Video: Could you beat up a grizzly bear? Dire lessons from recent attacks

Grizzly bears must be handled the right ways to avoid potentially fatal encounters. (At Home in Wild Spaces)

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Estimated read time: 11-12 minutes

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SHOSHONE NATIONAL FOREST, Wyoming — Last fall played host to a rare microburst of grizzly bear attacks, tallying three in less than two weeks in October.

The most conspicuous of which was the story of Kendell Cummings — a college wrestler who threw himself at a 400- to 500-pound grizzly, reportedly punching, kicking and pulling on the bear in order to save his friend Brayden "Brady" Lowry, who was already locked in the bear's jaws.

Lowry had inadvertently stumbled across the bear less than 15 yards away, while traveling through heavy cover, according to Wyoming Game and Fish Department, and was subsequently and swiftly attacked.

Grizzly bear attacks can prove deadly for those who encounter them unprepared in the wild.
Grizzly bear attacks can prove deadly for those who encounter them unprepared in the wild. (Photo: At Home in Wild Spaces)

His ordeal would have been newsworthy enough, but it was Cumming's decision to physically engage the bear in order to save his friend that really set the internet on fire. The act resulted in a national, and even international celebration of their story of survival, their friendship and the selfless aid of their teammates, August Harrison and Orrin Jackson.

But, interwoven with that celebration and the heartwarming support of their teammates and community, a hazardous narrative began forming, which spread at lightning speed across the internet — a narrative that if left uncorrected could prove disastrous for future travelers in grizzly country.

Like a high-stakes game of telephone, the facts of the attack were mingled with iterative and reckless exaggerations. They include the extremely popular and objectively false claim that Cummings and Lowry "fought off" the grizzly. That is a notion debunked by Cummings' own account of the event — in which he describes feeling "hopeless" and "small."

Much of the news coverage neglected the critical difference between attempting to fight off a grizzly — and succeeding.

By engaging physically with the bear, Cummings deflected its aggression away from Lowry, but also inadvertently incentivized greater aggression on the part of the bear. This is the reason "fighting back" when attacked by a startled grizzly is so emphatically discouraged by wildlife and public lands managers.

Somehow, Cummings' deflecting the bear's aggression was reported as fighting the bear off, with some news accounts even adding, exuberantly, "with his bare hands." Some media organizations went even further, claiming Cummings "won" the engagement, or suggested that getting into a tussle with a grizzly makes you "tough."

A collection of news headlines follows a grizzly bear attack involving two college students in October 2022.
A collection of news headlines follows a grizzly bear attack involving two college students in October 2022. (Photo: At Home in Wild Spaces)

Just as problematic as some of the reckless elaborations and falsehoods, critical safety questions went almost or completely unanswered by the news reports. The situation has culminated in a dilemma known well to professional wildlife biologist Tom S. Smith.

History speaks volumes

Having logged more than 30 years of experience in the field with bears from Alaska to Utah, and authoring or co-authoring numerous landmark scientific papers on bear attacks, effective deterrents and bear behavior, Smith has dedicated much of his professional career to analyzing events like the recent attack — for the purpose of determining what defensive strategies work and which strategies do not work.

Smith's data pool currently sits at 1,000 cataloged and analyzed bear attacks throughout North America. His work has, at times, required asking hard and sometimes unpopular questions, as well as highlighting the sometimes serious consequences of poor choices made in bear country.

"We're not doing what the current society would call 'victim blaming.' The fact is, we're concerned. And we want to learn from these unfortunate events," says Smith.

Future human safety must take precedent. If there are lessons that need to be learned or falsehoods that could lead travelers to make hazardous decisions in the future — both need to be addressed. There's no doubt that Cummings' and Lowry's own experiences would have benefited from a somber examination of past attacks; both the successes and the tragedies.

Four years before these two teammates were attacked, a remarkably similar contest occurred between Mark Uptain, a hunting guide from Jackson, Wyoming, his client and a mother grizzly roughly half the size of the bear that attacked Lowry and Cummings. Examined in parallel, Cummings' and Lowry's ordeal becomes even more enlightening — and sobering.

In discussing these two attacks, Smith warns that his data suggests that once a grizzly bear makes physical contact with a person, the outcome is the equivalent of rolling a four-sided die, with wounds falling equally between minor, moderate, severe or fatal.

Smith's statement proved ominously accurate when comparing Cummings and Lowry's ordeal with Uptain and his client's struggle with a 250-pound mother grizzly in September of 2018. Of the four individuals involved in the two attacks, one received minor injuries, one moderate, one severe and one fatal.

"I think the stage (was) already set" before the attacks ever occurred, Smith said. While each attack is its own event, definite patterns begin to emerge. "These patterns are very clear and it's not trying to shame anybody, it's just saying, 'Hey! There's no reason to be doing this. We already know how to be safe around these animals.'"

The included video contains approximate animated reconstructions of these two events and highlights several dire lessons evident from both Kendall and Brady's experience and the attack that claimed Mark Uptain's life.

Bear attacks, like all other forms of history, offer outdoor travelers the opportunity to learn — or risk repeating the same hazardous mistakes.

There's no reason to be (fighting a grizzly bear). We already know how to be safe around these animals.

– Tom S. Smith, wildlife biologist

Lowry's and Cummings' friendship and the support of their teammates are not diminished by addressing decisions that would have resulted in better outcomes. Other people have found themselves in near-identical situations, even intervening to save friends with vastly more successful resolutions. Unfortunately, those cases don't often result in the same frenzied news or social media coverage compared with events like Cummings' effort to wrestle a grizzly off Lowry.

There are also numerous examples of people who have been abandoned during bear attacks, even by friends. Cummings' effort was "admirable," said Smith, adding "But, it's the two extremes." The preverbal 'Goldilocks Zone' is found in the middle. "We want to encourage people to be prepared."

You should never run during a bear attack. "You can't outrun them," warns Smith. Nor should you get into an unnecessary fight with a grizzly bear, which is almost certain to worsen the attack.

"You have to have a way of dealing with these animals," Smith said.

Deterrents work

According to news reports, the four friends are believed to have been carrying bear spray. But, Smith questions why wasn't the very effective deterrent used?

"Why would you be yanking and pulling on the bear if you have bear spray?" he said, adding that without more information, we can only "speculate," but "if I were to put money on it, I'd bet they either didn't have (bear spray) or it was in their packs."

"(It) comes down to whether you've made the right choices some time prior. Because I think the stage is already set when (attacks unfold)," Smith said. "(If) you don't have bear spray or it's in your pack, or you're carrying a gun you don't know how to use — I mean, these are consequential decisions and the consequences can be very, very terrible.

"There are a lot of pretty awful things that happen, and they could be avoided."

(If) you don't have bear spray or it's in you pack; or you're carrying a gun you don't know how to use — I mean, these are consequential decisions and the consequences can be very, very terrible.

– Tom S. Smith, wildlife biologist

With deterrents unavailable or unused, Cummings physically engaged the bear. Uptain, according to statements made by his client, who was the only witness, made the same decision — though, in that event, it's important to note that Uptain was the first and primary target of the bear's aggression. In both cases, however, those who attempted to "fight off" the grizzly incurred the most severe and very similar sets of wounds.

Understanding a little of grizzly behavior illustrates why "fighting" a grizzly is in Smith's words, "a fool's errand."

"Bears fight with their teeth, and they fight face to face," he said. "They go unquestionably for the head and neck. That's how they fight each other (and how they fight humans)."

Human vulnerabilities near the head, neck and elsewhere, Smith said, are abundant.

"If (bears) get a hold of your head, it's bad. And if they get over the crown of the head, it's check engine light. Because … they'll just crush the skull." A fraction of an inch can mean the difference between being severely wounded, or being scalped and ending in certain death.

Uptain's injuries hit major arteries and crushed a portion of his skull, according a summary of the official attack report by Jackson Hole News and Guide.

And, while it is very fortunate that Cummings survived his tussle with the bear that attacked Lowry, "it didn't need to happen," says Smith.

Toward the end of the encounter, Cummings collapsed, so severely injured that he couldn't fight anymore, even if he had wanted to, according to interviews conducted by ESPN. That is when the bear finally left — leaving Cummings for dead.

Life-and-death stakes

Without accurate reporting and qualified guidance, others may attempt to unnecessary "fight off" attacking grizzly bears, especially if news reports glorify the act and fail to share qualified guidance.

Mark Twain is attributed with saying, "A lie can travel halfway around the globe, while the truth is still putting its boots on." That's a dangerous prospect when falsehoods could end up getting someone killed.

If falsehoods spread that quickly, then a concerted, unified effort is needed to share the facts and the strategies that have proven successful in the past. We've learned a great deal about how to safely share space with bears over the past several decades — thanks to the work of individuals like Smith, and his frequent collaborator Stephen Herrero. Herrero is an ecologist and author of "Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance," which is praised as required reading on the topic.

But, that life-saving knowledge can't prevent tragedy or refute falsehoods unless it's shared with people. That is the purpose of this one-of-a-kind video and companion article. Friendship, selflessness and community deserve emphatic celebration. And hazardous decisions require sober and informed discussion because lives are on the line.

Finally, it's important that we put Lowry's, Cummings' and Uptain's experiences into context.

"People go out there and do things that are completely counter to conventional wisdom on how to be safe in bear country and then most of them live through it," Smith said. "That's the crazy thing."

There are people who travel in grizzly country alone, or without deterrents, who keep an untidy camp or food in their tents, or fail to make sufficient noise to ward off bears. Just because you've avoided conflict with a bear, so far, isn't a guarantee you will continue to do so. In some cases, you may be playing a very dangerous game of chance, regardless of how much experience you have in bear country.

Lowry, Cummings, Uptain and his client are simply among the few who had their readiness tested. This video will help anyone heading into bear country — so if any of you are ever tested like Lowry, Cummings or Uptain, you've taken the time to learn from their experiences and from the qualified advice of experts like Smith.

While the clear priority is always human safety, Smith laments that after a bear attacks, "people's attitudes towards bears get very dark and then they don't see any need to conserve these 'monsters' on the landscape."

"(Attacks) are not random. (Grizzlies) are not like little Tasmanian devils spinning around the landscape like a Warner Bros. cartoon, striking at random these hapless hikers," he said. "No. People set these up."

Grizzly bears inspire both fear and admiration. They are perhaps North America's most iconic predator species. They live a hard life in the wild, and can be aggressive if startled or habituated to humans. But, as a whole, they'll almost always choose to avoid conflicts with people when given the opportunity. Everyone benefits when people are educated on how to do the same.


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Mike is a writer, filmmaker and public speaker, who, along with his wife Michelle, owns and manages At Home in Wild Spaces Films, a film studio that produces informational outdoor adventure media and resources. Mike graduated from BYU with a degree in film and animation, and occasionally writes about entertainment and current events.


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