Less growling, more snorting: Expert explains frightened bear behaviour

Picture a bear attack.

Does the scene from The Revenant come to mind? 

The sudden charge, the ominous growling, the quick and terrifying mauling — it's all Hollywood, says a bear expert. 

Mike McIntosh, who runs the Bear with Us bear rehabilitation centre in Ontario, said neither the sudden attack nor the growling are typical bear behaviours.

McIntosh will be in Calgary this weekend to speak about the language of bears at the Cochrane Ecological Institute's annual symposium, and spoke with the Calgary Eyeopener ahead of his visit to discuss bear behaviour.

Q: What kind of different sounds does a bear make?

A: They don't make a lot of sounds that we often hear and think they make. Bears are usually only vocal when they're either afraid or in pain. Most of the time they're quiet.

Q: You sent us this video of an interaction you had with a black bear. What's happening here?

A: There's a bear in a tree and I'm below, looking up at her, recording it. She's slapping the trunk with her paws and chomping her jaws, clacking her molars together, snorting. She's asking me in bear language to leave, go away; she's uncomfortable with me being there, which is quite understandable. She's very much afraid of me, she happens to have two small cubs in an adjoining tree.

Q: We're often told to stay away from mother bears with cubs because they're aggressive. Is that true?

A: Wildlife experts are correct in saying you should stay away from a mother bear and her cubs. Part of the misunderstanding comes from a lot of brown bear behaviour, which is often nicknamed grizzly bear, is extrapolated onto black bears. Although a black bear will tend to flee and run rather than defend her cubs by attacking, a brown bear or grizzly may attack to defend the cubs.

In other words, if you get between a mother black bear and her cubs and you just talk to her in a low, calm voice ... that will help deescalate the situation. She may bluff charge. She may stomp the ground, clack her teeth, snort at you, but a bear that behaves that way, that vocal, blustery posturing, does not attack anybody. 

Q: Here's a clip of bears appearing to fight over a fishing spot. Do bears growl?

A: No. Only in the movies. I can assure you, that particular video, those bears were actually fighting, but with a telephoto lens from the distance the photographer is photographing at, he wouldn't be able to hear the actual sound they're making anyway. That's definitely not a bear, that's a lion. 

They'd be chomping their jaws at each other. If they're really into it, they might not be making much sound at all. A lot of snorting and wrestling, but no growling for sure.  

(Note: the full video of the encounter appears to show the bears fighting — with no growling sounds.)

Q: Let's talk about the bear attack in The Revenant. Is the behaviour there an accurate rendition? 

A: Well, the bear is not even accurate. Neither are the sounds. Nothing's close. 

Q: So, what sort of bear sounds should you be looking for?

A: If you're hiking through the woods, chances are, if there is a bear in the area or bears, they're going to know you're coming long before you know they're there, and they'll be gone long before you ever see them. That's almost always the case.

If you happen to see the bear and a bear sees you, they're going to be nervous. It doesn't know what to expect from a human being; a lot of times we're not that nice to them, so stomping the ground, sometimes a bluff charge, chomping their teeth together, snorting and sometimes when they're really scared they'll have a really low moan. Sometimes, that may be interpreted as a growl but if you listen closely it's not a growl at all. 

The bear that makes the noise is not the bear to worry about. The best thing to do is quietly leave the area, and if you have a dog, secure the dog on a leash. 

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With files from the Calgary Eyeopener