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How to handle bear encounters

Natasha Collett, staff writer

April 14, 2012 — Bears are starting to come out of hibernation. We spoke to an expert to find out what to do if you run into one.

A black bear at the Muskoka Wildlife Centre
A black bear at the Muskoka Wildlife Centre

We've all heard this line before: "Bears are more scared of you than you are of them," -- but experts say in most cases, it's actually true.

"If you see a black bear in the wild, there's no reason to be afraid," says Dale Gienow, owner of the Muskoka Wildlife Centre in Gravenhurst, Ont.

"Of course you want to make noise when you're walking through the woods -- the last thing you want to do is startle any potentially dangerous wild animal," he says. "But once a bear has seen you, generally he's going to go the other way."

But if you do find yourself facing down a black bear Gienow says there are ways you can show the bear that you aren't a prey species.

"Be confident, hold your head up high and walk backwards slowly and the bear will leave you alone,'' says Gienow.

Whatever you do, don't run. "Contrary to popular belief, bears are very fast. A black bear can run faster than a racehorse over a short period of time,' Gienow explains.

A black bear might also occasionally bluff you to find out if you are a predator or not. "They want to know where you are -- are you a predator or prey? They'll charge at you which can be very alarming but then they'll stop short of you just to see what you'll do. "The key is not to run, stand your ground and walk away slowly."

This bear may look slow -- but he can outrun a racehorse
This bear may look slow -- but he can outrun a racehorse

In western parts of Canada, like B.C. and Alberta, there's also the potential for grizzly bear sightings. "A grizzly bear is really a different species than a black bear," explains Gienow. "They're a much larger species of bear [and] they're a much heavier carnivore. They eat a lot more meat and other animals than their black bear counterpart does."

If you encounter a grizzly bear, Gienow says you should lie on the ground in the fetal position.

"The hope here is he was looking at you like a potential threat to his territory," says Gienow. "Once he realizes you're not a threat, he's going to walk away and leave you alone."

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