Many of you have sent in the news of a fatal black bear attack in northeastern Alberta.
According to what I’ve read, a woman was attacked and killed by a black bear. She was at a base of Suncor Energy Inc., which is part of the oil sands operation in Alberta.
Details about the attack are scarce. I do not know if the worker was alone or not. While a black bear attack is rare, it is extremely rare for a bear to take on more than one person. In fact, the case that I talk about in my novel, The Bear, is one of the very few recorded cases where two adults were killed by a black bear.
What I do know is that after the attack, a male black bear was killed by RCMP officers shortly after 2 p.m. I assume that they had reason to know that this was the bear who attacked (though quickly identifying the correct bear can be tricky).
At the moment, I am interested in the bear training that Suncor workers receive. According to the CBC, the company has said that, “all workers participate in regular wildlife interaction training sessions.”
While on book tour, I have asked many people if they know what to do if approached by an aggressive bear. The most common answer is: “play dead.”
Playing dead might sometimes work if a grizzly bear is aggressively defending his turf as it might signal submission on your part. The grizzly bear may realize you are not a threat and turn his attention elsewhere.
In the case of a predatory black bear, however, playing dead might be the exact opposite of what you want to do. On a very rare occasion, a black bear will look at a human as a potential source of food. Recognizing the signs of this type of approach by a black bear takes training and experience, but the bear is more likely to look curious, rather than aggressive. He may investigate and start to stalk you. If he tries to attack, you want to fight back. Playing dead will make you into an easy meal. The aim is to send the bear a message that you are not an efficient source of calories.
I hope that the workers at Suncor received useful wildlife training that with sufficient detail about bear behavior. It could potentially save both people and bears.
While it is scary to think of bear attacks, a note for perspective: A recent study found that between 1900 and 2009, 63 people were killed by black bears in North America [source]. There were 32 dog-bite related fatalities in 2013 in the U.S. alone [source].
I will be following this incident closely and continue to post as I gather details. In the mean time, my thoughts are with the family of the worker.
UPDATE: The Globe & Mail has more details, specifically that the woman was with 7 co-workers when the bear attacked. I am surprised that a bear would mount such a risky attack.
I think of a comparable instance when a black bear attacked members of a tree planting crew near Hearst, Ontario in the 1990s. There were 10 plus people in the area at the time. In this case, the bear was thought to be on the edge of starvation. It was the desperate attempt of a desperate bear.
I will keep following the story and update as I try to make sense of it.