6 Things You Learn Being Mauled By Bears
Due to an improbable set of circumstances that lead back to President Theodore Roosevelt, society has long viewed bears as cuddly little cartoon characters that steal pic-a-nic baskets and get sold in toy shops to small children. Unfortunately, this glosses over the fact that real bears are relentless tanks of claws and muscle that are pretty indiscriminate about what (and whom) they eat. The fact that only one or two people die annually from bear attacks in North America does nothing to reduce their pants-ruining horror.
We spoke to Allena and Dan, two remarkable people who managed to survive two very different kinds of bear attacks (though both had most of their faces eaten off). They gave us their advice on how to make it out of a bear attack alive, should you ever find yourself staring down a lumbering titan of food-chain domination. (Note: Their advice depends heavily on luck and your willingness to trade grievous physical injury for a chance to escape, because bears are unstoppable.)
WARNING: EXTREMELY GRAPHIC DESCRIPTIONS OF BEARS EATING HUMANS.
If You Get Attacked, Go For The Eyes
Allena Hansen's personal Bearpocalypse started with a wildfire in California, near the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The bears and other wildlife fled their natural habitat (because it was on fire) and spread out into places that humans tend to live. Allena went from having seen seven or eight bears in her entire life to seeing that many bears in her back yard.
"Hitchcock ain't got shit on me." -Mother Nature.
Though, to be fair to the bears, the invasion went both ways. Ever since the recession hit, people have moved farther away from expensive cities and farther into areas where bears typically live. (It is much cheaper to rent an apartment in the Hundred Acre Wood than it is in Manhattan.)
The problem is that as soon as a bear gets a taste of anything human -- from drinking out of your garden hose to eating out of the garbage -- forest authorities have to take it out. Otherwise, it will never leave; getting food and water from people's houses, camps, toilets, etc. is way easier than wasting an entire morning trying to catch fish or desperately licking honey out of a pulsating beehive.
And once a bear associates humans with food, it's a super short step to it seeing people as food, and those morsels of delicious trash get replaced with delightful mouthfuls of terrified person face. And so, Allena was digging out an irrigation spring on her Kern County ranch in the summer of 2008 when she came face to face with a black bear, charging her down with the highest level of "all kinds of pissed off" stamped across its face. It came seemingly out of nowhere, perhaps erupting from a fold in space-time, and was on her before she even had time to react.
In the weeks prior, Allena's son had been trying to teach her some MMA moves, as that had been his thing at the time, and he felt his mom would benefit from some righteous grappling training. However, she quickly discovered that it's difficult to remember secondhand takedown techniques when a) there's no coach in your corner, and b) your opponent is a motherfucking bear. So Allena went for the one self-defense move that's universal in all areas of combat, whether your attacker is a mugger or a rampaging wild animal -- gouge its goddamned eyeballs out with your fingernails.
Your goal is to have that not be your blood.
This was a pretty risky move on Allena's part, because the bear had already started eating her face, but she landed the shot (and in fairness, every move is a risky one when you're pinned beneath an angry bear). The bear was stunned but by no means finished with its assault on her person, so Allena used the few seconds' worth of distraction she'd earned by jabbing it in the eyes to tag in some assistance.
Have A Dog Or Two With You
It's a good idea to have at least one medium- to large-sized dog around you at all times if you live in an area where dangerous wild animals occasionally take casual strolls through the neighborhood (preferably several dogs, and ideally enough to field a flag football team).
"Firearm proficiency a plus."
Allena had luckily recognized the wisdom in dog ownership -- the cry for help she let out after jabbing the bear in its malevolent eyes was to her two dogs, a mastiff and a wolfhound. She'd purposely selected two of the best breeds you can own when fighting wild rage beasts, because she lived in an area (a ranch in California) where this was a distinct possibility. She had always just assumed it would be a cougar or something instead of "some punk black bear" (that is a direct quote confirming Allena is super hardcore, just in case "jabbed a bear in its eyes" didn't tip you off).
Allena's 160-pound mastiff came to her aid and slammed into the stunned black bear (which Allena estimates weighed around 200 to 250 pounds). While the two giant animals were fighting, Allena started making a getaway. On foot. With most of her face (NSFW!) dangling off of her skull. Incredibly, even the mastiff managed to make it out alive.
In fact, it is theorized that all three of them will never die.
That brings us to our other bear survivor, Dan Bigley. He also had a dog with him (named Maya), but unfortunately Maya wasn't a big dog. So, all she was able to do was provide some advanced warning that Dan and his friend Jim were approaching a Grizzly Bear as they walked the Grayling Trailhead in Western Alaska after a day of fishing.
Dan and Jim stood close together and raised their arms so as to appear bigger, and then quietly had a discussion about how to quickly put some distance between them, as the bear clearly wasn't sure if they presented enough of a threat to her cubs to justify a vigorous mauling. Grateful that Maya had alerted them, they decided to head upstream from the bear, slowly and quietly, and they actually managed to get away. For a time.
See, here's the thing -- just because you can't see the bear, doesn't mean it's gone. Actually, not being able to see the bear is arguably way worse, because ...
Bears Will Stalk You (Possibly For Days)
Dan and Jim enjoyed a heavy sigh of relief, as it seemed they'd given the bear the slip. They were taking an alternate route around the area where they'd seen the bear to get back to their car, when they heard a rustling in an alder tree nearby. Hidden in the foliage were a couple of baby bears, which means the furious creature they'd encountered earlier was undoubtedly Mama Bear. And in what will now come as little surprise to anyone reading this, Mama Bear had been following them the whole time.
The information on this card is woefully inaccurate.
Carrying a heart full of violence now stoked by the fires of parental rage, the bear charged the group. Jim and Maya dove off of the trail for cover, and suddenly 25-year-old Dan Bigley was the only thing standing between a mother bear and her cubs.
Oh, and before we continue, we should point out that Allena is also convinced the bear that attacked her had been stalking her for days, like Michael Myers in the entire first hour of Halloween. She had been working in the same spot on her property, every day, for several weeks -- the bear knew she was going to be there. That's some ominous Zodiac killer shit.
Or Kodiak, in some cases.
Now, when you're attacked by a bear, there's basically only two things that you can do -- fight like hell or do your best to pretend that the bear has successfully killed you and hope help arrives before it eats too much of you.
Allena and Dan dealt with a black bear and a grizzly bear, respectively, and each of these bear species has a preferred method for eating you. Allena had been relatively well-versed in the local wildlife, including black bears, so she knew that if one ever tried to jump her, she was going to have to beat the screaming Jesus out of it, because black bears don't quit trying to eat you until they've pooped you out the next morning. The only way to get out of that situation is to convince the bear that the meal isn't worth the effort, which is another way of saying "gouge its eyeballs out and throw a giant terror hound at it."
However, "fight" was never an option for Dan ...
There Are Two Basic Strategies For Survival, And They Both Suck
The last thing he ever saw (that's not hyperbole -- what follows is literally the last thing Dan Bigley will ever see in this world) was a 700-pound ball of clawed violence lumbering toward him. Unless you draw interstellar power from the Earth's yellow sun, you cannot fight that. Dan tried to leap out of the way, but the bear caught his quad midair and pinned him. The bear then proceeded to pummel the tittyshitting daylights out of him, slamming him around by the head and shoulders like a rag doll. Dan blacked out, and for the duration of the attack kept drifting in and out of consciousness.
The only thing scarier than passing out to this, is waking up to it.
Dan remembers waking up on his stomach, with the bear still mauling away at his backside. He heard his friend Jim calling out to see if he was OK ("OK" is a relative term that varies greatly depending on the situation). Dan knew it was unlikely that enough time had passed for Jim to have returned with a full-on rescue team complete with emergency first-aid and bear-destroying weaponry, but he had to let Jim know he was alive, so he called out to him. In retrospect, this was a catastrophic mistake that very nearly cost Dan his life.
You see, when Dan called out to Jim, he was signaling that he was still alive. Jim received this message, but unfortunately so did the bear. Dan's call to Jim led the bear to flip him over on his back and deliver what Dan called the "death blow." Putting her four-and-a-half-inch claws into Dan's shoulders, the bear began to take bites out of Dan's skull. Mercifully, Dan was unconscious by that point.
We're not saying you should start wearing one of these when hiking, but we're not not saying it.
Later, doctors would describe the bone matter in Dan's head as "pulverized," which is a word here meaning "ground into a fine white powder." Dan's brain collapsed into his sinus cavity, and his cranial fluid was leaking out of any orifice it could find. It is a legitimate medical miracle that he survived rampant skull leakage without severe brain damage. It's at moments like these that ...
You Need To Make A Conscious Decision To Live
While his skull was being crushed by a grizzly bear, Dan had an out-of-body experience. In his mind's eye, he saw his mother waving at him, and in that moment he decided he needed to stay alive. It's important to note that we used the phrase "mind's eye," because at this point the bear had mutilated Dan's actual eyes, severing the respective optic nerves. He will never see again.
Apparently, bears have similar self-defense classes.
But Dan made a deal with himself in that moment that he would never regret his decision to live, only looking forward and never back, regardless of how bad things got (and they did get bad -- more on that later).
Meanwhile, Allena had a similar epiphany during her attack. "The realization that I'd have to go through years of expensive rehab figured mightily into the calculus of me trying to decide whether or not I even wanted to try to survive. But it was vanity that ultimately kicked me into gear." She'd been something of a Southern California socialite throughout much of her life and was not about to let some stupid bear be what did her in.
Yay, California! Except for the bear part. Fuck the bear.
"Do you know who I am?" she remembers thinking, not entirely ironically. "My grisly death will bring so much joy to so many assclowns, I'll be goddamned if I'll give you all the satisfaction! That's when I knew I was going to fight back."
Basically, Allena searched her soul for a reason to go on, and landed on "Fuck this bear, I have shit to do."
The Rescue And Recovery Is Brutal
One problem with bear attacks (other than the fact that you're being attacked by a freaking bear) is that these encounters generally happen several miles away from anything that could be politely referred to as a hospital. So the odds are the rescue process is going to be long and brutal.
As she made her escape from the bear, Allena felt her way down a washed-up creek and then through a cactus-filled ravine before getting stuck (for context, please remember that her face is mostly hanging off at this point). Even though she'd managed to fight off a bear, the cacti around her were simply too high and tough for her to push through in her current condition.
Later, she'd have to walk through landmines en route to a field of rakes.
Then, out of nowhere, her wolfhound ran up the ravine to her and cleared cacti out of the way so that she could move (see "own several dogs," above). With the wolfhound leading the way, Allena was able to get to her car and attempt to drive to safety, even though she couldn't freaking see. The bear had bitten through one eye, shattered the orbital socket of the other, and torn off both her eyelids, removing her contact lenses in the process, because the bear apparently wanted to be as thorough as possible.
Somehow, she was able to navigate herself down the logging road off the mountain and to the nearest fire station without crashing into anything. Allena was worried that her injuries were so horrific that any potential rescuers would just pass out the instant they laid eyes on her, but the firefighters at the station managed to cling to consciousness long enough to summon an emergency helicopter to carry her to a hospital.
Luckily, she didn't first bump into survivalists, because she looked and felt like the walking dead.
Meanwhile, Dan's path to rescue was exponentially more horrifying, although it didn't require him to actually go anywhere -- he pretty much had no choice but to just lie there and pretend to be dead until the bear was sufficiently convinced and agreed to stop killing him. Dan has no idea how in or out of consciousness he was at any given moment during the whole ordeal, but the loss of consciousness did give him "an opportunity to have some rest before going back." That's right -- Dan was in so much agony that passing out in the middle of a bear attack was sweet relief.
Although the bear probably Pooh'd off after two minutes or so, it was two hours before the medics were able to get to him. It was four hours before a helicopter arrived, and five bleeding hours before Dan finally made it to a hospital.
"Sorry, had to wait for the blood to dry. That stuff attracts bears!"
According to the official E.R. report, Dan arrived in the emergency room in a condition "incompatible with human life. Ears, eyes, nose, and face unrecognizable." After the most immediate medical attention was given, Dan's surgeon went to his office and cried. Not because Dan was going to die but because he feared that Dan would live.
So ... yeah. Be careful around bears.
Allena wrote a book detailing her experience, and her Benjamin Franklin Award winning memoir, "Chomp, Chomp, Chomp" can be found here.
'Dan' wrote a book as well, called Beyond The Bear: How I Learned To Live And Love Again After Being Blinded By A Bear, available in print or on Kindle, and he has a website.
Isaac is rather happy to have worked on this piece from the relative safety of his couch, and he can be reached through email or on Twitter.
For more insider perspectives, check out The Gruesome Truth About Getting Shot (a First-Hand Account) and Cops Won't Help You: 7 Things I Saw as a Real Slasher Victim.
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