Friday, September 12, 2008

Bears vs The Dot

So, I'm working on "Take On Camping", a book for women who want to learn how to camp, and I'm dealing with the oh-so-pleasant topic of how to deal with having your period (I can hear the guys clicking off this page around now).

As a sidebar, I'm looking into the wilderness myth (like an urban myth but away from the city) that bears are attracted to menstrual blood and will attack women who camp during their periods. My first question was - what gave anyone the idea that this was happening? (My second question was, who would win in a fight between a hungry bear and a woman with wicked PMS - but I haven't found any studies on that yet...)

It turns out the story that started the myth dates back to 1967, when two women were attacked and killed by a grizzly during a camping trip. It also happened that both women had their periods. This was apparently conclusive enough for the forest service to start warning women that they shouldn't camp in bear country while menstruating.

Subsequently, a few different researchers have attempted to find some kind of scientific data that would either support or disprove this assumption that bears are attracted to menstrual blood. Bizarrely, none of the tests have been done using grizzly bears, which was the species involved in the 1967 attack.

One study using polar bears did find that they reacted more to menstrual blood than to non-menstrual human blood. So chalk one up for the myth, but how many of us camp in polar bear territory?

A couple of studies have used black bears, which are by far the most commonly encountered bears in North America. (New Zealand is bear-free, so I don't have to even think about this most of the time.) In the first study, the bears showed no particular interest in tampons soaked with menstrual blood, when compared with clean tampons, and tampons soaked with non-menstrual human blood. A second study gave bears the option of a tampon soaked in beef fat. Guess what? Ten out of ten black bears prefer beef fat to menstrual blood!

Bear precautions are no laughing matter, however, and used sanitary items should be treated as potential bear attractors in the same way that food and food waste are treated. Don't bury them, because if bears start getting used to them as a food source that could make this myth actually have some merit. Hang your waste from a tree, or keep it in a bear-proof container. But don't cancel your camping trip just because you'll have to bring along your Aunt Flo.

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