When I announced my intention to move to Australia it began: people warning me – as if I didn’t know – about all the deadly animals that exist here. You’d have thought that blue-ringed octopi were waiting around every street corner, the way people expressed their trepidation.

The fact is that Aussies take it all in stride. They’ve grown up knowing about these beasts. Most of these animals are extremely rare, or – like box jellyfish or saltwater crocodiles – usually easily avoided. Some, like the redback spider, aren’t all that dangerous: no one’s died from a redback in decades because of antivenin availability.

I’ve been amused to find, though, that several Aussies who have pooh-poohed concerns about these animals say to me, “Yeah, but you grew up in a country that has bears.” The thought of coming across a bear in the woods genuinely scares some people here, including a guy I know who has bow-hunted massive wild pigs.

And so the shoe was on the other foot. I probably saw more bears growing up than most people would; I think I’ve spotted about 4 or 5 in the wild. All of them walked or ran away as soon as they spotted me. Most Canadians would never see a wild bear. They don’t scare me at all, though I’m smart enough not to try to approach one, either. I know the old “they’re more scared of you blah blah” holds true. I don’t know anyone who was ever mauled by a bear.

And that got me thinking – and reading – about bears.

  • Australians are not the norm for lacking bears on their continent. The big hairy fellas are pretty widespread, and live everywhere except here, Africa, and Antarctica.
  • Despite being so widespread, there are only 8 species of bears in the world today: the Giant Panda, the Spectacled Bear (the only one in South America), the Brown Bear (which includes grizzlies), the Polar Bear, the American Black Bear (the kind I grew up around), the Asian Black Bear, the Sloth Bear, and the Sun Bear (the last three all found in Asia).
  • Bears have a better sense of smell than dogs.
  • Bears are the most massive land-dwelling members of the carnivore family, although most eat a varied diet of meat and plants.
  • Sure, almost all bears – being massive, and having claws – can seriously harm you. But they rarely do. In the two decades from 1980 to 2000, Yellowstone National Park saw only 2 people injured due to grizzly bears.
  • Despite having four legs, bears can quite readily stand and sit up, much like humans do.
  • The closest animal relatives of bears are seals.
  • There are something close to 400,000 black bears in Canada. There are about twice as many black bears in the world as there are all other species of bear combined.
  • Like many animals, they have more to fear from us than we do from them. Some Asian cultures prize bear organs for their purported medicinal properties.

Black Bears. Photo from Douglas Brown via Creative Commons license