Zookeeper Hanna finds pepper spray works on Grinnell trail bear

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Jack Hanna hikes the Grinnell Glacier Trail in Glacier National Park. Hanna, a TV host and zookeeper , used pepper spray to deter a grizzly bear on the trail on Saturday.

Two weeks ago, wildlife conservationist and television personality Jack Hanna was filming a public service announcement promoting the use of pepper spray in Glacier National Park.

On Saturday, Hanna was putting pepper spray to work to protect himself and a group of hikers from an approaching grizzly bear.

“I did this PSA not ever realizing in a million years that I’d be in this situation that I would have to use pepper spray,” said Hanna, who spent three days last week with his wife, Suzi, doing a series of hikes in the park totaling about 40 miles. The couple have a home in the Bigfork area.

The final hike took them to the Many Glacier Valley for a hike on the Grinnell Glacier Trail, which was a busy place partly because the Iceberg Lake trail had been temporarily closed because of recent bear sightings.

Hanna said he broke one of his own rules in departing after noon. They arrived at Grinnell Glacier at about 5 p.m. and soon after started the return trip, hiking with a husband and wife and their daughter.

With the 18-year-old hiking in front, they approached a narrow section on the trail that is framed by steep cliffs on one side and steep drops on the other.

“As we reached that blind turn, that 18-year-old comes running back,” telling the group that there are three bears approaching up the trail. “She said ‘Oh my gosh, they’re right in front of us.’”

Hanna said he told the group to get behind him and start backing up the trail.

“We started walking backwards, and we started talking loudly, but we didn’t yell,” he said.

The group got to an area where there was a steep clear slope leading to walls of rock about 30 feet off the trail.

The group scrambled uphill and put their backs to a wall.

The mother grizzly ended up ambling past, followed by one of the yearling cubs, which he estimates weighed up to 150 pounds.

The other cub, however, stopped on the trail and noticed the people above.

“That one youngster stops ... and the hair starts going on its back and I said, ‘Oh shoot,’” Hanna said.

Hanna readied his pepper spray and gave it a test burst with the bear about 30 feet away and the wind carrying the spray away.

He said the bear started to approach the group at a steady gait and when it got within 20 feet he unleashed another burst that also didn’t have an effect.

But the bear was deterred when it got within about 10 feet.

“I got him in the face and he shook his head and ran,” Hanna said.

After reporting the incident and talking with rangers afterwards, Hanna said he believes the encounter occurred “around the same area if not the same area” where two people were brutally mauled by a grizzly bear on the Grinnell Glacier Trail in 2005.

That year, a father and daughter were on a morning hike near Thunderbird Falls about two miles up the Grinnell Glacier Trail when they rounded a blind corner and encountered a grizzly with two cubs.

The mother bear charged and mauled both people, despite frantic efforts to escape that involved hard falls down cliff sections.

The man, Johan Otter, was seriously wounded in the attack and required months of hospitalization and rehabilitation, while his daughter Jenna escaped with lesser injuries.

Hanna said he firmly believes that pepper spray is the best protection from bears  and he is concerned about the National Park Service lifting a ban on firearms this year.

“I don’t like it. I don’t think it’s the right thing to have firearms in national parks,” said Hanna, who doubts that most people can capably use a handgun against a low-profile moving target.

“I couldn’t hit the broad sign of a barn today” with a handgun, he said. “It makes [people] feel like they’re safe, but they’re not ... A person who knows how to use a firearm, fine. But I believe that a lot of people, including myself, are not trained to do that.”

Hanna has been the director of the Columbus Zoo in Columbus, Ohio, since 1978 (he now is director emeritus) and he has appeared on a variety of wildlife television shows. He’s been the host of “Jack Hanna’s Animal Adventures” since 1993 and is a frequent guest on talk shows.

Hanna said Amy Vanderbilt, Glacier’s public affairs officer, recently asked him about doing a public service announcement for pepper spray and he was happy to volunteer his time.

He said it was filmed in the Lake McDonald and Logan Pass areas.

“I still think this story is about how pepper spray can not only save a person’s life but a bear’s life,” he said.

Hanna and his wife plan to hike from Logan Pass to Canada’s Waterton Lake in the next couple of weeks.

“We love hiking and we love the people and wildlife here,” he said.

Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or by e-mail at jmann@dailyinterlake.com.


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