How Adrenaline Saved Mac from a Grizzly Bear Mauling

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Instinct told mother bear she should attack this intruder.

Instinct rationalized that Mac was a threat to the welfare of her cubs, a perpetrator who had dared to cross mother bear’s family boundary.

So strong is her care for her young she will do anything, even kill, to protect them.

In that moment, the mother grizzly was fully prepared to kill Mac the hunter…

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The Story of Mac the Hunter

Every year, towards the end of summer, Mac and his friend would spend two weeks hunting deep in the Yukon bush.

Mac was a hunter you learned to respect. He was not someone who would track down an animal for the sake of the kill or to capture bragging rights. He deeply respected the environment, and if he had a choice, his preference was to track down and slay the weaker members of the herd.

It was important to him to support the continued health of the herd he hunted.

Mac had been in a number of situations involving animals where he nearly lost his life. One he was fond of talking about was the time he was following a deer track when two young bear cubs wandered on the path in front of him.

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Now as soon as he saw the two cubs Mac immediately knew he was in trouble, for out of the trees lumbered mother grizzly bear.

Mac would intersperse his story at this point, saying that the worst situation to be in the Yukon bush where there are no emergency facilities is to be confronted by a mother grizzly with full-on maternal instincts blazing seeing you as a threat.

This was the case for Mac as he stood facing the bear who climbed onto her hind legs and started to move her head from side to side.

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When a grizzly moves her head in this way she is in a protective rage and is letting you know she is on the verge of charging.

It is as if she is announcing, you are about to die.

Mac knew he was within a minute of his death or at best severe mutilation. His body was in full instinctive flight. “The desire to run was in full gear,” Mac told me, “Yet another part of me knew this to be futile. Wherever I ran, whether in the bush or up a tree, the bear would catch me. She could run faster than me. She could climb trees better than I could.”

“I was carrying a rifle. I could have shot her, but for me, this was not an option. Killing the mother bear would indirectly kill the cubs who were still too young to fend for themselves. If they didn’t starve, they would be hunted down by predators within days.”

“I also considered playing dead. Out of all of the options available this would have been the best one, but given her rage and remoteness of the region I was in the mauling I would have suffered would likely have been my death.”

Alongside Mac’s instinct to fight or flee and the option to freeze, was a deep calmness, a slowing down of the system that allowed him to think more clearly than he had ever thought before.

He quickly removed his backpack and threw it down onto the ground. Climbing on top of it, balancing precariously but steadily, he threw his arms out to the side, stretching them out “to make myself bigger,” he said, “to come across as equal in stature and might to the bear.”

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The bear stopped the head movement and held her position on her hind legs. The two stared each other down for what Mac described as an eternity, an encounter that in reality lasted only two or three minutes at best as the two stood stock still waiting to see what the other would do next.

It ended when the bear, gave a sniff of the air, came down from her hind legs and lumbered off in the direction of the cubs.

“It was only then,” Mac said, “That I started to shake uncontrollably.”

An earlier blog post, Getting High: The Adrenaline Surge explained how survival-based anxiety initiates a rush of adrenaline.

The prime purpose of adrenaline is to support fight or flight.

The fight or flight response is a healthy survival feature inherent to all sentient beings.

If an animal in the wild sees or senses a predator, the fight or flight response will kick in, adrenaline will course through the system and the animal will make a choice to either stand its ground and fight the predator, perhaps making the attempt to chase it away, or to turn tail, run and hope to escape.

We all have seen this drama unfold between the animal hunter and the hunted on wildlife and nature programs on our television screens.

Another less seen fight or flight response is playing dead.

Those who have traversed the wilds of Alberta and British Columbia, Canada, are familiar with the many signs that warn to play dead if you are accosted or threatened by a grizzly bear.

We are informed that there is no other option, since the grizzly ultimately runs faster than any human, climbs trees more efficiently, and possesses many times more strength than any person.

Playing dead, and hoping the bear will lose interest and move on is also an outcome of the adrenaline fight or flight response.

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 Contemplation Question:

Whenever you are scared, frightened, or anxious, do you move into:

A Fight Response – You step forward – you to take control of the situation?

A Flight Response – You step back – you avoid or run away from the situation?                                

A Freeze Response – You play dead – you hide your head in the sand, pretend the situation never happened or that it didn’t affect you, or act as if the people who hurt you don’t exist (you cut them out of your life)?

Write a comment and let me know. 

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3 thoughts on “How Adrenaline Saved Mac from a Grizzly Bear Mauling

  1. Thank you Pietro this is perfect timing! I can reflect back to certain experiences in my life where I felt as you have shared in this blog. The gift I must share is working with you on being / staying present when these situations arise. This is an on going practice and most recently experienced this with my aging parents. Feeling the fight, going into flight and freezing knowing there is only so much one can do. Having the self-awareness to reflect back and know this, is a gift. Family, it is one of the hardest due to the emotional connection of where it once all began and this was perfect timing! Many blessings to you and all the lives you touch.

  2. Re: Fight, flight or ignore:

    Very good analogy about the hunter and bear regarding the options when anxious, etc of fighting, fleeing or freezing.

    I had a recent experience in an airport that may have been similar.

    Challenge presented: Change

    I was approaching an airport security person. I was instructed to leave on my shoes, but take several light layers of jackets off as well as my two bags for carry on and put them on the conveyer belt.

    I got confused by the request as it was a Change from the last time I was in such a line up. I became Anxious when my purse got tangled up in my jackets as I attempted to remove them. The result: I Froze internally and was unable to hear the security person say: go around the pillar (to the next line obviously). I heard the verbal request as: go around the “pillow.” Three times I asked and I still heard “pillow.” Even more anxious now, due to the increasing line up behind me and the obvious anger and frustration of the security person, I was unable to rationalize out what I needed to do. I absolutely wanted to Flee. The other guy wanted to Fight. My mind took the protective stance and Froze.

    Later I was asked by my travel friend, who thought I must have been apprehended and held as I was so late in showing up at the next line up, why I became anxious and why I became even more anxious once the ordeal was over and we got to the food area. I was unable to make a decision on where and what to eat. He stated that it was normal to have things change at the airport. I had experienced this before. Why could I not just rationalize this out and just keeping moving along? Why after things had settled down could I not figure out where and what to eat? He again stated that change was normal and that most people would simply understand this and take it in stride and carry on rationally.

    What I have learned from your bear and hunter story and now my own experience is to perhaps think of other situations that have happened or might happen and practise using the difference approaches to challenging situations. I will start looking to see if I can make other choices that feel better in the future.

    Take care,

    Bonnie

    • This is a very rich example, Bonnie.

      I believe, at the airport, you went into shock. Shock is a temporary freeze we move into when stress exceeds our ability to cope. It is a time-out, where our systems for coping fail to respond to presented situations or events. While shock can be an inconvenience, such as the time you experienced at the airport, Bonnie, it can also be a benefit: a respite from a significant loss, for example. Shock, in this sense, may numb us away from the intense emotions or feelings associated with the loss and give us some time to adjust to it before we fully encounter those feelings. However, shock is often a numbing sensation, where we have less awareness of our bodies, when it is more challenging to stay present, and where we function less efficiently.

      The Freeze coping mechanism emulates the shock state. The difference is that shock is temporary state, while Freezing is a coping mechanism we rely upon and fall back into on a continuous basis. Shock enters as a time-out, Freeze is a means of coping we rely – and invariably rely too much upon.

      Now over to your friend. It is true what he said, that change is to be expected in our daily lives. But, with respect, it is also not realistic to be able to cope with all change on every occasion. For example, if the security guard was male and he was overly authorative in his instructions, and you had been brought up by am overly authorative father, then you might have a lower level of tolerance toward the authoritarian security man, meaning you have a greater potential to be overwhelmed. Not knowing how to deal with the situation, it created a confusion and your system gave you a time-out and you moved into shock. Your friend, may not have had the same historic challenges and copes perfectly fine with the same situation, or maybe he experienced something similar but did not happen to encounter that same male security man.

      The point being: One person’s trauma may be another person’s play.

      You can read more about this in a previous blog post – actually one of the first posts, titled, The Encounter the Border, where I actually present a similar experience at a border crossing.

      I appreciate you comment, Bonnie, and I hope it brings some clarity to your encounter at airport security.

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