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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Bear Spray

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Nancy Lord remembers a recent unbearable encounter with a controversial wildlife repellent.


CURWOOD: Eagles are abundant in Alaska, as are bears. Commentator Nancy Lord likes it that way, but she's recently sought out a little help in keeping the inquisitive animals at a safe distance.

LORD: We call it bear spray. The brand I carry comes in a black plastic can with orange writing and a drawing of a bear's face. The idea is that if you have an unfriendly meeting with a bear, rather than shooting the bear or getting mauled, you spray the bear in the face and it retreats with teary eyes. The active ingredient is cayenne pepper. Most everyone who spends time in the Alaskan bush keeps some handy. It doesn't often get used, but it is a comfort. Alaska has a lot of bears - one to every six people - so it's not all that unusual to cross paths. And then, earlier this year, the sprays were jerked from store shelves by the Environmental Protection Agency. It seems that, as an animal repellent, bear spray is a pesticide, but none of the pepper sprays had ever been registered as pesticides or tested for effectiveness. Identical sprays which don't mention bears on their labels are however perfectly legal to use against human attackers. In the end, after a lot of fuss that even had one of Alaska's senators speechifying that Federal bureaucrats were forcing Alaskans to throw pots of chili at bears, the EPA gave manufacturers another year to test and register the repellents. It's not entirely clear, at least to me, how tests will be conducted against charging bears. This summer I did a test of my own, of sorts. At our cabin, we frequently see both brown and black bears. Rather than a problem, they're a joy to share the country with. Occasionally, however, a young black bear, teenage style, is too brash for its own welfare. One morning, after the same bear came up on our porch for a third time, I thought it would be better to deter it before one of our less-tolerant neighbors took a gun to it. From a recommended distance of twenty feet, I sprayed one quick blast. The bear didn't react. In fact, the spray only reached about ten feet, and then in the breeze the fine red dust blew back around me. There I was, twenty feet from a bear, and I was the one blinded, reeling in pain. Multiply the effect of sticking your finger in your eye after handling hot peppers and you have some idea of the feeling. Weeping. I stumbled and lurched back in the cabin, where I poured water over my eyes and snuffled through runny, burning sinuses. When I could finally see again, the bear was gone - repelled, no doubt, by the crazed behavior of this peppered person.

CURWOOD: Commentator Nancy Lord is a writer who lives in Homer, Alaska.



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