Vancouver Island is a walk on the wild side of things, and there are a few priorities guests should have when paying a visit. Most importantly, visitors need to recognize that being in the wilderness and wild animals come hand-in-hand. Learning about what type of animals are in the area, how to avoid them and what to do when you come across them is incredibly important to keep both yourself and the animals safe. They were, after all, here first. While you may not be visiting Vancouver Island to do some of the top things to do like hiking, kayaking and camping, there may still be times and places where you can come across animals like bears, wolves and cougars – Seal Bay Park in Courtenay, for example, often has bear and cougar sightings even though it’s close to town! It’s also not uncommon for locals to have bears in their backyard all over the Island. Depending on what you run into, the safety protocol might be a bit different, so be sure to brush up on the details below!
First things first, there are some pretty easy ways to avoid drawing the animals to where you are and to keeping out of their way.
- Never come between a mom and her babies
- Never approach it – they need their space
- Do not pack smelly foods
- Keep food in a cache away from where you sleep – Things like toothpaste, deodorant and shampoos can also be an attractant
- Do not prepare smelly foods in your camp (especially things like fish)
- Do not enter areas that are noted as an animal’s home
- Use animal safe garbage bins and store in a place they can’t get at
- Do not walk at night alone, or in the forest alone without a bear bell
- Keep dogs on a leash when in an area known to have wild animals
While a bear is unlikely to attack, there are tons on Vancouver Island, and it is quite likely you will encounter one during your time, whether it’s crossing the street, cruising a yard, or wandering the same trail. You won’t need to worry about running into a grizzly bear, but Vancouver Island definitely has a good population of black bears. If you are bear smart (by following the tips above and similar others), you won’t have an issue with these beautiful beasts. If you do run into one though, here’s what to do:
- Prepare your bear spray
- If in a group – stick together to seem larger
- Determine three things: the kind of bear, if it has cubs and if it is protecting a food source
- Speak slowly in a calm tone
- Back away slowly and keep an eye on the bear
- Do not run
Most likely, the bear will run away. However, sometimes they are on the defensive and will react by opening its mouth, swatting the ground, or maybe even making a bluff charge at you. They don’t want to fight, they just want to scare you. Follow the same steps again, making sure your bear spray is at the ready. Defensive behavior is usually seen with grizzly bears, rather than black bears, so it’s unlikely your encounter will come this far. Usually a bear is defensive if it was surprised, or if it has cubs. If the bear is on a carcass, leave as quickly and quietly as possible back the way you came.
If for some reason the bear doesn’t leave and continues to make contact in defense, it’s time to use your bear spray. When it’s thirty feet away, release the spray aiming just above its head so that it lands in its eyes, nose and goes down its throat. If for some reason it doesn’t work and the bear has now made PHYSICAL CONTACT, it’s time to play dead. Drop to the ground on your stomach, cover your neck and head with your hands and make sure your elbows and legs are wide so that the bear can’t flip you. Stay still in that position until you’re certain the bear is long gone.
There’s one other case of bear encounters that requires an entirely different reaction to just coming across a bear, or dealing with a defensive bear. Very rarely, a bear will not run away, even if it isn’t being defensive, and can sometimes be aggressive. Here, it is likely testing its dominance, is food conditioned, or is way too used to being around humans, so it’s important to stand your ground. Here is what to do with an aggressive, or non-defensive bear:
- Speak in a firm voice
- Get out of its way
- If it’s following you and focusing on you alone, stand your ground and prepare your bear spray **Not standing up to a bear doing this behavior could make it predatory
- Look it in the eyes and act aggressive
- Make yourself look large
- Stomp and threaten the bear with sticks, poles or spray
- Step towards the bear
Your response should match the bear’s aggression. If it reacts aggressively, be more aggressive in your response. If it does attack, do not play dead – fight with whatever you have available and be sure to focus on its face. A bear’s eyes and nose are its most sensitive spots.
As you can see, depending on the situation of the encounter, there are a number of different responses. It’s important to know what kind of bear you’re dealing with! Again, an attack is incredibly unlikely and most bears, if you even see any, will simply run away. The bears are often just as scared of us as we are of them, and nobody wants a fight. Bear safety is an important one, as they are a fairly common sighting in the forests of Vancouver Island.
For more information about how to be bear-aware, check out www.bearsmart.com.
On Vancouver Island, wolves are an uncommon sighting and are unlikely to be anywhere near where humans exist. However, certain areas have had encounters, and there are trails and parks in which you need to be aware of what to do if you run into a wolf, or its pack. If the wolves do not run away immediately, here’s what to do:
- Try to scare it off before it is within 100m – do not let it approach closer than this
- Wave your arms and raise them to appear larger
- Make lots of noise using things like whistles and air horns
- Maintain eye contact
- Throw rocks, sticks and dirt/sand at them
- If in a group, stick together and act in unison – put the children in the middle of the group
- Back away if still acting aggressively – DO NOT RUN
- Use pepper spray
If the wolf does attack, you’ll need to fight back. It’s important to not let the wolf get behind you and use anything you can to defend yourself. Unlike when a defensive bear attacks, it’s important that you DO NOT play dead. If the wolf backs off and disappears, be sure to stay alert as it may still be stalking you.
There are a few other wolf specific tactics for those wolves that reside on the coast that visitors should be aware of. Most important is to avoid camping in areas where seal and other marine animal carcasses wash up – coastal wolves are scavengers and this puts yourself in harm’s way. It’s also important to avoid wolves that are swimming, or are onshore if you’re in a boat. Stay about 200m away. Finally, it’s important to use park toilets, or pack out your waste, as wolves can dig it up and eat it if it’s just buried in a hole.
Click to learn more about Vancouver Island’s Wolves…
Attacks from cougars are incredibly rare, and even spotting a cougar is unlikely while visiting Vancouver Island. However, you’re still a guest in their territory, so it’s important to know some steps to cougar safety. Here are the steps to take if you encounter a cougar on Vancouver Island:
- Keep calm
- Look as large as possible
- Back away slowly and allow a clear exit for the animal
- Do not lose sight of the cougar and do not run or turn your back
- Maintain eye contact if the cougar is watching you
- Speak loudly and firmly
Most often the cougar will take the exit, however if it does react aggressively or follows you, you need to show it that you are not prey. Here’s what you do:
- Maintain eye contact
- Show your teeth
- Make loud noises
- Get a weapon
If the cougar does attack, just like with wolves, you need to fight back as hard as possible with anything that is immediately available to you including bear spray, rocks, sticks and personal belongings. The more they realize you are not easy prey, the sooner they will back off. Note that if an occur does attack, they will likely go for a pet, or a child, rather than a full-sized human. Be sure to pick up pets and small children immediately to look larger and keep them safe.
To learn more, check out our wildlife page on cougars.
Safety first! Be sure to know the differences in response between the three major predators on Vancouver Island in order to be fully prepared for an encounter. With all three animals, an attack is extremely unlikely, but you also want to make sure that they do not become habituated. Wild animals that become too used to humans will end up being shot. Keeping yourself safe, also keeps the animals safe meaning we can continue to live in such a beautiful place. Human and animal safety lets us live in harmony with the wild side of things. Now that you know how to be safe, be sure to enjoy the wonderful nature Vancouver Island has to offer. There’s no need to be scared, either! The animals on the Island are stunning creatures, and they will not harm you if you know how to act.
Contributed by: Laurissa Cebryk