Watch as this photographer puts his bear spray to the test after a young black bear continues to bluff and charge him. “This is your friendly reminder to always carry bear spray when you’re in their territory and to never feed wildlife.” So says Curtis Matwishyn, a Saskatchewan-based wildlife photographer who got a little too familiar with a young bear last week. And how right he is.
At first, Curtis considered himself lucky as he spotted a black bear just outside Waskesiu. But as he began photographing it from 100 meters away with a telephoto lens, he couldn’t help but notice the bear coming closer and closer.
“I was upwind of the bear and it definitely smelled me,” he cites of his harrowing encounter. As the young bear, a cinnamon-colored American black bear, continued to show interest in him, Curtis tried to ward it off by waving his hands, shouting, and giving the bear room to pass. But nothing worked.
At this point, Matwishyn is filming the bear with his cellphone and walking backwards, as his footage shows:
Thankfully, he’s well-versed in the wildlife he photographs and knew he was witnessing atypical behavior from this black bear. “Based on its behavior, it looks like this bear has been fed by humans before and now associates them with a food reward,” he adds in the caption for his footage.
‘Black bears do not want to play with you. They are predators.’
As Curtis’ footage shows, the bear continues to switch between scaling trees and bluff-charging him. Juvenile black bears will sometimes scale trees when they feel insecure; a defense mechanism learned as cubs. Young males will also bluff charge potential threats as they continue to build their confidence.
The curiosity-like behavior this youngster is displaying is not playful. Rather, it looks to be a young black bear testing a potential threat. Black bears do not want to play with you. They are predators. Turning and running could’ve kicked the bear’s instincts to chase and attack into gear, which is why Matwishyn did well to continue facing and maintaining eye-contact with the bear at all times.
This continued, relentless sort of pursuit is also typical of fed bears. Feeding wildlife leads to habituation; an association of humans with easy food. Once this happens, bears, in particular, become persistent, aggressive, and more often than not have to be shot or euthanized.
Exactly like the young black bear chasing Curtis, habituated black bears will not back down. Which is why both of their lives were possibly saved by him having bear spray.
‘After about 5 minutes of the bear following but never directly charging me, I decided to discharge my spray and thankfully it worked as designed ‘
“After about 5 minutes of the bear following but never directly charging me, I decided to discharge my spray and thankfully it worked as designed,” Curtis reveals. “In hindsight I likely should have discharged the bear spray earlier and likely will do so in the future. But there was also a strong wind and I needed to make sure I was upwind of the bear and spray.”
In the end, Curtis hopes his encounter will help others in bear country – and the bears themselves – from a fatal future.
“Hopefully this encounter will help the bear learn to run from humans rather than approach them as continued behavior like this can lead to the destruction of a bear,” he says.
Many Canadian National Parks – like the one where Matwishyn’s encounter took place – are home to both black and brown bears. Firearms are illegal in national parks, and do not offer the same protection from a charging bear as bear spray.
Always carry bear spray in bear country. If living in or visiting black bear country, always be BearWise.
And to learn how to tell North America’s bear species apart, see our How To Tell The Difference Between a Black Bear and a Brown Bear next.