Two wild animal attacks last week may have some Canadians wondering whether the great outdoors has suddenly become more dangerous. On July 2, a man received 50 stitches to his scalp after a wolf attacked him while he was sleeping on a beach on Vargas Island, just off the west coast of Vancouver Island. The same day, a black bear attacked and killed Mary Beth Miller as the 24-year-old biathlete was on a training run at Canadian Forces Base Valcartier, northwest of Quebec City. But wildlife experts say such attacks are rare. According to Martyn Obbard, a research scientist with Ontario’s ministry of natural resources, there are generally 10 to 20 bear attacks in all of North America each year, resulting in two or three fatalities. Wolf attacks are even rarer. In fact, says Lome Fitch, a Lethbridge, Alta.-based habitat biologist with the Alberta government, bees kill more people in the wild every year than do any of the large predatory mammals.
“The chances of being hurt by an animal in the back country,” he adds, “are demonstrably lower than the chances of being killed in your vehicle on the way there.”
Still, the experts caution hikers and campers to learn about-and respect-the species they might encounter. “There is no need to go out armed and dangerous,” says Fitch, “but rather armed with some information.” A good place to start, says Kerry Newkirk, a Kanata, Ont.based conservation researcher with the Canadian Wildlife Federation, is the Parks Canada Web site, www.parkscanada.pch.gc.ca. Its public safety link posts guidelines for operating in the wilderness. “There are some basic rules to avoid encounters in the first place and some basic rules about what to do if you do encounter a bear,” says Newkirk.
Tips for avoiding an encounter in-
clude staying in groups, making lots of noise, keeping food sealed up, and staying alert for signs of animal activity. CoronerYvanTurmel dismissed any suggestion the stereo headset Miller was listening to played a role in the incident. But generally, experts say wearing them in the wild is not a good idea. “You don’t want to blunt one of your key senses,” says Fitch.
Still, the experts say there are steps people can take to improve their odds if an encounter does occur. “Talk firmly, back away, never run,” says Newkirk. “Give the bear a good path to escape. Usually the bear will
take off.” Encounters with grizzly or brown bears are less frequent and more dangerous than those with black bears, he says. If a black bear does approach, a person may try to scare it off with loud noise or even hit it. With a grizzly, sometimes the only solution is to play dead, covering one’s head and neck. But never turn and run from any bear. “If you panic,” says Newkirk, “you will trigger an instinctive response and it will regard you as prey.”
It may seem like a lot to remember, but Fitch argues it is no more than people have to think about while getting around a city. “These are all coping mechanisms that are related to understanding the terrain that you’re in.”
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