Q: This is a little embarrassing, but I really want to know. I've heard rumors that, uh, having sex in the wilderness can actually attract you to my campsite. Is this true? And are there any precautions we can take to reduce the risk of a decidedly unromantic visit from you, or is abstinence the only defense?—Naughty by Nature, via email
A: Don't be embarrassed, Naughty—you and me ain't nothing but mammals (I think you know the rest). I'm a full-grown bear with needs, and I ain't about to let the woods stop me. But then again, it's my backyard.
This is one of the most-wondered-about bits of backcountry legend, one loaded with conventional wisdom but devoid of much data or fact to back it up. There's no evidence that human sexual activity attracts bears whatsoever, but qualms about the potential odors and noises involved dictate the advice that nookie in bear country is a bad idea.
The myth has origins in a scary true story: In 1980, two teenagers—one male, one female—were killed and partially consumed in Glacier National Park while camping near an illegal dump. Noted bear behaviorist and biologist Stephen Herrero helped investigate the deaths, and wrote, "The bear might have approached the teenagers because of the odors from sexual intercourse, but whether this was the case and what happened next are conjecture."
Despite Herrero's caveats, this gets repeated as fact, often without including the most important details. The pair were sleeping on top of their tent during this muggy night, and a decomposing horse in the dump more likely attracted the bear. This bear probably visited the dump before and got used to humans; being a creature of supreme opportunity, it's likely he just took it one step farther and attacked the sleeping teens.
At best, the idea of human sexual activity attracting bears is an unsubstantiated theory based on deep conjecture. The likelihood of a little backcountry nookie attracting a bear over other attractants is exceedingly small. That said, we do have powerful noses and a curious nature; if you're so concerned that worry gets in the way of your ardor, get a room.
Got a question for the bear? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Special thanks to Stephen Herrero of Bear Attacks: Their Causes And Avoidance and Dave Smith of Don't Get Eaten: The Dangers of Animals That Charge or Attack.