Mothers and cubs

Update February 18, 2010 6:58 PM CST

We don’t know how many times we’ve heard “Never get between a mother and her cubs.”  One of the biggest misconceptions about black bears is that mothers are likely to attack people in defense of cubs.  That is a grizzly bear trait.  70% of the killings by grizzly bears are by mothers defending cubs.  Of the 63 people killed by black bears since 1900, only 3 were killed by mothers with cubs and there was no evidence those 3 were in defense of cubs.  Mothers with cubs are probably the least likely black bears to kill anyone.  Yet, countless numbers of them are shot out of fear based on this misconception.

Non-fatal attacks are also rare despite thousands of encounters between people and mother bears over the decades.  By attacks, we mean mothers coming after someone and hurting them—not minor injuries associated with people hand-feeding them.

In one case, a Pennsylvania deer hunter was in a blind.  To hide his scent, he had sprayed raccoon scent on himself.  A mother with cubs walked by, jumped into the blind, and bit him.  It’s possible that between the blind and the raccoon scent she was confused about what he was.  He lay still.  She left.  He started to get up.  The mother saw the movement and came back and bit him again.  The hunter lay still again, and the mother left.

In another case, when a mother and child encountered a mother bear with cubs, the child began screaming and the bear attacked.  The mother covered the screaming child with her body and tried to quiet the child.  When the child stopped screaming, the mother bear left.

Each one of the few attacks we have heard of from mother black bears ended when the person lay still.  That’s why we recommend playing dead, face down, with your hands clasped behind your head in the very unlikely chance you are attacked by a mother black bear defending cubs.  Or pepper spray the mother.

We used to routinely catch cubs by hand to ear-tag them.  Captured cubs screamed for help in our hands.  We saw a lot of bluff charges, of course, but no mother bear made contact.  Whenever we see bluster, we feel safe.

Bluster means a bear is nervous and wants to talk about it.  It means the bear wants more space but is not about to attack.   Mother bears are probably the most nervous bears, so they show a lot of harmless bluster, which can look ferocious to a fearful person and get the bear shot unnecessarily.

Blustery expressions include:

  • the mother blowing sharply as she hits the ground or the tree with a paw.
  • the mother pouncing toward the person, blowing explosively, and slamming both feet on the ground.

The usual reaction of a mother black bear with cubs is to run away with the cubs.  If the cubs are small, they may climb a tree.  The mother is likely to continue to run away or climb the tree with the cubs.  She may wait at the base of the tree, being blustery.  Or you may see her up in the tree slapping the trunk and blowing.  In between bursts of bluster, she may moan in fear, which many people misinterpret as a growl.  Sometimes when she is about to descend, she may huff, which means she is getting over her fear.  Watch the 'Harmless Bluster' video.

We’d also recommend NOT climbing a tree.  In Minnesota, back in the 1940’s, two men were catching a cub with the mother nearby.  One of the men climbed a small tree in the process, and the mother climbed up and bit his foot.  We know of a dozen cases in which people climbed trees and had their feet bitten.  You may have also seen that happen on the TV program ‘Stranger Among Bears’.

A problem for black bears is that many people attribute grizzly bear characteristics to them.  The reason black bears are less defensive of their cubs is probably because they are smaller and more timid than grizzly bears and they live in the forest where the family can escape up trees.  Black and grizzly cubs differ in that black bear cubs run to trees for protection while grizzly cubs run to their mothers or run away.  Grizzly cubs sometimes climb trees for protection like black bear cubs do.

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Lynn Rogers and Sue Mansfield, Biologists, North American Bear Center