Bear Attacks in Nova Scotia

by: Ross Hall

In the early morning hours of September 6, 1979, a 16-year-old boy near Belmont, Colchester County, struggled home with a severely lacerated left arm, he did not remember what happened. The assumption arose that the boy was attacked by a bear. This sensational story was widely covered in the news media.

If this event was not enough to unsettle the nerves of mothers whose children waited on country roads for school buses, a second bear attack was reported during the Remembrance Day weekend at Northport in Cumberland County.

The R.C.M.P. are still investigating the Belmont incident and Department of Lands and Forests staff have looked into both alleged attacks. In the Belmont incident - from the nature of the wound and the absence of any bear sign - Department staff concluded that a bear was not involved.

At Northport a young man was feeding calves. In the poor light of dusk he met what he thought was a bear at the entrance to a feed room. He describes being knocked to the ground and escaping into his car. He suffered some torn clothing and shock. The following day another worker at the same farm reported encountering a bear again inside the feed room. The animal was chased off with a shovel. Both men reported matted hair near the shoulder of the bear. They speculated that the same bear was involved in both incidents, and that it was wounded.

Examination by Lands and Forests staff from Oxford indicated that the cattle barns were an area ripe for a nuisance bear. Several dead calves were disposed of in nearby woods and in another barn there was easy access to cattle foods. Surprisingly, there was no evidence of a bear frequenting the area. There has been no return visit by a bear to the feed room and local hunters were unsuccessful in location a wounded or even a healthy bear.

We must assume that the cattle farmers did encounter a passing bear at their feed room. Fortunately there was no serious injury; and possibly the bear reacted with a surprise and a fear equal to that described by the men.

This recent negative publicity in Nova Scotia has caused many persons to become more nervous of bears. Lands and Forests staff in the 20 forest districts of the province investigate about 100 bear complaints each year. Many are related to agriculture, such as upsetting of beehives or damage to crops. An increasingly common complaint is from people who have seen a bear near their home and they are concerned for personal safety.

Garbage often brings bears near homes. A typical example was a call from an upset woman in a country area. A bear was in their yard watching children. Her husband shot at the bear, missed, but scared it away. On checking the complaint it was found that the family had dumped their winter's garbage about 100 feet behind the house. A trap was set for the bear but it did not return and the dump was covered up. In this case it was thought that the bear was not about to attack the children, but had developed an unwelcome degree of boldness and familiarity.

Often a bear is merely observed travelling near a home, especially where new suburban housing has expanded into country areas. Such homeowners, unaccustomed to country life, fear the worst. In these instances Lands and Forests officers do not take any action unless the bear persists in prowling around the house. When the worries of the homeowner cannot be calmed and the homeowner insists that the bear be tracked down and killed, wildlife rangers are sometimes placed in an awkward position.

In Nova Scotia we have the black bear. This animal is normally timid around humans, and should not be confused with the more notorious grizzly and polar bears which are known to be dangerous. Films and popularized writings often make no distinction.

Trophy hunters write fictional articles in hunting magazines. For reading appeal they describe enraged and charging bears when probably, in truth, they shot an old "pot licker" on this evening stroll to a dump. At the other extreme, television programs which depict bears as overgrown Newfoundland dogs are just as unreal and lead to a dangerous level of trust.

Should Nova Scotians fear our black bear population? Respect is perhaps a better attitude. Black bears are powerful and free-roaming predators and they should never be regarded too casually. Bears which encounter people in the woods for the most part make a hasty retreat. Often the human is unaware that he was even near a bear. Few people actually ever see a wild bear and for those people who love the outdoors it is a cherished memory. This biologist in seven years of walking in the woods has only encountered two bears.

There are instances when a bear has reason not to retreat and becomes more threatening. A wildlife ranger while searching for dead deer in the spring was chased up a tree when a sow bear considered him a threat to her cubs. A moose hunter returned to where he had shot a moose and found a bear jealously guarding the carcass. Similarly a farmer was chased from some discarded cattle offal.

Individual bears no doubt vary in boldness and aggressiveness; the same perhaps as domestic dogs vary in temperament. Some are docile and wary; others are more venturesome. When an encounter occurs rather than punish the bear population in general, we should regard these animals as individuals and punish the offender. In Nova Scotia we have never had what could be classified as a bear mauling, at least not one which has caused serious injury.

Black bears are part of our wildlife heritage and we should not be so harsh or fearful to wish for their extermination. With a respectful but not fearful attitude and an understanding of why problems arise we can safely correct most situations that arise.

Final words of advice:

  1. Dispose of garbage and farm refuse with care. A bear's boldness increases as it learns to associate man with his garbage.
  2. When camping, keep things clean and store food away from the tent. In the far north, to avoid injury by polar bears, dining tents are placed far from sleeping areas and campers are warned against having even a chocolate bar wrapper in their tent.
  3. In the woods, if you meet a bear which does not run, move slowly awa - don't run. Talk to the bear in a commanding voice. Like a dog, a bear is much braver when a person shows fear.

In Canada, Black bears have on rare occasions stalked and attacked humans. We have not known bears in Nova Scotia to do this, yet the potential exists. Recent wisdom on Black Bear behaviour recommends:

  • Remain calm. If the bear is at a distance and not displaying aggressive behaviour, back away slowly.
  • Never approach or feed a bear.
  • If a bear follows you, continue to back away slowly, speaking in low tones. Climb a tree as a last resort since bears are excellent tree climbers.
  • Avoid direct eye contact with the bear.
  • Bears that make blowing or snorting noises, swat the ground or charge you only to veer off at the last second are acting defensively, continue to back away SLOWLY.
  • If the bear attacks you, FIGHT BACK!! Hit the bear with everything you have ...sticks, stones, your fists. Yell at the bear in a low gruff voice. This is contrary to advice for Grizzy Bear attacks where it is recommended to play dead.