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Grizzlies, guns and safety

Published February 23, 2013 1:01 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Personal safety has a long history beyond the current impasse over the role of guns and their use for personal protection in America today. Consider for a minute how members of one group — wildlife biologists — arm themselves to work in close quarters with big, potentially dangerous carnivores like grizzly bears.

I'm a biologist whose work with bears goes back 40 years when I was nearly killed by a Yellowstone grizzly bear. Luckily, my ignorant triggering of the bear's ire was followed by a dramatic rescue — but that's another story. Suffice to say, I've spent a lot of time over the years thinking about protection for my students and me during on-the-ground research on black, polar and grizzly bears in Alaska and Canada.

I started carrying a massive .357 revolver, then settled on a shotgun. When a new repellent bear spray appeared, I changed my weapon of choice, unlike most of the grizzly researchers. Why?

First, the worst thing is a wounded and enraged grizzly coming at you. Second, it is unbelievably difficult to kill a charging bear with a handgun. If you don't have military combat training then you will suffer from mental chaos. Believe me, I've been there. Third, knowing something about these wonderful animals keeps you safer. Mostly they want to get by as you do. And last, having firearms around can lead to accidents in camps, boats and aircraft. A pistol or shotgun at the ready can be helpful, or an accident ready to happen.

These risks pretty much apply to personal protection in the home as well. The more I carried bear spray, the more I found myself keeping a can in my car when going into places where I might get car-jacked. Many joggers carry spray into remote places, even in city parks. It is the kind of defense that does not burden trauma surgeons when you fire it off, unlike a hollow-point bullet that blows a cupful of flesh out your back.

Those relying on guns should get rid of them and go to spray. Unlike a handgun, spray in your children's hands will not maim or kill them, or you.

Growing up in Ontario, Canada, I never even saw a pistol until after college. But following an epidemic of assassinations in the 1960s I became more anti-gun. Duke University brought me from the "wilds" of no-pistols Canada to the we-love-guns USA.

Sporting guns have always made sense. I never was anti-hunting, and taught about its place in wildlife management. But the new arm-yourself-to-the-teeth ideology seemed over the top. Was it the military training of so many young people that made guns seem like toothbrushes?

Later, when I learned that a female faculty member in the college where I taught had a tidy little pistol in her car, I was blown away, so to speak. Nobody shot or looted anyone on our little campus. Which got me thinking: What better defense is there for people who feel vulnerable?

If you want to confront a home intruder, why not get an aggressive dog? Do you think you could react faster with a hand weapon than a guard dog would? Not a chance. I've seen Akitas and Norwegian elkhounds that could stop Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In bear country, if you have your gun in your backpack: same story. Bear spray is on the hip and at the ready. You protect yourself, and the grizzly gets it. Then, when your heart rate returns to normal, you will realize that the bear merely wanted to get on with its life. No one died. Not you. Not the bear.

We have to meet the landscape the same as a captain faces the sea. Can't handle it? Don't go there.

Barrie Gilbert taught wildlife ecology at Utah State University. He has studied grizzly and black bear behavior and ecology in Yellowstone, Yosemite, coastal British Columbia and Alaska for 35 years. He lives in Wolfe Island, Ontario, Canada.






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