Questions raised as to use of bear spray
Update 10/5/2023: A friend of the dead couple has told the Calgary Herald and other Canadian news organizations that they were apparently attacked while in their tent, and that one of two canisters of bear spray found at the scene was empty, raising new questions about the effectiveness of bear spray when truly aggressive bears are involved.
Bear attacks on people in tents are even rarer than bear attacks in general, but this attack in one of the wildest parts of Canada’s Banff National Park is reminiscent of a 2005 attack along Alaska’s wild Hulahula River on the North Slope that left Richard and Katherine Huffman dead.
The Huffman’s had a .45-70, lever-action CoPilot rifle in the tent, a rifle specifically designed for bear protection in Alaska, but were unable to use it.
An investigation revealed Richard appeared to have pulled down the lever on the rifle to put a cartridge into the chamber but died or was seriously injured before he could bring the firearm into play, Jonathon Waterman later wrote in National Geographic Adventure magazine.
There is obviously no perfect solution for self-defense against a grizzly which decides to go after people in a tent. Tents themselves have been shown to be somewhat protective – most bears avoid attacking them, but they are also large, visible attractions that can draw the attention of a passing bear.
The most effective means of keeping bears away from tents is a portable electric fence. The lightest of them weigh less than two and a half pounds but cost several hundred dollars. But they have been proven to work well in parts of Alaska were sightings of grizzly bears are an everyday occurrence.
As for those who chose to carry firearms in the wilds of Alaska – where a firearm can be considered both a means of bear protection and a potential survival tool – a handgun might be preferred over a rifle or shotgun both due to its lighter weight and its ease of use in close quarters.
Handguns, however – no matter what size, shape or caliber one chooses – require considerable practice at the range for a shooter to become proficient enough to use for bear protection or taking game in a survival situation.
The cloud of journalistic bumbling that surrounded the grizzly bear killing of two people found dead in Canada’s Banff National Park over the weekend was beginning to clear on Tuesday, but new questions were being raised about bear spray.
The CBC and other Canadian news outlets reported Parks Canada said two cans of bear spray were found near the remains of backcountry campers Doug Inglis and Jenny Gusse, both 62 from Lethbridge, Alberta.
But whether the spray was used or not was left hanging.
There has been considerable debate about the degree of effectiveness of bear spray for several years now. The pepper spray designed to be shot into the faces of bears from a small, fire-extinguisher-like canister has worked in the vast majority of cases and is now widely used across North America.
From the reports coming out of Canada, Inglis and Gusse might have encountered the most problematic of fall bears, an old and lean animal in need of more calories before hibernation. The bear was described as a female more than 25 years old, in only fair body condition but with her teeth in poor condition.
A disproportionate number of bears fitting that description have shown up in defense of life and property shootings involving hunters in Alaska in the fall. Four deer hunters staying in a public-use cabin on Admiralty Island in the state’s Panhandle spent three days and nights being terrorized by such a bear before they finally killed it in November 1980.
One of the hunters, Fred Shelton, said the bear had little fat on its body and was so old most of its teeth were gone.
A similar bear attacked, killed and ate California animal rights activist Timmy Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard in Katmai National Park and Preserve in 2003 in a tragedy that made international news and sparked a documentary film.
That bear was a 28-year-old animal with broken canine teeth. It was described as “very old but not in remarkably poor condition.”
There have been some suggestions bears such as these might be more inclined to look at humans as potential prey, but the number of such bears is so small given the relatively few bears make it into their 20s and that bear attacks are, in general, so rare it is impossible to draw any solid scientific conclusions.
Did they or didn’t they?
And the biggest question now surrounding the latest attack is whether the victims were able to use their bear spray to deter the bear.
It is unclear whether the lack of this significant piece of information is because reporters unfamiliar with bears and bear attacks weren’t smart enough to ask the question, or whether it is tied to the behavior of Parks Canada, which has tried to control the tone of this story from the beginning.
That led to such jumbled reporting at the start one almost needed a translator to figure out what happened.
“Parks Canada said it learned of the attack via an alert sent around 8 p.m. on Friday from a satellite device inside Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada,” the New York Times reported when the story first began to unfold.
There are no satellite devices that send bear alert messages. InReach, Spot, Defy and other GPS satellite locators now entering a market once dominated by Spot and InReach do have buttons that can be pushed to summon a rescue, but none have an “I was attacked by a bear” button.
The most likely scenario from the start was that one of the two people attacked by the bear was able to communicate with rescuers via satellite messaging before dying, which Inglis’s uncle – Colin Inglis – confirmed is what happened in the Tuesday CBC report.
He explained that he received an SOS message from his nephew’s Garmin InReach late Friday that said “‘Bear attack bad.”
The message sparked a rescue effort that was delayed by bad weather that prevented helicopters from flying. A Canadian Wildlife-Human Attack Response Team (WHART) had to hike deep into the park and by the time they reached the scene of the attack, the victims were dead.
“While at the site,” Outside magazine, which is supposed to know something about the outdoors, reported that the rescuers “also encountered a grizzly bear that, according to the release, ‘displayed aggressive behavior.’ Parks Canada officials euthanized the bear.”
“Euthanasia,'” according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, is “the act or practice of killing or permitting the death of hopelessly sick or injured individuals (such as persons or domestic animals) in a relatively painless way for reasons of mercy.”
This is what you do with your beloved dog. You take it to a veterinarian who injects it with an overdose of pentobarbital, which puts the dog to sleep after which, in a matter of minutes, heart and brain functions stop.
So-called WHART teams do not carry pentobarbital. They carry firearms for self-protection.
Fed by media releases
Countless news organizations, however, followed the carefully scripted media release from Parks Canada, describing a “bear exhibiting aggressive behavior” being euthanized. This can only be described as a sanitized description of events designed to try to downplay what happened.
The CBC, to its credit, also cleared this up on Tuesday.
“The bear was shot and killed hours after the emergency response call was received when Parks Canada staff arrived at the scene and the bear charged the response team,” the CBC said.
The bear met the same fate as the one that killed celebrity wannabe Treadwell and Huggenard in Katmai on Oct. 5 exactly 20 years ago. It was shot when it confronted would-be rescuers.
Treadwell and Huggenard, it is worth noting, had no real weapon to use against the bear that attacked them. Treadwell thought it was wrong to shoot or pepper spray bears.
An audio recording that captured the sounds of the attack recorded the bear mauling Treadwell and his pleading with Huggenard to hit the animal with a pan, a pitiful weak weapon to use against a brown/grizzly bear.
The Banff couple was clearly better equipped to deal with a bear attack, but still did not survive.
CTV News in Calgary, Alberta on Tuesday reported “the couple and dog mauled and killed by a grizzly bear in the backcountry of Banff National Park late last week did everything right, Parks Canada says.
“They had the appropriate permits.
“They had bear spray.
“They’d hung their food properly.”
Those details would certainly indicate the couple did everything right in complying with park regulations. Whether they did everything right when the bear attacked – if they even had time to do anything – remains unclear.
Whether they fired their bear spray, and whether any residue from it was found on the dead bear, is a rather important detail.
Bear spray, like a firearm, doesn’t work unless you use it. And it’s possible everything happened so fast they never had a chance to use the spray. The cans might have been in backpacks hanging on trees when the bear attacked or put away in a tent.
Bear attacks – one of the rarest dangers in the outdoor world – can happen very, very fast. This is the way nature works. This is a world wherein the law of nature as defined by English philosopher Thomas Hobbes in the 17th Century still applies – kill or be killed.
This is something easy to forget, at least in the comfortable, internet-connected Western world far removed from nature where the version of nature to which most are exposed is sanitized because some government authorities think it too brutal to be discussed frankly and honestly.