When a dog bites a man, as a Pulitzer Prize winner observed more than 100 years ago, it is not news. On average, almost 120,000 children between the ages of one and 14 are bitten by dogs every year in the U.S., according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, and the bites almost never generate a headline unless a child dies.
But when a bear bites a man, a university instructor nonetheless, that is a different matter. Primal fears and urban confusion come into play, and the media goes a little nuts.
“University Professor Mauled by a Brown Bear While Teaching” is how ABC News spun the story of a Monday attack on Forest Wagner with a juicy little piece of click bait. What curious, urban surfer on the internets wouldn’t want to know how a bear got into a classroom?
Wagner, 35, wasn’t in a classroom, of course, he was a University of Alaska instructor with a mountaineering class in the Chilkat Mountains south of the tiny Panhandle community of Haines when attacked. He was in an Anchorage hospital recovering on Tuesday and reported through hospital officials he didn’t want to talk about what happened.
It didn’t matter. He was accidentally famous almost instantly. A mug shot of him in a climbing helmet was gracing stories around the globe.
Details of what exactly did happen to Wagner, other than that he was attacked by a grizzly bear sow with a cub or cubs, remained sketchy on Tuesday. None of which was slowing the global spread of his story.
The Washington Post, more than 4,000 miles from Haines on the opposite side of North America, was one news site promising “in-depth” coverage, but offering little in the way of new information.
“Wagner was leading 11 students and two teaching assistants while hiking in an area between Mount Emmerich and the Chilkat River…,” wrote Susan Svrluga, a higher education reporter for the newspaper apparently unaware the area in question is still buried in snow.
There is a remote possibility Wagner was hiking, but it is unlikely. Hiking in the snow-covered Chilkat Mountains would not be easy at this time. It is far more likely that Wagner was either snowshoeing or skiing.
The rumor coming out of Haines on Tuesday, and there wasn’t much more than rumor because no one in officialdom was offering any specifics as to what happened, had him on skis at the time the bear encounter began.
It remains unknown whether he or any of the others in the class saw any bear sign in the area before the attack, or whether Wagner was close to the students or separated from them at the time of the attack, or whether anyone was carrying bear spray, a pepper-based repellent that has become common safety gear on group trips in the 49th state in recent years.
Also unknown is whether the group had a satellite phone, another piece of now common safety equipment. Alaska State Troopers did report a student had to, again, “hike” to where he could find cell phone reception — spotty in the Haines area — in order to call for help.
The unknowns weren’t slowing the spread of the story, however. It had hit hundreds of websites, including this one, by Tuesday with many vying for attention with catchy headlines.
Across the big pond from the U.S. capital, “The Sun” in England offered up one of those sure to leave many people scratching their heads: “Climbing teacher left in hospital after savage bear attack during class.”
And ABC was taking the attack as an opportunity to bring back a two-year old video on “How to Survive a Bear Attack.” Among the tips: “Absolutely never run” from a bear.
That is generally good advice that could be specifically very wrong. If you are on your deck in Anchorage and you see a grizzly bear stroll onto the street a block away — something which has been known to happen in parts of Alaska’s largest city — by all means run into your house and lock the door. The same applies if you are close to a car or truck offering shelter from an approaching bear.
All of which outlines the problem in offering advice on bear encounters. There can be a lot of variables involved and the variables influence how one should respond. It remains to be seen what variables were involved in the case of Wagner.
And so, too, for 77-year-old Glenn Bohn, who was mauled along the Denali Highway in the Interior north of Anchorage only days before the teacher was attacked. Bohn was Tuesday in the same Anchorage hospital as Wagner and also not talking.
Only slightly more was was known about his mauling. Troopers reported he was hunting grizzlies at the time, and that a hunting partner killed the bear after the attack. The hunting partner was not identified. It was unknown whether the hunters had a chance encounter with a bear on the way to a hunting site, were attacked by a bear emerging from its den, or wounded a bear only to be attacked by the animal.