Surely the people in repose behind this large, scarred male grizzly should be running for their lives? Stop scratching your head buddy, you're about to get eaten by a grizzly! Or is he? Photo by Scott Michael.
In the last few bear posts I have described why the grizzly has had a harder time living side-by-side with Homo sapiens than its cousin U. americanus. We discussed how the grizzly evolved in a rough neighborhood and that by being bellicose, this bear ensured its survival. So, grizzlies are potentially more dangerous than black bears because of the behavioral baggage they have carried with them through the years - but really, how dangerous are grizzly bears to our species?
While the grizzly bear is potentially more dangerous than its kin, the actual likelihood that you will become the victim of this often misunderstood beast, even if you spend lots of time in grizzly country, is very slim. But how can that be? Many non-bear devotees (which included me at one time) believe your chances of surviving a wild grizzly encounter (that is, running into a grizzly on its turf) is almost nil and if you do live through the experience you will bear the emotional and physical scars for life. Much of this is due to the contemporary media. How many times have you seen a show on one of the many nature-oriented TV stations that concentrate on those rare bad encounters between bear and human. (Does Grizzly Man ring a bell?) The old adage “if it bleeds, it leads” certainly has been applied to exploit the grizzly.
This type of sensationalist reporting is not new. You only have to look at the stories of killer bears that permeated the literature of the late-19th and early 20th-centuries. But not all the naturalists and outdoorsman of the time were bellowing this same warning. Some went against the flow. For example, consider the writings of zoologist Dr. William T. Hornaday. In 1927, he wrote the following about the grizzly’s character.
“I have made many observations on the temper of the grizzly bear, and am convinced that naturally the disposition of this reportedly savage beast is rather peaceful and good-natured. At the same time, however, no animal is more prompt to resent an affront or injury, or punish and offender. The grizzly temper is defensive, not aggressive; and unless the animal is cornered, or thinks he is cornered, he always flees from man.”
Much of the grizzly’s bad reputation was inspired by the tales disseminated by Indian and European hunters. They found that the mighty bear was indeed ferocious when it had been hit with a slug, peppered with buckshot or pierced by an arrow. But can you blame the animal for defending its life against an aggressor? Such was also the case with Lewis and Clark’s expedition. The majority of their bad encounters with grizzlies were bears that had been maimed by their relatively light caliber weapons.
John M. Holzworth speaks to the truth and legend behind the grizzly’s ferocity. He was not a neophyte when it came to the behavior of the great bear. He had spent lots of time with brown bears between approximately 1915 and 1930. He reports having seen over 250 individual grizzlies in the wild (both in Alaska and the lower 48 states) and he photographed many of these at close range. He concluded the following about the grizzly’s undeserved reputation in his book The Wild Grizzlies of Alaska:
“The big bears… are fighting machines of the first order… Together with his character as a fighter was soon added his reputation for ferociousness and proneness to attack beast and man. But is his desire to fight in self-defense is not justifiable? It is a far different thing from going out to attack people who are not molesting him. The big bear’s criminal offense, apparently, is his effectiveness in defending himself.”
Thus, these pioneers of bear observation conclude that while grizzlies will fight more ferociously than any other animal if they or their offspring are in danger, they are more likely to avoid people than attack them. More on grizzly aggression in my next bear post!
Copyright (2008) Scott W. Michael