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Sharks and Piranhas and Bears, Oh My

Growing up in Indiana, the one thing we didn't have were bears. I was always fascinated by bears. I admired them for their strength and single-mindedness in searching for pic-a-nic baskets. Bears were also far away animals, and I never worried about one of them eating me.

Not like sharks. I saw "Jaws" on HBO in 1976, and that has kept me out of the ocean for the last 40 years. I tried swimming in the ocean once, three feet deep, just to see if I could. All I could think of was a great white shark swimming beneath me, waiting for me to open my eyes, before it attacked. That was the first and last time I tried ocean swimming.

Then I saw "Piranha" a few years later, and that has kept me out of the Amazon River, plus all of South America.

Horror movies have taught me important survival skills. I know not to work as a winter caretaker in an isolated hotel in the mountains. I know not to visit small farm towns populated only by children. And I know better than to own a 1958 Plymouth Fury whose radio won't shut off.

In fact, most of my survival skills seem to come from Stephen King, so I know not to hang out with him at all.

Avoidance plays a big part in my survival. If I don't want to get eaten by sharks, don't go in the ocean. If I don't want to get electrocuted, don't grab downed power lines. And if I don't want to get eaten by bears, don't go where bears are.

Which meant I was completely safe in Indiana. As far as I was concerned, bears were in far away places like Canada, or Montana, where I was born. We moved to Indiana when I was two, and the bears weren't able to track me over the 1800 miles, so I was safe.

In fact, it wasn't until April that Indiana got its first black bear in 140 years. It had migrated south from Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and wandered between the two states for months. It was finally euthanized after it tried to break into a man's house in Michigan City.

Now that I live in Florida, we actually have a lot of black bears in the state, including my county. They're not actually in my part of the county, since it's more developed. But 20 miles west, bears are a nuisance, tipping over garbage cans and raiding bird feeders.

It's not very likely, but I have a better chance of encountering a bear here than I ever did in Indiana. It could happen when I'm taking the dog out at night or hiking one of the trails, which is also unlikely, since this is how I avoid snakes.

But given the number of bears here in Florida, the Associated Press' article, "Outdoor survival tips for Bear Country" came at just the right time.

According to the AP, there's a common mantra hikers use in the Alaskan wilderness: "If it's brown, you lie down. If it's black, you fight back." However, the lie down advice is only good once a brown bear has struck, or is about to.

"The right thing to do is not drop until that bear is practically on top of you," said Pat Owen, a wildlife biologist. Otherwise it might get curious and bite and scratch you to see what happens.

The bear, that is, not Pat Owen.

If the bear does get curious, you will no doubt scream and try to run away, and then you will be killed. That's what will happen.

One thing you can do to fend off bears is to make yourself appear larger. I've been trying this for years, but apparently pizza and donuts won't work quickly enough to frighten off a bear. That may be what brings him to you in the first place.

The article also says to make a lot of noise when traveling through bear country so as not surprise them. Some hikers will shout, "Hey, bear!" while others clap, or wear bells. I carried a boombox around Idaho once, when it started playing Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes," and I accidentally started dating a grizzly bear named Diane.

And we all know better than to get between a mother bear and her young, as they can be especially vicious. It's like getting between Sarah Palin and a microphone, but without the glasses or distorted sense of reality.

If you ever need to stop a possible bear attack, just do what I do. Carry a shark with you at all times, and throw it if a bear gets too close.


Photo credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)


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