Patrick “Jack” Cooper was a 16-year-old boy killed by a predatory black bear, and now some want to blame him for his own death.
There is little doubt running from the bear was a mistake. Turning your back on a predator is invariably a bad thing. What predators desire is to approach from behind so their prey cannot fight back.
In this case, however, it is worth asking a simple question: Would it have made any difference if young Cooper had stood his ground?
Maybe, and then again probably not.
“Jack was very young for his age,” said the mother of one of his friends, and he was slight. Physically, he wasn’t any more of a challenge for your average Alaska black bear than geologist Cynthia Dusel-Bacon.
Mentally and emotionally, Dusel-Bacon was way ahead if for no other reason that she was almost twice as old when attacked by the black bear that basically chewed off one of her arms and most of the other. She was lucky to live.
A radio and the quick response of a helicopter saved her life. Cooper had a smart phone, the modern equivalent of Dusel-Bacon’s radio, but the response to Bird Ridge in Chugach State Park just outside of Anchorage was slower, and there is the possibility he might have died in a fall while being chased and before the bear got to his body.
Whatever the case, there is no indication he ever stood up to the bear.
Dusel-Bacon did; it didn’t matter.
As Canadian scientist Stephen Hererro, the authority on bear attacks, would later write, “In 99 percent of such encounters, she probably would have been successful.”
Maybe, and then again maybe not because in the animal kingdom size matters, and Dusel-Bacon, like Cooper, was no Arnold Schwarzenegger. There is a reason bears go after moose calves instead of full-grown moose.
A demonstration of size
Some tourists in a bear encounter in Denali National Park and Preserve unknowingly put on a demonstration of the value of size last summer.
They were followed – some might say chased – by a young grizzly near the Savage River. Park visitor Betty Snyder caught on film what happened next.
Park rangers on one bank of the river, seeing the disaster brewing on the other side of the river, started yelling instructions to the tourists:
Stop running. Get together in a group. Put your hands over your head. And make yourselves look big.
The people did as they were told. The bear, which had been following them as they fled, stopped.
They turned to face him and yelled. That visibly startled the animal. It backed off and eventually slunk away. You can view the entire photo sequence here: denali-hikers-escape-bear.
Snyder credited rangers with saving two different groups of hikers while she was stopped along the Savage.
“It was amazing how the stand-tall procedure actually worked for these hikers,” she emailed. “Thanks to the rangers calling out instructions to them.”
Whether it was the stand-tall technique or the grouping together and shouting is, however, open to debate. Scientist Tom Smith at Brigham Young University in Utah, a man who has been studying bears for decades in Alaska, has been collecting data on this sort of thing for a new paper on human responses to bears, and he has found no indication that putting your arms above your head makes any difference.
In fact, he said, if you are alone and prepared to defend yourself with pepper spray or a gun, it is probably a bad idea to put your hands above your head. Instead, get ready to use your defensive weapon just in case it becomes necessary.
The data, however, leaves no doubt that there is safety in numbers, he added. A group of people clustered togeher looks like a whole lot of trouble to a bear, because size matters.
Five-foot, three-inch Marti Miller, a colleague of Dusel-Bacon’s at the U.S. Geological Survey, probably knows this as well as anyone. Her central Alaska black bear encounter was even more troubling than that of her friend and co-worker.
Miller was stalked by a black bear.
“I’ll never forget the look in that bear’s eyes,” she said in a telephone interview. All alone in the field, she tried to maneuver away from the animal. It followed her as she edged toward higher ground and then circled around to get behind her to attack, just as with Dusel-Bacon.
Only there was a fatal difference for the bear. Miller was armed. After the horrific attack that cost Dusel-Bacon her arms, the USGS began providing firearms and bear training to its field geologists.
When Miller turned to find the bear about to grab her, she shot and killed it. The death of Cooper, she said, brought back troubling memories of that incident. But for the gun, she said, she could have been him.
Miller had a weapon and knew how to use it. Cooper had no weapon. He met the wrong bear in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he was a perfectly sized target for a predatory black bear.
“Our impression from our data is that young and older people may be more vulnerable to fatal attack because they may be perceived as less threatening and may be less able to resist serious attack,” Herrero, Smith and two co-authors concluded in a 2011 study on “Fatal Attacks by American Black Bear on People: 1900-2009.”
There was also this:
“Potentially predatory approaches are typically silent and may include stalking or other following, followed by a fast rush leading to contact. We know of incidents where a black bear behaved as if it were considering on carrying out a predatory attack and was deterred by people’s aggressive actions such as shouting, or hitting with rocks, fists or sticks. Once predatory behavior is initiated, it may be persist for hours unless it is deterred.
“Such bears appear to be strongly motivated, as if a switch had been thrown.”
Once the Bird Ridge bear locked its sights on young Cooper, Smith said in a Thursday interview, the die was likely cast. There was only one way the bear was going to be deterred, and that was for someone to drive it off.
That Cooper was not equipped, physically or emotionally to do that, is not his fault. It is not easy to stand up to a bear. Take my word for it. I have done it successfully several times, and once unsuccessfully. The latter resulted in a claw in the face and then the shooting of a grizzly that had my leg in its mouth.
Compared to Cooper, I was bigger, stronger, older, armed and lucky. He was smaller, weaker, younger, unarmed and unlucky. These are the differences between life and death in these situations.
The real world
Thankfully, most people will never be attacked by a bear, let alone a predatory black bear. Bears that attack people are rare, very rare. The predatory black bear is a tiny subset of those rare bears.
“The risk of fatal black bear attacks on people in our study area (North America) was extremely low,” the authors of the fatal attacks paper wrote. “Each year, millions of interactions between people and black bears occur without any injury to a person although by two years of age most black bears have the physical capacity to kill a person.”
Smith is now in the middle of writing a paper on bear attacks solely in Alaska. He has cataloged 1,447 dangerous confrontations between humans and black, grizzly and polar bears. In those encounters, there were 332 injuries and 60 deaths. Smith concedes there were likely hundreds, if not thousands or tens of thousands, of close calls with bears on which he has no data because the incidents were never reported.
Of the 1,447 close encounters, he said, 1,141 involved situations in which a bear actually made contact with a person. The 332 injuries came from those 1,141 attacks. Thus, if a bear should make contact with you – something unlikely to begin with – there is a 70 percent chance you will escape uninjured.
The chance the bear will kill you is 1 in 19. That leaves a 95 percent chance you will survive the attack. Most of us, were we to walk into a doctor’s office today to discover we had cancer, would happily take a diagnosis offering a 95 percent chance of survival.
Bear are scary animals, and the more time you spend in the wild or semi-wild lands of Alaska, the more chance you have of encountering them. But they are not as dangerous as bees and wasps.
On average, 44 people die every year in the U.S. from allergic reactions after being stung by hornets, bees or wasps, according to a study appearing in Wilderness and Environmental Medicine. People who know they are allergic, carry an EpiPen with them almost everywhere so that if they are stung they can inject a drug (epinephrine) that immediately reverses the symptoms of the life-threatening reactions to the sting.
Smith suggests people heading into bear-filled areas of Alaska, or bear-filled anywhere in the Lower 48, think about bear spray or a firearm in the same way, as a simple, precautionary protection.
Smith admits to a preference for bear spray because it requires less skill to use than a firearm and is lighter, but he has no reservations about guns. If you are good with one, if you can perform with it under pressure, if you feel confident of hitting a moving target, and if you don’t mind hauling around the extra weight, take it.
Otherwise, consider the fact a can of bear spray weighs only 11 ounces and any idiot can use it without hurting themselves or anyone else while a short-barreled Remington 870 pump shotgun – among the better bear stoppers for most people – weighs seven and a half pounds, and even the lightest, short-barreled .454-caliber Casull handgun weighs four-times as much as the bear spray. Not to mention that it requires a lot more skill to use, plus some regular practice.
Or you could just make do with a stick.
That was the weapon of choice for the late Stan Price who lived among the grizzlies in a cabin at Pack Creek in the Admiralty Island National Monument for 33 years. Over time, he swatted more than a few bears on the nose.
That technique works fine right up until the time it doesn’t. Still, if you lack any other weapon, take what you can find – especially around black bears.
“I think that predatory black bears might be more common than most people think,” Miller said. Smith conceded she could be right. Black bears are hunted almost everywhere in North America these days, and hunters tend to weed out the bold and aggressive bears.
That alone might explain why there are fewer black bear attacks in areas where the bears are regularly hunted.
“With far less hunting pressure, more bold males survive,” the authors of fatal attacks wrote. “Males take more risks to feed and fatten to be able to compete with other males to breed. We see predation on a person being a rare, high-risk activity with a potentially high food reward, in which a bear might ingest much quality food by feeding on a person, but also will probably be killed by other humans.”
The Bird Ridge bear that killed Cooper was a 180-pound male that fit this description, and in the end the bear was shot and killed by humans. Three other bears died in the gunfire as collateral damage. The tragedy is that Cooper died before the bear-shootings happened.