Whenever I would tell someone from my East Coast hometown that I was moving to Montana, they'd jokingly advise, "Don't get eaten by a bear!" I chuckled along with them until I arrived in the fall of 2004 to find that—much like dying in a tornado in Kansas—it was rare, but it happened. Just when I'd start to forget I was living on the edge of a vast wilderness, there'd be an article in the local paper to remind me that, yep, there was a chance a wild animal could pounce at any moment. A cougar sighted near a school bus stop, flicking its rope-like tail and ostensibly looking for the weakest child. Or—who could forget?—a Frenchtown woman forced to fend off an aggressive black bear with a large homegrown zucchini.
Not long after I got to Missoula, I decided to arm myself with knowledge. I pursued the extensive collection of animal attack literature at a local gas station. Each book had big, red, dripping fonts and pictures of animals at their worst on their covers. Grizzlies standing at full height with teeth bared. Cougars with claws extended, ears back and eyes wild. I spent a few minutes deciding between Cougar Attacks: Encounters of the Worst Kind and Bear Attacks of the Century: True Stories of Courage and Survival, but ultimately made the only sensible decision for someone living in a state heavily populated with wild beasts. I bought both.
During the next few weeks, I read hundreds of accounts of wild animal attacks in North America. I had a classic horror movie reaction to the stories: I relished them, I was frightened by them and I was sure I could do a better job than the victims in the stories. In some perverse way, I realized I wanted these terrifying scenarios to happen to me. Even more strangely, the authors also assumed their readers wanted a chance to go one-on-one against nature's most highly evolved predators.
Here's a typical cougar attack account from E. Boyd Hilderbrand, a man who lived near Barriere Lake in British Columbia in the 1920s:
The cougar had crouched and was already in the middle of an open-jawed, death-dealing spring. She came sailing at me as if she'd been shot from a circus cannon—a heart-stopping vision of hate-filled eyes, white teeth and hook-rimmed paws. In one instinctive lunge, I threw myself down and to one side. The cat sailed by, practically combing my whiskers with a vicious hooking swipe as she passed. If she'd ever landed on bare ground I wouldn't be telling this story. But when she hit that deep, wet snow and tried to turn, she momentarily lost her footing. In the extra second it took her to get her feet gathered, I had time to half roll and twist and face her charge.
There was no time to worry about snow in the barrel. I thrust the pistol in her face and felt, more than heard, the staccato hammering as I ran a full magazine of slugs into her oncoming head and body. She died in midstride, falling within inches of my outstretched leg. It would be foolish to say I wasn't scared, but at a time like that the will to survive overcomes all fear.
Hilderbrand's story hits on some of the major themes of a pulp non-fiction animal attack account. It contains the borderline-unnatural circus cannon leap, the possibly jammed gun and a delightful half-roll evasion attempt. In the end, the cougar dies just inches from the animal attack victim. The fewer inches between the cougar's body and yours at the end of the attack, the better the story. How could you not want this to happen to you? Think about how popular you'd be at parties. Think about the conversation-starter scar. It would be an episode that changed your life, as long as you didn't die.
It's a feeling I'd gotten a few times before: the guilty, unexplainable tinge of excitement that comes along with airplane turbulence—perhaps I could save the lives of everyone even though I am not located in an exit row! Or the slight yearning I get when watching zombie apocalypse movies—surely, when the real zombie apocalypse takes place, I will have an opportunity to prove my worth in a way I never could at my day job! It's the same feeling you get when the meteorologist predicts a huge, crippling storm that will likely cost lives—and then nothing happens. You say you're relieved, but really you're disappointed you didn't even lose electricity. A diverted disaster is a good thing in theory, but it also means that nothing happened.
There are a few things you should know about gas station wild animal attack books. To begin, most retellings of wildlife attacks involving survivors follow a pretty common outline:
1. A normal person is partaking in a normal activity on a normal day.
2. They think they hear something, but assume it is a normal noise due to the normalness of the day.
3. They are attacked out of nowhere. In most cases, the animal is either running faster than humans thought possible or flying through the air in a long blur.
4. In the single moment before the attack begins, the victims have a deep thought about life and nature.
5. The victims struggle for their lives, often while trying to reach for a log or load a gun. Their companion, if they have one, is blissfully unaware of the attack and just a few hundred yards away, possibly picking berries or otherwise enjoying the glories of the outdoors.
6. The victim survives the attack and crawls a few miles back to civilization. They usually need a titanium plate in their head or a glass eyeor, if they survive with minimal wounds, the book is sure to mention something about emotional trauma.
7. The animal is hunted down and killed. Experts determine it was neither rabid nor starving at the time of the attack, but merely a healthy, mysterious, unpredictable wild animal.
The last point is especially interesting. It's an ongoing theme in these wildlife attack books that the animals in question are perfectly sane. Many stories end with a line similar to: "The bear's body was tested for rabies—but the results were negative." Or perhaps: "During the animal's autopsy, researchers discovered the cougar wasn't starving—it had a belly full of venison."
It's a similar sentiment to the public's fascination with serial killers who have day jobs and families. We can kind of understand when someone with a history of issues harms people. But when we discover the nice guy who kept to himself and always bought Girl Scout cookies from your daughter has a mass grave under his flowerbed, it sends a shiver down our spines. The same goes for wild animals. If there's one crazy cougar roaming the mountains, that's pretty scary. But the idea that a healthy, sated, run-of-the-mill cougar will stalk you, crush your skull, bury you in a shallow grave and return to feed on your corpse for several weeks is terrifying.
Bear Attacks of the Century tells the tale of Patricia Whiting-O'Keefe, who was backpacking in the Brooks Range in Alaska when she was mauled by a Grizzly bear accompanied by three cubs:
[The grizzly] covered 15 yards in one second. But the threatened mind of a human is even faster... Whiting-O'Keefe says that her thoughts in that one second were: "It's a female thinking she has to protect her cubs. Humans can't outrun bears. Running invites chase..."
...Incredibly, she even had time to notice the beauty of the animal. Its hair was thick and shimmering, appearing auburn at first, but then multi-colored, dark brown with reddish tips, as it neared. Her cubs were miniatures of her, except their eyes were wide with wonder. Hers reflected only single-purpose determination. ... Pat tried to cover her head with her arms. "I saw her eyes focused on me and her mouth agape as her jaws closed over my head and face," she said. "I pushed up at her. I heard bone crunch. I perceived my flesh being torn away, but I didn't actually feel it at the time."
She collapsed to the ground, arms over her head, in a calculated attempt to appear dead. She tried not to breathe. As bears do, the sow swiped the sensitive genital area to test for signs of life. With incredible control, Pat took the slashes across the buttocks and legs without moving.
The story continues by giving an extremely detailed laundry list of the survivor's wounds, which included one eyeball dangling onto her cheek, crushed facial bones, massive lacerations on her legs and buttocks, half a missing scalp and part of an exposed brain.
What can we learn from Pat's graphic story of survival? Gas station animal attack books want to give you take-home lessons. They always dedicate an entire chapter to exactly what you should do when you are inevitably forced to engage a wild animal with nothing but your wits. Perhaps they feel they have a responsibility to prevent future animal attack books. These chapters are either located at the very beginning or at the very end of the book, depending, I suppose, on whether the author wants to feel superior to the attack victims as you read.
Much of the advice is common sense. Don't run because you cannot run as fast as a wild animal. Don't climb a tree because wild animals can climb trees better than you. Don't mimic the sounds and movements of wounded prey because that looks and sounds pretty delicious. Don't go out of your way to bother a wild animal because they will get angry and kill you.
But some of the other advice can be less intuitive: Never look a grizzly in the eyes, but always look a cougar in the eyes. Water can be a safe place to go if a cougar is chasing you, but bears will pursue you into the water. Play dead when being mauled by a grizzly, but fight back when being mauled by a cougar.
As someone who was new to Montana and the Northwest, these books were not the healthiest or most realistic introduction to life in Missoula. While I assumed every walk in the woods involved beating a cougar to death with a sharp rock, Montana natives gently explained to me the big cats were so stealthy and secretive that many outdoorsmen went decades without ever catching even a glimpse of one in the wild. I probably could go for years without seeing as much as a pawprint. And while I pictured every bear encounter as an epic battle between Man and Nature, Montanans were quick to point out that bear encounters were more likely between Large Pest and That Bag Of Dog Food I Accidentally Left In The Garage.
Certainly the main problem about reading extensively about wild animal attacks, other than having to explain the pastime to your friends, is that it makes bear and cougar attacks seem normal. After reading books in which every single person who enters the woods is mauled by a predator, it's tough to go on a hike and just see grouse or flowers or something that initially seems to be a ferocious bear but is actually a tree stump. The even more frustrating part is that each mountain lion and bear attack story starts with a totally normal day—a fact that got my hopes up at the beginning of any normal camping trip or hike. Sometimes days felt so unremarkable I was sure it would finally be the time I was stalked and killed by a wild beast.
It doesn't help that the books insist that, though attacks are extremely rare, you should always be prepared to fight a mountain lion or bear at any time. I equipped my daypack with bear spray, a substantial knife and extra snacks and water in case my crawl back to civilization took longer than expected. Of course, if the animal attack books have taught me anything, it is that my chances of being attacked skyrocket if I carry none of these things. The most common attack victims only carry a small novelty Swiss Army knife on their keychain or an old, inexplicably jammed rifle. Or maybe a zucchini.
Sadly, no matter how prepared or unprepared for an attack, I am more likely to be killed in a car accident than by a bear or mountain lion. In fact, the animal attack books tell me in an almost apologetic tone I am also more likely to be struck by lightning or mauled to death by a domesticated dog (oh, the shame of a domesticated animal attack!). The books almost always add, though, in an attempt to make you feel better, that even though you may have never seen a mountain lion or a bear, they've seen you. That is, there's still hope. At least the animals are looking.
A few years ago, I took my dog for a walk around my South Hills neighborhood after work and finally encountered a bear at close range. Most of the routine walk is on pavement, but a short segment of the route involves walking through about 100 yards of wooded path that dips briefly into a shallow ravine with a trickling stream before leading up to High Park. Throughout the walk, you can see a smattering of suburban houses and neighbors waving from their yards and porches, and you can hear plenty of muted noises of human civilization drifting up from the valley. I would not consider any part of the walk "being in nature" and I certainly don't carry any survival gear with me on what could be called a 30-minute stroll.
When I first saw the bear, I mistook it for a very clumsy and very overweight Labrador—a common sight in my neighborhood of mostly retired Montanans who own mostly retired bird dogs. The animal was crashing through some underbrush near the stream that winds through the ravine, about 20 yards from someone's driveway and about 20 yards from me. Even with the mandatory exaggeration of a bear encounter story factored in, the animal was extremely close.
My dog was off-leash and a few yards ahead of me, parallel to the bear but on higher ground. The bear and I noticed each other at practically the same time. After this moment—only about two seconds after the encounter had begun—my story diverged sharply from those in Bear Attacks of the Century. In the book, the bear would do something scary, and with a surprisingly flowery literary style, as it did in this attack description: "[The bear] first-geared into view, stopped, lowered its head like a bulldozer dropping a blade to wipe out anything in its path, laid its ears back, bristled its neck hair and lunged."
In real life, though, my bear stood up on its two hind legs just for a moment, as if to get a better look at us, and then sat down on its butt with its back leaned against a tree and its arms relaxed at his sides. It looked, just a little to my disappointment, exactly like a container of honey, complete with rotund belly. It made eye contact with me—just like in the book! But then it reached one arm across its chest and scratched its opposite armpit, the claws looking like a set of yellowed, too-long acrylic nails. It was as if the bear had woken up from hibernation just minutes ago. Would I be the victim of a mauling that would be retold in gas station paperbacks throughout the state? No. The bear was not interested in fame.
It was a black bear, the kind of bear that rarely makes it into print for a vicious attack, and a kind of bear that is not even represented in Bear Attacks of the Century. In fact, to real Montanans who do not bother themselves with animal attack books, black bears are mostly known for their terrifying ability to find and decimate bird feeders—they are trash-raiders and jack-o-lantern stealers that are only slightly peskier than raccoons.
But this was my first bear. It was quite a bit bigger than I thought black bears were, but smaller than the 12-foot-high monsters from my attack books. My bear looked a little confused and perhaps even bored, if bears get bored. Later, a neighbor would explain that they sometimes follow streams and creeks down from the mountains and into the suburbs, especially in early spring. In all likelihood, my bear was not bloodthirsty, but merely water-thirsty. A regular bear with regular needs.
But even when confronted by a seemingly low-energy bear that wasn't even a grizzly, I was still very scared. My dog was off-leash and I could absolutely imagine he'd approach the bear and get into trouble, forcing me to save his life, gouge out the bear's eyes, become a hero, etc. My dog is never in my animal attack daydreams, I suppose because I don't want him to get hurt. Despite all of the mental energy I had invested in animal attack response, my expected storyline was ruined and things felt out of control.
Now I was staring at the bear, which is one of the things you should never do. I then continued to forget every other bear encounter rule I had learned and yelled at the top of my voice for my dog to come, probably in a pitch and tone that could be described as "wounded prey."
The dog came, oddly oblivious to the situation and only interested in getting to the park. I clipped on his leash and we started walking backward toward my neighbor's driveway. When we got there, I turned around and started running as fast as I could, sadly to say, at a below-average speed. I glanced back once to confirm I had in fact run into a bear, and it was still leaning against the tree, still looking in my direction in its just-got-up-from-hibernation daze. I noticed it had a little panhandle of white fur splashed across its chest, a detail I had in the past imagined noticing only when a bear was on top of me, mauling my genitals in an attempt to verify whether I was truly dead or just pretending. Things never quite work out as you had planned, but the bear was beautiful all the same.
I ran home with a few stops to catch my breath and immediately relayed my adventure to my husband. As I retold the story, it quickly became apparent my wild animal encounter lacked much of a story arc or any sort of climax. There would be no bear pelt for me. No opportunity to connect with nature on a raw level. Both the bear and I would live another day. I called the local officials to report the sighting. The man on the line listened briefly and said, "Yeah, they'll do that," as if I had reported a suspicious teen on a bike or a power outage. He asked me if the bear was "problematic." I said I guessed not. I wondered if Unproblematic Bears of the Century would ever be picked up by a publisher.
I've been in Montana for 10 years now. My husband and I bought a house in Missoula and don't plan on leaving, though it will probably be a few decades before I can pull off not being fazed by the wilderness that surrounds us as the long-time residents can. In the years since I've moved here, the most scared I've been of an animal in the wild has been of a mother moose with her calf, and to my knowledge there aren't even animal attack books written about that. Ungulates don't sell gas station books, no matter how big they are. I've still never grappled with a mountain lion or caught sight of a mountain lion or even seen a trace of a lion's pugmarks in the wild. But I still like to think they've seen me.
Since that first neighborhood bear, I've seen lots of black bears while hiking and each one since that initial encounter has taken off running as fast as it can in the opposite direction as soon as it hears me coming. The books are right: Bears are extremely fast. There is always exactly one second at the moment I see one take off in a blur when I'm not sure whether it's running away or charging toward me. In that single second, I do experience a moment of clarity and deep thought. That second is the one time I absolutely know I don't want anything to do with a bear attack.