Bear family

Video link.
“Don’t get between the mother and her cubs.” That’s always what people say when they’re trying to scare you about black bears. Well, this morning in the woods above my house, I may not have gotten between them, but I got within 20 feet of them as they played beside one of our moss-covered trails, and I never felt as if I were in the slightest danger. You can see the reaction when the mother finally caught my scent — they were gone. Only afterwards did it occur to me that if she’d decided to charge, I wouldn’t have had any time to react.

Windy days are great for sneaking up on critters that rely more on their noses than their eyes. I wasn’t making any special attempt to walk quietly; the bears were simply making more noise than I was with their rustling around in the leaf duff, and didn’t hear my approach. I had the still camera around my neck and the video camera in my pocket, and I had to make two decisions pretty quickly once I realized a bear family was running towards me: first, do I lose myself in the moment and experience the encounter as deeply as I can, so as to better remember and write about it, or do I try and capture it photographically so I can share the experience with Via Negativa readers? And if the latter, should I take still photos or video?

I am still not sure I made the right decision on either account. I quickly went into a crouch to make myself less visible and prolong the encounter, which I think worked well, but it’s a less than perfect video because I couldn’t keep my eyes on the LCD display — I kept glancing past the camera at the bears. It was fun to see the bear cubs horsing around at such close range, and I regret not keeping the focus on them the whole time. There might have been more cubs up in the woods; we hardly ever see a mother bear with fewer than three cubs. But I suppose this could’ve been a first-year mother. She didn’t seem very big.

The bears ran up over the ridge and I didn’t attempt to follow them, though I did walk as quietly as I could after that. If I’d gone straight back to the house after the encounter, the whole walk wouldn’t have taken more than ten minutes out of my morning: a great reminder of why one should get up from the computer every once in a while. “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door…”

40 Comments


  1. Love this video, but wondered whether in focusing on the cubs you were also managing to keep a sufficient eye on mama bear. Glad she didn’t charge, too!

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  2. This looked less scary than I thought it would be … but I’m sure your heart was pounding! I love it when the cubs finally saw you and, after a momentary stare, turned and scampered off in the other direction.

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    1. I’m not sure if they saw me or not — my sense was that they were responding to a signal from Mama to scram.

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      1. Any idea how she signaled? Grunt? Whistle? Cluck? Or was it visual?

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        1. I think it was a grunt, and the visual evidence of her own fear — probably more the latter than anything.

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  3. Damn. They run as fast as spastic kittens.

    Thank you for filming this. Made my day.

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    1. I suspect they could run down (and eat) a kitten with no trouble. Glad you liked.

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    1. I thought about Hope, too. Hard to believe a cub this size could survive on its own, isn’t it? And they certainly do seem to enjoy each other’s company.

      I almost stayed in to watch the Tony Hayward hearing on CSpan. Glad I didn’t! All I saw was that idiot Barton apologizing for the “shakedown” of BP — that was enough for me.

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        1. Yeah, and I think the party bosses must’ve come down on him pretty quick the way he ended up having to retract his remarks a few hours later! Not that the Obama adminstration is too great for wildlife and conservation, either — except for Lisa Jackson. I like her. But Salazar has to go.

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  4. That’s a great encounter, Dave. I’m not sure I would have stuck around to take pictures, but I’m glad that you did without incident. Those two cubs are full of joyful exuberance.

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    1. Well, it happened too quickly for me to have much choice about whether to stick around or not. I guess if they’d gotten any closer I would’ve spoken up.

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  5. Love those frisky cubs and watchful mama! I remember a previous video you took, was it last year? Would you believe we get bears here too, at the base of the mountains, usually a little later in the summer when they’re looking for fruit as well as garbage, even a tempting pie by an open kitchen door! Our plum tree was stripped by a ‘teenage bear’ a couple of years ago. Wildlife officers have to come around and capture them now and then and take them back into the mountains. We have bylaws and fines for leaving garbage and food out. But really, they are fairly harmless if not trapped into a corner.

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    1. Oh, I’m glad you get to see them, too. I’d heard western black bears were a little more aggressive than those here in the east, but if so, not by much, I guess.

      I did post a black bear video last year, too. Actually I linked to that post in my Five Questions post the other day, but here it is again: Bird Count Bear. That was a big male, I think, also at this time of year, so presumably out looking for mates. He might even be the father of the cubs here!

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  6. I’ve never seen a bear, so think you made the right choice.

    Thanks for this.

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    1. Never? Maybe you should make a trip to northern NJ. I hear theyr’e overrun with bears up there.

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  7. Thanks for the decision to film for your readers. Like others have said, this made my morning.

    There was an article in our paper last weekend that black bears are moving back into east Texas. Hopefully they’ll eventually make it back to central TX. In the meantime, I really appreciate you sharing your encounters with those who live in bearless places.

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    1. Wow, I didn’t know y’all had eradicated bears. Hope you get them back soon!

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  8. Wonderful video, thanks! No one knows how to play better than a bear.

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    1. Yes, and I do believe the capacity for play is an index of intelligence. It’s amazing that creatures capable of such solitary existences can also play so well.

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  9. What a great opportunity to see this family AND get to tape it. Congratulations. I’m jealous. I don’t worry about bears too much. I’ve only been charged once and that was a false charge to scare me off, which it did, after I charged her and sent her running in the opposite direction. I’d be more careful of suburban bears that have acclimated to people.

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    1. So she charged you, then you charged back? Sounds like some of the fights when I was a kid in Tyrone High.

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      1. It was one time bluffing worked. One out a hundred I believe.

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  10. Wow, fantastic, Dave! (I would have been torn between getting out of there and watching, too, and probably would have done what you did. I always figure most animals are more scared of me than I am of them.)

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    1. Yes, we have no idea what it must’ve been like to live in the world of our distant hominid ancestors, with so many things capable of having us for lunch.

      (You must’ve been reading just as I was updating the site to WP 3.0 and disabling all the plugins. Sorry for any weirdness you may have experienced.)

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  11. Well this is a marvellous piece of film, and I’m deeply envious, coming from a country where there are no large predators, that you can experience such wonders virtually in your own yard. The idea of tangling with an irate or perhaps frightened mother bear is a bit heart-poundingly scary, but I would guess that your family background and your own awareness of the world around you, make you one of the more knowledgeable and cautious people around when it comes to observing nature.

    Have you ever seen the documentary Grizzly Man by Werner Hertzog? I saw it because of interests on two counts. Bears and their relationship to humans, and because Sigi Hertzog once gave me a very good choreographic job in Vienna, and on the night that the production previewed, her brother and I sat next to each other in the auditorium. He has such a legendary reputation as a film-maker, and everything I’d read about Grizzly Man made it a compelling subject. In the event I found the film almost too harrowing to sit through. From the beginning you could see man and nature on conflict course because of the delusions and the ego of Timothy Treadwell. Not for the faint-hearted.

    But you my friend are no Timothy Treadwell, and you weren’t in the presence of Grizzly Bears, which I believe are the most fearsome and unknowable bears to be on the wrong side of.

    Your film is a delight. But please continue to go safely!

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    1. Hi Clive – Glad you enjoyed this brief window into black bear family life. Yeah, we’ve had many encounters with bears over the years, and none of us ever felt in any real danger. Grizzlies, of course, are another matter entirely, and I’m just as glad not to have them here. I have not seen that Herzog film, altough I am a fan of his work and outlook. Like you, though, I might not be able to sit through it!

      Readers interested in your encounter with Herzog — whom many consider to be a fearsome beast in his own right, of course — should click through and read your latest post. Fascinating stuff! The sister sounds just as, um, inspired as her better-known brother.

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    1. Not regularly, I imagine. But he follows my Morning Porch stuff on Twitter, and sometimes I post links to Via Negativa. That one tweet of his brought in close to 2000 extra page views, but — in a telling example of the average attention span of Twitter users — only about a fifth of those visitors stayed to watch the video!

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  12. I find that ‘fifth’ to be oddly disheartening! It’s infected me with ennui! (Or maybe that’s just the tail-end of this damned cold!)

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    1. I discussed this on Facebook yesterday with some other bloggers. I suggested that part of the discrepancy might be due to the fact that so many visitors came from Twitter, which people often access via mobile device which might not display a movie, lacking either the software (the iPhone lacks Flash) or the bandwidth. However, in general stats are a poor indication of readership. Most visitors come in via search engines and are looking for specific information, so depart fairly quickly whether or not they find what they’re looking for. And many regular readers rarely show up in stats at all, since they read the blog through Google Reader, Bloglines, email, etc.

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  13. But 400 viewers of your video is not to be sneezed at, is it? (sorry, Clive, maybe not the best metaphor)

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  14. Since it was brought up by another commenter — I regret ever watching Grizzly Man. My husband and I took a trip out to Glacier Nat’l Park in 2008 and, though I had an amazing time, I got very little sleep. We weren’t even camping in the backcountry, just base camping and doing day hikes, but that movie just kept echoing in my mind and I was convinced my husband and I were going to get eaten by a grizzly bear.

    Even with black bears I’m a bit frightened — because you have that 1% of aggressive males that stalk a person with the intent to kill and eat. Again, took a canoe trip in the backcountry of Algonquin PP just a week ago and couldn’t quite get the sleep I needed.

    Sigh. It’s a shame, too, because I love the wilderness and love animals. Just… that movie ruined my love for bears. I’m convinced there out to kill me.

    Although that movie does a great job of capturing the relationship between “man and beast” I do not recommend it to anyone who actually spends time in the woods with said beasts.

    Loved the video, Dave. Maybe I wouldn’t be so scared of the bears if I lived in PH.

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    1. Well, much as I admire the director’s other work, I believe I’ll take your advice and avoid seeing that movie. I really don’t think you have to worry with eastern black bears, though. Thanks for commenting.

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