It’s summer. Like every other summer, we humans enter the woods and are shocked to find that bears live there. Forewarned should be forearmed. Simply by carrying a can of bear spray with you when you go into the woods and following other commonsense advice, you will never need to fear bears again.
One incident in particular is garnering significant attention. While competing in a trail run outside Anchorage, Alaska, earlier this month 16-year-old Patrick Cooper texted a family member that he was being pursued by a black bear. By the time searchers found Cooper, he had been killed, and the bear was looming over his body. They shot the bear in the face with a shotgun slug, wounding it.
Like most tragedies, this one has become a canvas onto which various crackpots and special interests are painting their opinions. My favorite hot take has to be this one on the Truth About Guns, arguing that teenagers should pack heat while going on fun runs. “The runner was able and willing to carry a cellphone,” writes Dean Weingarten. “He could easily have carried a Ruger LCP II, which weighs about as much. Whether or not that would have been ‘enough gun’ for a black bear is not entirely germane. It would have given him a chance.”
Would carrying a small .380-caliber pistol have made a difference? A study of 269 bear encounters conducted in 2012 found that relying on a firearm (any firearm) as your primary line of defense gives you the same odds as carrying no defense whatsoever. Statistically speaking, Cooper was just as safe from bears running without a pistol as he would have been with one.
In contrast, that same study found bear spray successfully deters bears in 98 percent of studied encounters. Why is bear spray so much more effective? Well, it’s a combination of factors. Not only is the capsaicin mix incredibly powerful, capable of instantly incapacitating virtually any animal, but it also removes most of the human error from its application. Point the can in the general direction of the bear, push the button or pull the trigger, and a powerful stream of orange spray creates a huge cloud of blinding fog that hangs in the air. You don’t even have to hit the bear with that wide fan of spray—it works as a shield that’s also capable of stopping charging bears. You can use it in close quarters, you can use it if your buddy or dog is behind the bear, and you can even use it if it’s too dark to see. You can’t say any of that about a gun.
I’m reminded of the brown bear that mauled Montana man Todd Orr last year. He was armed with his heavy-caliber hunting revolver, but he was also armed with a great deal of experience in the outdoors. He chose to pull his spray instead of his gun. It didn’t work, but it also didn’t kill the mama bear, which he considered a success.
Just last weekend, I had to run a big black bear out of my camp.
That was a case of human error on my part. I know bears live in that particular area, because I plan to hunt them there this fall. And also because I'm pretty sure this same bear pulled the same trick, in the same spot five years ago, when he was a juvenile. I should have had my food in a bear canister, and I should have been carrying a can of bear spray, but I was so distracted by the effort of taking a new puppy on his first camping trip that I forgot all that. So instead of avoiding the issue altogether, or dealing with it easily and safely, I was left with the old fallback: shouting and waving my hands over my head.
There are a few points I’m trying to make here: 1) Bear attacks are exceptionally rare—more people in the United States are killed annually by bees than by bears. 2) Guns aren’t a great defense against the animals. 3) In the highly unlikely event that you are attacked by a bear, bear spray is so effective that your overall odds of being injured, let alone killed, are less likely than winning the lottery.
There’s also the ethical question raised by bear attacks and our response to them. Human conflict with bears occurs when we make the deliberate decision to enter the areas where they live and at times when they are active. No wild animal deserves to be killed just because you forgot to pack your bear spray.
When you make the decision to go into a bear’s habitat, it is also your responsibility to make the decision to carry bear spray.
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