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Q: I heard that you are never supposed to look a bear in the eyes. Is that true?—Jim, Phoenix, Ariz., via email
A: Are you lookin’ at me? I said, ‘are you lookin’ at me?! Do I look like a just a big, fluffy stuffed animal to you?!
I’m willing to let you off the hook this time, Jim, but it’s true: Staring me in the eyes is decidedly not a good idea. I could perceive this as a direct challenge or an aggressive signal from you trying to communicate your dominance, which could lead to an escalation of our encounter—like a charge or even an attack. [Editor’s Note: Read our interview with bear expert Tom Smith for a dissenting opinion.]
While both black and brown bears are on record exhibiting adverse reactions to direct eye contact, this is especially dangerous if you find yourself in close quarters with a grizzly. Should that grizz be protecting a kill or cubs, you could be in especially big trouble; I’m unlikely to back down until I feel the threat against my food source or youngsters is over.
Loud, aggressive noises can be perceived the same way for grizzlies, but you should yell and shout at a black bear to scare it off. But if you make plenty of non-threatening human noises ahead of time, you probably won’t surprise me in the first place, and we can avoid a nasty staring contest. Trust me: I almost always win those.
Got a question for the bear? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.