Facing an Escape Claws : Bow Hunter Is Taught a Painful Lesson by Angry Mother Bear
Experts say that black bears, like most wild animals, prefer to leave humans alone. They are smaller and less aggressive than grizzly bears, but one made an exception for South Cox of Santa Rosa while he was hunting in Northern California last week.
Once Cox saw it was a mother with two cubs, all he wanted to do was take their picture.
Cox, 22, was bow-hunting for deer and black bear with two friends in the Marble Mountains Wilderness, about 15 miles southeast of Happy Camp. Encountering the bears, he had put down his bow to take pictures because sows with offspring are not legal game. But when Cox clicked off his first shot, the mother bear charged.
When the bear was through with Cox, he had 14 tooth-puncture wounds and numerous claw marks, but no broken bones. He considers himself lucky.
The ferocity of the attack was rare--believed to be the first such incident in the state in nearly 10 years, since a backpacker was caught between two feuding boars in the Trinity Alps. “It sounded like she was chewing on chicken bones,” Cox said. “I could hear her going right there in my ear. I wasn’t aware of any pain, but I knew she was biting into my shoulder. I could hear it, and I could feel the blood running down my arm.”
Sunday, five days after the attack, Cox returned to work as a hardwood floor finisher.
“I feel pretty good,” he said. “My left shoulder has been pretty stiff, but it’s getting better, so I don’t think there’s any permanent damage. She just got the flesh on my right shoulder. My right hand’s healing fast.”
He still wasn’t sure why the bear attacked him.
Tim Burton, an associate wildlife biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game, based in Yreka, said: “There are numerous incidents in Yosemite and places like that where you have human-bear interaction where people get swatted or bit. (People) run up and kick a bear in the butt or try to grab an ice chest away from it. Those incidents are not real common, but do occur on a reasonably regular basis. This particular incident was pretty much a full-on attack by a bear.”
Burton suggested that Cox’s skill as a hunter and his hobby of photography provoked the attack.
“He did a good job of sneaking up on that bear. He used that to get himself into a position where the bear felt threatened.”
And the click of Cox’s shutter might have triggered the attack.
Cox and his friends, Jerry Maytum of Palmdale and Art Cain of Lancaster, had been hunting for three days, carrying tags for deer and bear. They had seen about 50 bears. Shortly before 9 on the fourth morning, Cox was working his way along a ridge at about 7,000 feet, with his friends several hundred yards below.
“I came up over a little rise and saw a bear just on the other side of a patch of brush about a hundred yards away,” Cox said. “I decided to make a stalk on it--I didn’t know it was a female at the time. I got myself to within 35 yards before I saw it was a sow with two cubs.”
As Cox reached for his camera, the bear moved closer.
“I took a picture of her at 19 yards, and just after I took the picture, she started charging me. I assumed it was a bluff, so I waved my arms and yelled at her to try and turn her.”
Burton said Cox’s instincts were correct: “Bears do tend to do bluff charges. (But) it’s hard to stand your ground. And once you make the decision that you’re going to run, it’s probably too late.”
Cox estimated the bear’s size to be 200 pounds.
“When she got to within about 12 yards, I realized that she wasn’t going to stop, so I spun around and started to run in the other direction. I made it about 30 yards, and she caught me from behind . . . knocked me down. They have really poor eyesight, and I was dressed in camouflage, so she probably thought I was another bear and wanted to get me out of the way so I wouldn’t harm her cubs.”
Burton told Cox the sound of the shutter may have set off the bear.
“Bears will pop their teeth together when they’re becoming aggressive,” Cox said.
Cox took his first shot quickly, without focusing, because he thought the bear would run away.
“As soon as they smell you, they’re gone,” he said.
But there was a crosswind blowing, so the bear probably wasn’t sure what Cox was, other than a threat to her cubs. Cox didn’t have time to focus for a second shot.
“As soon as I hit the ground, I curled up in a ball . . . put my knees up underneath my chest and my hands behind my neck and locked my fingers and pulled my elbows in so there wasn’t a whole lot for her to chew on, except for my back,” Cox said.
“She grabbed hold of my left shoulder and started biting on that and clawing at my back and sides. She did this for about 10 seconds and then stopped briefly. At that point, I shifted my position a little bit, and she’s right back on me . . . bit my right shoulder.
“I was facing downhill, and my right shoulder was lower than my left. I guess it was awkward for her, so she moved up and bit my right hand, which was covering my neck, got hold of a little bit of my neck with her teeth and bit a hole into my right hand. Then she started working on my left shoulder again.
“The whole time I’m trying to think, ‘OK, now I’ve got to make sure she doesn’t do any damage that’s going to disable me.’ I just stayed as still as I could, hoping she’d go away.
“The attack probably lasted a total of about 30 seconds. At that point, she stepped back, and I stayed still, breathing really short breaths so she wouldn’t be able to see my body movement. Then she turned around, ran off, picked up her cubs and went crashing through the brush.
“I waited for about a minute and then turned around real slowly (when) I thought she was gone. I got back up to my backpack and started calling for Jerry and Art. They got up to me in about 10 minutes. Art’s an EMT (emergency medical technician), so he went to work on patching me up the best he could.”
Maytum is a long-distance runner. The group was eight miles into the wilderness, so he left to get help. After a few miles through rough country, he met some riders on the Pacific Crest Trail and borrowed a horse to go the rest of the way to his pickup truck. Altogether, it was six hours before a medical helicopter reached Cox.
“I went into shock for about an hour,” Cox said, “and then Art found some painkillers in his pack. After those took effect, I was in quite a bit better shape.
“The bear returned to the site of the attack an hour and a half or two hours (later). It took quite a bit to scare it off, so the bear evidently wasn’t too afraid of humans.”
By 4 p.m., Cox was at Siskiyou General Hospital in Yreka, where he spent one night before being released.
“My left shoulder, I’ve got seven puncture wounds, my right shoulder four, and my back two,” he said. “My neck has a small one, and then I’ve got lots of lacerations from the claws on my back.”
Burton said the incident is a lesson for showing bears proper respect.
“You can’t call this unprovoked, because it was provoked by the guy’s proximity to the bear,” Burton said. “The thing we have going for us as people is that black bears are reasonably timid, in comparison to the capability they have for speed and strength. If (the bears) had the attitudes of, say, pit bulls, we’d be in trouble.”
Cox: “I didn’t have enough respect for the bear. I’m not afraid of them, but I will skirt widely around the next sow with cubs I run into.
“I don’t hold a grudge at all toward the bear. She was doing what can be expected of any animal--or human, for that matter. She was protecting her children, and I can’t blame her at all.”
This is the first year since 1988 that archery equipment may be used to hunt bear in California. Because of court challenges by animal rights groups, there was no bear hunting in ’89 and no archery bear hunting last year.
“My friends are joking that the bear filled her tag this time,” Cox said.