoped hunting pistol from a shoulder holster, cock the hammer, locate her within the scope and somehow expect accurate hits on a charging bear. The thought never crossed my mind to even make that attempt because I knew there just was no time to do so.”
The gun wasn’t an option once the grizzly was on him. “At no time during that first attack did I feel comfortable exposing my neck or face or losing the position I was in, in order to attempt to pull the pistol, turn to face the attack and shoot. In my opinion, it would have certainly invited a frontal assault on my face throat and soft stomach area. Even reaching for the pistol would have exposed the back of my neck and spine, or reduced the stability of my position and possible allowed the bear to roll me over and gain a frontal assault.”
Odds of only wounding the bear were too high. “Had I shot and only wounded the bear, would she have been more aggressive and attacked with more ferocity or for a longer period of time, doing more damage? If she was shot and wounded, would her sounds have called the cubs in to us, now putting me in the position of her not leaving the attack scene? Had I been lucky enough to get off a shot, it certainly may not have been lethal and could have led to a wounded and irate bear."
Orr didn’t want to kill a mama bear. “I certainly wouldn’t care to shoot a sow with young, defenseless cubs that would likely not survive the winter without their mother…I am a hunter and an outdoorsman and I do not shoot a bear just to kill it.”
What Can We Learn?
Orr’s is a worst-case scenario. An experienced outdoorsman, he was both aware of the risk of bears in his area and went as prepared as possible to face them. That his preventative measures didn’t work was just bad luck. That he lived through the attack wasn’t.
Bear Spray: In a 2012 study of 269 bear encounters, researchers found bear spray to be effective 98 percent of the time, with only three injuries occurring to people who used the spray, none of which were fatal. Orr’s attack just happened to fall into that two percent where spray wasn't enough.
Firearms: If you use one as your primary line of bear defense, you’re just as likely to be injured as if you have no defense at all.
Backpacks: Orr credits his backpack for helping prevent serious injuries to his spine. This extra layer of fabric, foam, and plastic has been repeatedly shown to add some measure of protection. Wear one that's well-secured to your body.
Body Position: Orr describes curling up into a ball, with his hands clasped behind his neck. This allows your arms and legs to shield your vital organs, while your hands protect your spine above your backpack. Orr received massive injuries to his scalp, arms, and shoulders, but none to any vital body part.
Playing Dead: Orr was attacked by a grizzly bear motivated by defense. Curling up into a ball, and not resisting, is exactly the right way to respond to such an attack: she just wanted to eliminate the threat to her cubs. That’s because grizzlies don’t think of our soft, pink bodies as food. Black bears and polar bears might. If you’re attacked in an aggressive manner by one of those, fight back. Be aware of what kinds of bears live in the area and know how to identify them.
Not Panicking: In that video, Orr’s pupils appear to be dilated, strongly indicating that he’s in shock. But listen to how calm the guy is. Yeah, he should probably have spent that time hightailing it to the hospital rather than talking to you and I, but everything here indicates that Orr kept a level head throughout his ordeal, thereby allowing him to make the smart decisions that kept him alive. That is the absolute best thing you can do in any emergency or survival scenario: don’t allow fear or panic to interfere with your ability to make smart, rational, life-saving decisions.
Would You Survive a Bear Attack?
So far this decade, seven people have been killed by black bears in North America and 11 have been killed by brown bears. Compare those 18 deaths to the 200,000-plus people who have been killed in traffic accidents in the U.S. alone in that time. Orr was more at risk driving himself to the hospital following the attack than he was hiking through grizzly territory.
Just as choosing to buckle your seatbelt, keeping your car in good condition, and driving a safer, late-model vehicle on quality tires will lessen the chances of injury or death in the event of a relatively likely car accident, throwing a fresh can of bear spray in your backpack and practicing basic bear safety the next time you head into the woods will up the odds of you surviving a very, very unlikely bear attack. Orr’s experience is proof.