Altha Williams was relaxing on her porch sipping some water, perhaps thinking that today was going to be just like any other day. But then a big black bear clambered up next to her — and attacked. The animal was clearly not happy about Altha being anywhere near the three cubs it had alongside it. So it reared up and got in the elderly woman’s face. Altha was left with little choice: she had to act or suffer the deadly consequences.
The one thing going in Altha’s favor was that she’d seen many bears in her yard before. She had lived for the past 45 years in her home in Wears Valley, a short stretch from the Great Smoky Mountains. So by this point, the 90-year-old woman had gotten comfortable with the sight of these majestic animals. But this bear was different.
A roaming beast
And what was particularly strange about the encounter in June 2022 was that Altha had seen this bear, or one just like it, before. By all accounts, Altha had been behaving in the same way when she had seen it — and had been perfectly safe. The Tennesse resident was also aware that she had to be careful around the animals.
This meant doing simple things such as making sure her bird seed was out of reach from any unwanted guests. Altha also knew that she shouldn’t discard food waste in her yard in case it invited bears to get closer to her home. Although she has, on the odd occasion, let this important rule slip — possibly at her own risk.
Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA) spokesperson Matt Cameron told WVLT News that leaving out food is “one of the worst things you can do for bears.” The problem is that this simple act is teaching the bears to link humans and food in their minds. And that’s when dangerous encounters — such as Altha’s terrifying experience — can happen more often.
If you’re going to heed these warnings anywhere, then Wears Valley is the place! There are an estimated 1,500 black bears in the surrounding area, and these guys are not to be messed with. Black bears can be as long as six feet as well as three feet in height. A female can also weigh more than 100 pounds in the summer — when Altha was attacked.
Keep your distance
The TWRA has issued advice explaining how to avoid getting into close encounters with black bears. First and foremost, you shouldn’t give the animals food or get anywhere near them. But if you do get too close, the official advice is — surprisingly — to stand up for yourself and don’t run. As Altha knew, this is because bears are thought to be more scared of us than we are of them.
Standing up for herself
In fact, when Altha had encountered bears in the past, she had found that the bears usually ran away from her. She believed — as the experts tell us — that the bears were frightened to be around humans and so she had very little to actually be worried about. And during her June 2022 encounter, the 90-year-old perhaps thought that her previous interaction with a similar bear would keep her from harm.
That previous encounter was back in 2021. Altha had been in her yard on that occasion, too. The bear had also had three cubs — just like the aggressive one she encountered in 2022 — when it had ambled into her sightline. But that animal hadn’t so much as given her a second glance. And Altha had another compelling reason not to have been worried about bear encounters.
After 45 years of living in Wears Valley, Altha had been acutely aware that bear visits were getting more and more frequent. Yet she’d had unnoteworthy experiences whenever she’d had a sighting of any other bears on her property in the past. She had even been relaxing on her porch swing before without any trouble from the animals! But not this time.
An attack from nowhere
The attack on Altha was all the more shocking because it happened so quickly. Altha was reclining on her porch, relaxing with her water, for no more than three minutes when the bear appeared — seemingly out of nowhere. Altha’s first instinct was to get to her feet, of course. But by the time she had stood up, the bear was already in her face.
A deadly lunge
The bear then apparently made a lunge at Altha. It’s thought that the animal had heard Altha on her porch and perhaps had felt the need to respond. But whatever was going on in the bear’s mind, it must have been terrifying for Altha. After all, these animals could easily kill a human with one strike of their powerful paws.
A savage scratch
Fortunately for Altha, the bear didn’t batter her with a deadly blow — but it did cause her a nasty injury. The bear swipe caught her and tore the skin along one of her arms. But the bear didn’t just strike her and run away. The animal continued to crowd her porch and approach her. Altha had to have her wits about her if she was going to survive.
The only weapon to hand
But it wasn’t like the 90-year-old woman had a spare weapon to hand. So — perhaps heeding the advice from the TWRA to use “anything you can find to defend yourself” — Altha grabbed the closest thing to her. The only problem was that this wasn’t pepper spray or a rock or even a stick. It was a lawn chair.
But needs must when the devil drives. Altha took hold of the chair and pushed it towards the bear. She managed to get herself positioned behind the chair, with the bear on the other side. Then she just, well, kept on sliding the chair backward and forward toward the aggressive animal. And amazingly, it worked. The bear at last scapered off — but that wasn’t the end of the story.
A tragic end
It turned out that the bear didn’t run very far away. According to the TWRA’s Matt Cameron, the animal only made it as far as Altha’s neighbor’s property. And it seemed that the bear, unfortunately, had not had its fill of human interaction. Cameron told WVLT that it actually “charged” at Altha’s neighbor — and later met a tragic end.
A final twist
The person the bear chose to charge this time around must not have been an unarmed 90-year-old woman. The potential victim in this second incident managed to shoot the animal before any further damage could be done. And after the bear had had a second encounter with humans in this neighborhood, the authorities sadly knew what they had to do.
The authorities act
Cameron explained to WVLT that the state of Tennessee has a set of rules that dictate what happens to a bear under these circumstances. He said that because the bear had interacted aggressively with people, the state was forced the euthanize the animal. “We don’t just euthanize bears based on personal feelings,” he said. However, animals such as this “can’t be relocated,” according to Cameron.
But Cameron was quick to praise 90-year-old Altha for her actions on this day. “The way she responded was exactly what we tell people to do,” he said. “To get big, yell at them, make noise. To intimidate them. Pat on the back for how she responded; it very well could have saved her life.” Altha seemed pretty relieved that it was finally all over, too.
Altha even became overcome with emotion when she expressed her feelings to WVLT. “I’ve been praising the Lord ever since then, because I may not be here,” she said, fighting back tears. But Altha should be proud of herself, too. In fact, there are a few things you could learn from Altha should you ever encounter a wild bear. And if you want to cover all your bases, a former Navy SEAL called Clint Emerson has also revealed the actions you should take.
Their natural habitat
Seeing animals in their natural habitats can provide hugely rewarding experiences, of course. What could be better than witnessing creatures in the most unaffected environments? Yet we do have to be aware of the dangers that could come in such surroundings – especially if the animals in question can hurt us.
Signs of aggression
So there are certain signs that you should look out for if a bear gets too close to you. For instance, when the hulking animal signals its intent to attack, it could growl and pad the ground with its paws. And in addition to that, the omnivore will likely also lower its head as well as reposition its ears.
These encounters can happen for many reasons, too. Bears are usually unsure of people when they first spot them, you see. But this will change quickly if they feel threatened – or if the animals see the humans as prey. So Emerson’s advice could, therefore, prove crucial.
But where are these encounters likely to happen? Well, for those of us who love the great outdoors, there are few things more enjoyable than spending time in a national park. These locations – from Yosemite to Yellowstone – are some of the most eye-catching in the United States. Yet while these surroundings are certainly idyllic, visitors will have to stay alert for any sightings of bears.
Three main types
In America, after all, we’re likely to spot three main types of bears out in the wild. These are brown bears, black bears and polar bears. The last of these are usually found in colder climates, of course. But the other two species roam around different areas of the country.
Meet the black bear
For example, black bears are scattered across the United States, living in states such as Tennessee, Alaska and North Carolina. The animals are also situated in both Yellowstone and Yosemite, so visitors can get a closer look at them. But given the size of these bears, some people will no doubt try their best to avoid them.
Black bears can weigh up to 500 pounds in their natural habitats, after all. Yet despite their imposing frames, most of these animals are vegetarian and seek out food such as nuts and fruit. Interestingly, in 2016, Emerson made an important observation about the black bear species.
As we mentioned earlier, Emerson used to be a member of the Navy SEALs. In fact, he dedicated over two decades of his life to the force. Then, after retiring, the former soldier wrote a book titled 100 Deadly Skills: Survival Edition, which was published in the fall of 2016. And in that publication, he touched upon the dangers of bear encounters.
Regarding black bears, Emerson wrote, “If you run into a black bear on a mountain trail, be grateful for your good fortune. Compared to polar bears and brown bears, black bears are much less likely to attack.” But that’s not to say that these creatures won’t go on the offensive if they think you’re a threat. It’s always best to be careful – and prepared.
Meet the brown bear
As for brown bears, though, they’re far more volatile than their vegetarian counterparts. And much like black bears, this species can be found in Yellowstone – while sightings have also been made in Glacier National Park. In addition to that, a large number of the animals are situated across Alaska and Canada.
Interestingly, in terms of appearance, there are two variations of brown bears that live in the wild. The first kind are simply referred to as “brown bears,” and they can weigh as much as 1,000 pounds. But while these animals stick to the coastlines, the other subspecies make their home on land.
Six feet and up
Yes, the second species – known as “grizzlies” – aren’t as large as browns, weighing up to 700 pounds. But alongside their incredible mass, grizzly bears can reach heights of over six feet, which only adds to their intimidating look. That’s not all, though – as we’re about to find out.
You see, one of the other defining features of grizzly bears is the muscle found around their shoulders. They’re famous for their dangerously sharp claws and strong jaws, too. And given those physical attributes, this subspecies of brown bears is an omnivore – meaning it will consume anything from plant life to meat.
They need a reason
Just like the black bear, though, grizzlies probably won’t attack you without reason. Yet these animals are known to be quite aggressive. This is especially true if you display any kind of threatening behavior in their presence. But even so, grizzly bears present a very different proposition to polar bears – for significant reasons.
The biggest bears
You see, polar bears are found in the Arctic Circle, which covers some of northern Alaska. And compared to the other two species of bear, these beautiful creatures are massive – weighing to up to 1,500 pounds. Due to their environment, too, polar bears get their sustenance from meat, including hunting down seals on the ice.
Viable food source
And as you can imagine, polar bears don’t see humans all that often, unlike the black and brown bears. So while the latter two bears can be wary of people thanks to previous contacts, that isn’t usually the case for their Arctic counterparts. In fact, polar bears could view us as a viable food source should they ever come across us.
Quite formidable indeed
Emerson even touched upon polar bears’ willingness to go after people in his 2016 book. The former Navy SEAL wrote, “Polar bears are always hungry. And unlike black and brown bears, polar bears will actively track and hunt down humans across their arctic terrain. Their massive height and heft make them formidable opponents.”
“[Polar bears are] capable of disemboweling prey with a single swipe of their claws,” Emerson added. Yet despite the threat that these three bear species can pose, attacks aren’t as frequent as you might think. Up until 2016, in fact, Yellowstone had only registered eight fatalities related to bears since it first opened in 1872. But that doesn’t necessarily tell the full story.
Sightings on the rise
Emerson discussed more recent bear encounters and their changing nature in 100 Deadly Skills: Survival Edition. The former SEAL explained, “Human-bear interactions have become increasingly frequent, as various regulations and conservation efforts have swelled the bear population across North America. Black bear sightings [are] particularly on the rise.”
Not too common these days
Emerson continued, “Fortunately, bear attacks are very rare in general. You have a one in 2.1 million chance of being mauled, which means that almost any routine daily activity has a greater chance of killing you. But activities such as bow-hunting for elk in the mountains of Montana or backpacking in the Yellowstone range will significantly increase your risk of a lethal attack.”
So if that figure doesn’t put your mind at ease while you’re in the great outdoors, keep in mind that there are ways to avoid bears. For example: try to steer clear of noisy beds of water as the hulking animals could be lurking in those areas. And that’s not the only precaution you can take.
Staying in groups
It’s advised, for instance, that you should travel in groups when moving through “bear country,” as the animals stay away from large gatherings. You should make plenty of noise, too, because this tells the bears that you’re not sneaking into their domains. The quieter you are, then, the bigger the risks.
Food draws their attention
If you’re camping outside, you also need to be very wary when preparing food. Unsurprisingly, you see, any bears in the area will be attracted by the smell of grub – so you should take some precautions. Emerson confirmed this in his book, even listing off a few instructions that could prove crucial.
Keen sense of smell
“Bears have a formidable sense of smell,” wrote Emerson. “So when you’re stopped for the night, follow the common-sense strategies of double-bagging and hanging your food. Place food, cookware and utensils at least 100 feet from your tent, and never set up camp near bear scat or tracks.” His advice didn’t end there, either.
Hide your scents
Emerson added, “Store any scented products (toothpaste, soap) with food and cooking supplies. Do not sleep in the same clothing you cooked in, as food scents may remain on [the] fibers.” So by following all of these steps, you should be able to keep the smell of nearby food to a minimum. Yet that still might not be enough to deter a curious bear.
To ensure your safety, then, it might be an idea to purchase some “bear spray” ahead of any trips into the wild. According to Emerson, this substance is the go-to tool to protect yourself from the animals – instead of a firearm. But the former soldier also revealed what you should do if a bear starts to get too close.
As the ex-SEAL explained, “Wave your arms around and make noise. Often this strategy will make bears stop in their tracks and run off. [But] if the bear charges you, this is the moment to use the bear spray... Dispense the bear spray when the bear is within 40 feet.” Or, if you did bring along a firearm, Emerson recommends that you “aim your rifle sights at a spot below its chin.”
Testing your prowess
In certain situations, though, the bear could just be testing you out with a fake charge. And if you’re wondering why it would do that, it’s because the creature may just be looking to gauge whether you’re a real threat to its safety. When this happens, you have to stay perfectly still – as the bear could choose to leave you alone anyway.
Unfortunately, though, there’s a possibility that the bear won’t stop charging. So you need to be prepared for what comes next. After all, the creature might well knock you down to the ground and begin an attack. And if it does, you’ve apparently got to try your best to fool it by “playing dead.”
As Emerson explained in 100 Deadly Skills: Survival Edition, “If the bear attacks, most experts agree that this is the moment to lie down and play dead. You want to convince the bear that it has done its job and effectively minimized the perceived threat you posed. Lay flat on your stomach to protect your organs, crossing your hands behind your neck to guard your arteries.”
As Emerson emphasized, playing dead apparently works 75 percent of the time. And the retired Navy SEAL offered another suggestion, too, for when you’re pretending to be out of it. He added, “[You could also] curl into the fetal position, covering the back of your neck with your hands.”
Fight or flight response
But if you do spot a bear from a distance, there’s one piece of advice that you must follow – regardless of how you feel. When a person is threatened, you see, their fight-or-flight response kicks in. In many cases, the individual will naturally want to get away as quickly as possible to avoid danger.
Never turn your back on a bear
But when it comes to bears, you have to be mindful of how you flee the area. As Emerson said in his book, “Never turn your back on a bear, and never try to run. Both of these actions can kick-start a bear’s predatory reflexes. And you’ll never be able to outrun a bear, as the animals can travel at up to 30 miles per hour.”
Alternative to running
So you might be wondering how to escape before the bear gets too close for comfort. And, fortunately, Emerson came up with another solution. He also suggested that this is your best bet. He wrote, “Instead [of running], slowly walk away sideways, keeping an eye on the animal so that you can monitor its movements.”
Given how unpredictable nature is, though, you could still find yourself at the mercy of the bear. So if the beast continues to attack while it has you pinned down, you need to respond with force. Yes, using whatever tools are available to you, you’re advised to strike it in the eyes or snout. As Emerson explained, “The bear intends to kill and possibly eat you, so fight back with any available weapons: a knife, sticks, rocks, your fists.”
Prepared for the worst-case scenario
According to Emerson, this move could eventually fend off the bear – if you’re lucky enough. After all, when a bear maintains an attack like that for a sustained period, it ultimately wants to kill you. But, due to the numbers that we previously discussed, this would be an absolute worst-case scenario.
Still one more tool
In conclusion, then, Emerson reiterated that you have to be prepared for any outcome when you head into bear country, as no one can truly predict what will happen. That being said, the retired SEAL still believed that one particular tool would get you out of most trouble.
Pepper spray works
As he explained in 100 Deadly Skills: Survival Edition, “Some say that playing dead is more likely to work with the [grizzly bear], claiming that the [black bears’] less frequent attacks are more likely to be offensive. But all agree that pepper spray is the single best deterrent. One so effective that it has been used successfully by children under the age of ten.”
Handling the situation
Emerson added, “There’s no tried-and-true, written-in-stone protocol for handling a bear attack. In part because attacks are so rare. So it’s no surprise to find debate among bear country-dwellers about how to handle a grizzly charge versus an encounter with a black bear.”