© Aleksei Volkov / WWF

Shocking bears

16 June 2017

KEYWORDS
Polar bear United States Pan-Arctic Wildlife Communities

One constant in the world of bears is that people and bears are increasingly getting in each other’s way. Whether it is polar bears spending more time off the dwindling sea ice and looking for food in towns and villages, or the shrinking land space left to bears in more populated parts of the world, the challenge is how we can co-exist.

Too often, the overlap results in dead bears. Although bear attacks are not common, there are enough of them for people to want to take precautions. For the past several years, WWF has supported the spread and development of less deadly ways of dealing with bears, including methods such as shooting them with bean bags to drive them off.

Although such methods are effective in driving off a “problem bear”, there is some evidence that the lesson does not always stick. The attractions of food smells prove too enticing, and bears return to where the smells are found. Now, research is showing that there may be one tool that can keep bears away for the longer term. It is an electrical device more commonly known as a “taser” that can deliver a powerful shock.

Phil Mooney has been testing the devices on bears in Alaska since 2009, and is impressed by their effects. Mooney says he was appehensive before using the device for the first time Would it work? Would the bear attack after recovering from its momentary shock and immobilization? Mooney says over the past 6 years, he has used the device on brown bears 312 times, and it has resulted in “a 100% flight response.” In other words, the bear is shocked and falls down, the electricity preventing it from standing up. As soon as the charge stops flowing, the bear bounds up and runs away “never hesitating to turn around to see what the heck just happened”.

Apart from its immediate effectiveness, the memory of the shock appears to have longer-term effects. Mooney believes the bears tend to avoid any area where they have been shocked, and also seem to avoid people, whom they associate with the unpleasant sensation they received. Mooney tells the story of a female bear that has been shocked near a powerful attractant, a salmon hatchery. He says the bear did not return to the area for two days, and when she did return, she and her cubs walked around the hatchery, and went instead to an area where they might find natural foods.