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Do bears have a taste preference for women over men?

Alaska Dispatch staff
Aaron Jansen illustration

Relax, ladies: a recent report from Yellowstone National Park shows that black and brown bears are not attracted to the odor of human menstrual blood, despite fears that have circulated campfires for decades.

A National Park Service report released in February doesn't offer up much new information -- or information that most well-adjusted, hygienic women need worry about -- but it does offer some insight into the nation's fear of bears and women. News organizations, including NBC and the New York Daily News, stumbled on the report this week and were happy to report that another "urban legend" has been busted.

While the Park Service explains there's no research showing black or brown bears are attracted to menstrual blood, one Alaska bear species could be.

Turns out polars bears have shown some interest in the used tampons researchers shared with them, at least according to a 1983 study referenced in the NPS report. By “some interest,” researchers mean polar bears in the study preferred the used tampons to regular human blood and unused tampons.

However, the study's bears preferred food scents and alcohol at a higher rate than they did menstrual blood. In other words, a beer-soaked seal holding a seafood hoagie would likely be at greater risk in polar bear country than a woman at any point in her cycle.

The Park Service's review of literature also notes that while there is no link between grizzly bear attacks and menstruation, no scientific study has been conducted.

The NPS report details specifics on bear attacks on women in Yellowstone National Park. The report concludes that since 1980, 90 million people have visited the park. Although statistics are, rightfully, not available, “thousands of menstruating women undoubtedly visited, hiked and/or camped.” During that period of time, only nine women have been attacked, and menstruation was not a factor in any of the encounters. The park, naturally, concludes there is no correlation between the attacks and menstruation.

Oddly enough, the Park Service goes on to offer a series of precautions for women to reduce the "risk" of period-related bear attack, including the following:

  • Using tampons instead of pads. (Which begs the question: Who hikes in a pad anyway?)
  • Avoid using sanitary products that are “heavily scented” as the scent could act as an attractant. (Gross.)
  • Placing all used products in a double zip-locked bag or bear safe containers before store them away, “just like you would store food."
  • Tampons can be burned in a campfire, but remember, "It takes a very hot fire and considerable time to completely burn them. Any charred remains must be removed from the fire pit and stored with your other garbage."
  • Use an alternative form of blood collection, such as a menstrual cup, and empty it at free flowing water sources, river, stream, etc.
  • And the most frightening suggestion (or ridiculous, depending how you look at it): Do not bury tampons or pads, as bears could dig them up and see the waste as a “small food 'reward,'" which "may attract bears to other menstruating women.”

In short, pack out your period leftovers, ladies, or the bears will find them, eat them and acquire a kind of menses mania.

All this talk is thought to have arisen to popular media attention in 1967, when two women were attacked and killed in separate incidents in northwestern Montana's Glacier National Park. Following the deaths, there was speculation that because of "odors associated with menstruation," women were more likely than men to be attacked.

This summer in Alaska, a woman and her nieces were terrorized by a grizzly bear (possibly two bears) along the Granite Tors Trail in Interior Alaska. The 43-year-old and her 13- and 9-year-old female relatives were able to fend off the aggressive grizzly, in part thanks to a can of insect repellent.

Earlier this August, a woman fought off a bear with a stick, sustained painful bite wounds and became disoriented, then wound up wandering lost for a few days and nights in the forest near Ninilchik on the Kenai Peninsula.

And, only a few days ago, a 20-year-old college student from Seattle was mauled and dragged while conducting research near Tangle Lakes, in the Interior about 20 miles north of the Denali Highway. She survived with minor injuries.

It's unlikely that a visiting "friend" caused any of those recent encounters. “Aunt Flo” has not returned calls seeking comment.

In contrast, at least four men have been mauled in the 2011-2012 season, including the first recorded fatal mauling in Denali National Park and Preserve. That number is (at the very least) on par with the number of female victims this year. In the end it's really very difficult to say if bears discriminate against menstruating or non-menstruating women, or even if a victim's biological sex makes a difference. Although according to the report, it doesn’t matter.

So what does this all mean? Does it mean that women can keep freely menstruating as they have since, well, forever? And how about Alaskans who venture outdoors with women? Can they keep their eyes and ears open for bears as they have since, well, always?

Probably.