Bear as a Second Language

Bear as a Second Language | A primer on how to understand what bears are telling you
By Katherine Fawcett


Special to Pique Newsmagazine: April 09, 2010


With black bears, there’s no innuendo.

There’s no double entendre or silent treatment, no mixed signals, false accusations or reading between the lines. Bears wear no “social mask,” they never worry about manners and they never lie.

When a bear wants to communicate, he sends a direct message. With his stance and facial expression, a few grunts, huffs and teeth-clacks, even a charge, he says something very specific. Whether ordering cubs up a tree for safety, inviting another bear to play or warning hikers they’ve come too close and telling them to back off, bears’ signals are loud and clear.

It’s no wonder people who study bears say they’re easier to figure out than humans. No matter what language or dialect we speak, humans have a tendency to stifle our emotions, mislead our friends, invite contact we don’t really want and shun those we love. We guard our feelings, fly off the handle and send the wrong messages so often it’s surprising we get along at all. We are definitely an unpredictable lot.

“Bear communication is much simpler than human’s,” says Sylvia Dolson, Whistler’s unofficial Bear Lady. “(Bears are) easier to predict, much easier to read. When you understand bear behaviour and communication, there’s no need to be afraid.”

Over the past 15 years, Dolson has photographed hundreds of bears, observed them in their natural environment for days on end, seen cubs emerge from their den, witnessed matings and “shooed” them away from populated areas. She’s written two books about bears – A Whistler Bear Story and Bear-Ology – gives educational presentations, is the director of the Get Bear Smart Society and is regularly consulted by the RMOW on policies that will reduce bear/human conflicts.

At 53 years old, this petite, soft-spoken blonde doesn’t claim to be fearless. “I’m afraid of the dark. Jumping out of an airplane. Walking down East Hastings at night. I’d be afraid if I met a cougar. I would freak if I was in the water and there was a shark. Fear is of the unknown. It’s not what you know. I have an understanding of bear behavior, so there’s no need to be afraid.”

Dolson says there was a time, before she began studying bears, that she would have panicked if she saw bear fresh scat on the trail where she was hiking. “Now, I kick it around, see what the bear ate recently, and wonder where I can find him to get a picture.”

Misunderstood and Maligned

Through the ages, bears have been demonized, humanized, romanticized and commercialized. They have been honored in ceremonies and rituals and used to sell Coke and root beer. They are the consummate stuffed animal and Hollywood’s forest monster. We have been conditioned to regard bears as roly-poly softies and as blood-thirsty menaces. Rarely have we been taught to truly understand them.

Dolson says that while bears’ messages are simple, they are often misread. She says this is because people tend to interpret what a bear does in terms of their own fears, prejudices and preconceptions. Dr. Lynn Rogers, an expert on black bear behaviour, says that fear makes people interpret any sound as a growl, any look as a glare, and a bear walking towards them as a prelude to attack. In his book Backcountry Bear Basics, Dave Smith says, “People can live with real bears; it’s the bears roaming the wilds of the human imagination that are impossible to get along with.”

In fact, black bears are inherently timid. Researchers at the North American Bear Centre are frequently amazed at how cautious these powerful animals are about tiny unidentified rustling sounds of red squirrels, mice or birds. Black bears have retreated from butterflies, a pair of mallard ducks waddling into view, a fluttering moth landing on a bear, the swat of a kitten – even through a window – and many other unlikely causes.

In Whistler, bears are a fact of life. Approximately 100 black bears call the area home; they make their dens on the ski hills, graze on the golf courses and eat berries beside the hiking trails. If we aren’t careful with bear attractants they wander into town. Rare is the Whistlerite who hasn’t encountered a black bear at some point, either in their back yard, the back forty or the backcountry. And while encounters are common, injuries caused by bears are extremely rare. Indeed, no one has ever been killed by a bear in Whistler. However, as bears begin to emerge from hibernation, a little BSL (Bear as a Second Language) goes a long way in ensuring every bear encounter is safe and conflict-free.

“I’m chillin’ out.”

A relaxed, un-stressed bear is probably either eating, grazing for food, lounging in the sun or checking out something it is curious but unconcerned about. His ears will be rounded forward or upright Mickey Mouse-style, and he will look heavy and slow. His vocalizations include tongue clicks and grunts, which are used in amicable situations with play partners, potential mates, cubs and occasionally people.

If you see a relaxed bear who is unaware of your presence – lucky you! Cherish the moment but don’t linger. Move slowly away from the bear to give him his space. Keep an eye on him, watching for changes in body position and behaviour such as a sudden stiffening stance or raising of the head.

“I’m curious.”

A curious bear will seek more information about something he doesn’t understand. At this point, he is not feeling stressed or threatened, but he’s not exactly relaxed. A bear’s primary sense for gathering information about the world is through his nose. Bears can see and hear about as well as humans can, but their sense of smell is hundreds of times more powerful than ours. Unless the wind is blowing your scent away, a bear will detect your presence long before either of you can see or hear each other. When he picks up your scent, he may stop what he’s doing and try to get more information. This could mean standing up on his hind legs, with his nose sniffing the air. He will also be trying to spot you visually and will cock his ears to the side or point them backwards to hear better.

A bear standing on its hind legs is often misinterpreted as being in an aggressive stance, especially if he appears to have his hackles raised like an angry dog. In fact, bears don’t have hackles. According to the North American Bear Centre, bears that appear to have the fur on the backs of their necks raised may be shedding part of their fur. Near the end of shedding in late summer, the last long hairs to fall out are on the back of the neck and shoulders, creating a raised-hackle look. Also, in fall, when the warm under-fur grows in it can make the long guard hairs on the upper back stand straight up. Or perhaps, the wind is simply blowing his hair upwards.

If you see a bear that sees you and seems curious but unthreatened, assess your surroundings. Are you blocking the bear’s only path out of the area (perhaps you are against a cliff or steep mountainside)? Are you standing in the midst of a particularly nice berry patch? Are there cubs around? Is the wind blowing your scent away from the bear, perhaps making you more mysterious?

At this point, it’s important to communicate back to the bear. Calmly identify yourself as human.

Talk to the bear in an appeasing, respectful voice. Fortunately, he understands tone, not dialect. He might simply sit down, as a sign of respect. He may dart his eyes from side to side, or even yawn with disinterest, showing that he has no intention of changing the situation and just wants to be left alone. (Dogs often do the same thing.)

Do not take this as a sign to approach. Rather, it means that at this point you are not causing a problem – but come any closer and you might. Increase your distance from the bear. Give him his space, and show him that you mean no harm. Don’t run away, as the bear may decide you are something worth chasing. Chances are, once the bear detects you and identifies you as human, he will move away to avoid you, or run up a tree in a sign of submission. Give the bear time to do so, and proceed slowly and cautiously, talking to the bear calmly so he can gauge your location without constantly looking up. If the bear doesn’t move off and you must carry on in the same direction, make a wide detour around the bear, continually observing him for signs of stress or anxiety.

“I’m anxious”

There is a very specific facial expression a bear exhibits the moment he shifts from being relaxed and curious to anxious and fearful. Dolson says when a bear draws his upper lip downwards, making his mouth appear square and his face appear long, he is saying he is nervous.

After the squared-lip expression, there are a handful of distinct messages a bear will send. These are called “ritualized displays” and express that the bear feels threatened and wants you to leave. They also buy the bear (and you) some time to assess the situation. Huffing (expelling air in forceful breaths; the faster the huffs, the more nervous the bear,) and swatting the air or slapping the ground is one of the most common “Yikes! Get out of here!” signals. This is not an effort to threaten and it is not a prelude to attack. The same message is intended when the bear clacks his teeth together like he is chewing gum. This teeth-clacking is also called jaw-popping.

Black bears that give these signals are showing that they are frightened and ready to retreat. They are saying “Leave me alone. I’m nervous. Don’t come any closer.” Dolson says these ritualized displays are intended to intimidate the opponent; they are the person’s opportunity to “do the right thing and de-escalate the situation.”

“I’m serious”

If the bear still feels anxious, crowded or is reluctant to leave an area because of cubs or food nearby, he will usually escalate his warnings.

At this point, the bear may come towards you with his head lowered, gazing directly at you. You may hear a noise that sounds like an engine rumbling from the bear’s stomach. He may open and shut his mouth toward you, swipe at you with a paw or even lunge at you or run towards you. Just before such a charge, he may lay his ears back and lower his body closer to the ground, fixing his eyes on the object of his fear. A bluff charge stops short at the last minute. It is intended to intimidate and usually ends with the bear turning and retreating, perhaps to repeat the performance, perhaps not.

Research has shown that such displays by black bears are not preludes to attacks. As difficult as it may seem at the time, stand your ground. Use a firm voice, as you would a strange dog who approaches you barking. Show the bear that you mean business by making yourself appear large. Take a wide stance on a log or a rock and tell the bear firmly to leave. The typical response from the bear will be: “Okay. Okay. I’ll go then,” and he’ll scamper off.

Dolson has been bluff charged and lunged at dozens of times. And although she is small in stature, never has she had a bear ignore her firm demands. Dr. Lynn Rogers says that in 40-odd years of studying black bears, he has observed bluffs to be nothing more than blustery acts. “I’ve never seen bluster turn into an attack. Bluff charges by black bears are blustery with exaggerated pounces and explosive blowing. When I see bluster, I back away and give the bear more space. If it’s a black bear, it is merely a bluff that means the bear feels nervous and apprehensive, but for some reason may be reluctant to leave. Although terrifying, this assertive behaviour is not an attack.”

“I’m surprised”

If a bear is surprised – for instance by a mountain biker or runner who comes quickly around a blind corner – he will not have time to express his anxiety. Mostly likely the bear will turn and run away when surprised. If he feels trapped, or if there are cubs nearby, the bear may get blustery, slap the ground and huff. He may even slap at the person, whacking them in the arm or shoulder. However, if it’s an older male bear who has encountered humans many times throughout his life, he might just look at the (probably terrified) person, unconcerned. In either case, talk to the bear in a calm and appeasing tone and back away, keeping an eye on him.

Communicating to Bears

To avoid causing a bear concern or surprising him, make lots of noise when hiking or biking in the woods. Sing. Whistle. Gossip loudly. Crack sticks or shuffle your feet through leaves, whatever it takes to warn the bear that you are approaching and give him ample time to move away. Bear bells might seem like a good idea, but often they are ineffective. Bear bells have no biological significance to a bear. In other words, bears don’t know they’re supposed to associate people with the sound of a bell. Dolson says it’s best to make sounds that let bears know people (or another animals) are nearby.

Deterrents like bear spray and loud, explosive bear “bangers” probably do more to preserve human peace-of-mind than to prevent conflict. Dolson says bangers are more likely to cause a forest fire than alert a bear of our presence, for the same reason bear bells don’t work. However, bangers can be effective deterrents if combined with human dominance techniques to send an urban bear running.

Bear spray – pepper spray – should be used only as a last resort, when a bear is attacking you or is coming toward you in full charge. Be aware which way the wind is blowing, or you could be debilitated if the spray blows into your eyes. Also, be close enough to get the spray into the bear’s face, otherwise it will only irritate the bear further. Read the can’s instructions carefully for the distance at which your brand works best. Practice with an inert can before you head into the woods. Don’t wait until you are faced with a reason to use your spray to figure out how it works. Keep it accessible, not in your backpack. Visit for more detailed instructions on how, when, and when not to use bear spray.

Now is the time bears are just beginning to emerge from their dens. When we see them – and we will – remember that they can express themselves very clearly without a single word, if we listen with respect and understanding. A little knowledge about bear behaviour and communication can go a long way in reducing conflicts and making encounters with these fascinating animals safe and memorable.

Katherine Fawcett co-authored “A Whistler Bear Story” with Sylvia Dolson. To order a copy of the book, visit


Photo courtesy: Pique Publishing Inc.