These days, there’s not much left to tinker with. “Bear spray is small and feasible to carry. It’s easy to learn how to use. And it works. All of those things combined make it a really valuable product,” Servheen told me. Plus, the typical $40 price tag “beats the cost of being mauled by a bear.” The product’s downsides—bears can be attracted to the residue left behind after the spray settles; if deployed incorrectly, the spray could attack the human’s face instead of the bear’s; and it’s still barred in some parks, like Yosemite, and can’t be taken on planes in either checked or carry-on luggage—are relatively minor.
And yet, the market dominance of bear spray hasn’t stopped modern inventors from attempting to think up superior alternatives. To wit:
*In 2006, Gregory Rondinone filed a patent for a knife fitted with a compressed gas chamber that would allow the user to stab a wild animal and then pull a trigger to launch the blade deeper into its body. Rondinone billed it as “useful in wilderness areas having aggressive animals, such as bears.” (“Such a thing would be crazy,” Servheen told me).
*In 2011, Donald Spearman filed a patent for an alternate deployment method for bear spray in which a balloon filled with spray is attached to a hiker’s back via a belt, allowing the user to pull a trigger, pop the balloon, and spray the bear even if she is currently facedown “on the ground being mauled.” (There “remains room for variation and improvement within the art,” Spearman wrote. Indeed: That same year, a pair of inventors filed a patent for a bear spray that could be lodged in the hollow of a hiker’s walking stick.)
*In 2003, brothers Adam Bell and Victor Saunders filed a patent for an inflatable shell that can be worn on a hiker’s back, then instantly blown up into a large, frightening pop-up figure “meant to scare away an attacking or aggressive animal such as a bear,” the patent application reads. The inflatable pop-up doll would be designed to look like a bear itself, the inventors add—perhaps with plastic “arms raised in the classic attacking bear posture,” or painted to show “teeth bared, claws extended and nostrils flared.” Bell, a California patent attorney, told me that Saunders conceived of the product after encountering bears while scaling mountains around the world, and they’ve tested a prototype on house pets to impressive results. “The poor cat almost had a cardiac arrest,” Bell says. “I couldn’t find her for two hours.” (It’s not a bad idea: Bears can be deterred by the presence of “something big that looks more impressive to the animal,” Servheen says; Growly even responded favorably—that is, he retreated—to a research assistant holding up a big piece of plywood in front of his chamber door. Then again, if the bear isn’t scared away by the popup’s initial deployment, you can’t go back and scare it again. With bear spray, you can keep spraying.)
*After a 1984 encounter with a British Columbia grizzly, eccentric inventor Troy Hurtubise began developing a personal suit of armor he calls the “Ursus Mark,” a metal exoskeleton that makes him look like a Transformer and that he says will help would-be grizzly researchers get mauled by bears without sustaining serious injury. (Hurtubise has failed to parlay his armor suits into commercial success. “I’m not sure we’re all going to be lurching around like space robots anytime soon,” Servheen said. “Bonk-bonk.”)
Why are inventors still trying to resolve the dangerous potential of human-bear interactions, when a perfectly good solution is already bottled in a can? “There are a lot of people who are just kind of out there,” Servheen shrugs. But bear deterrents have always been built on a mix of sound animal science and complicated human psychology. Perhaps surviving a run-in with a bear is such a rare and horrific event that it can compel a person to put his unique experience to productive use—to even become “obsessed,” as Mark Matheny put it, with conquering nature through innovation.
In 2010, Tim Scott earned the dubious honor of surviving the first-ever recorded bear attack in the state of Kentucky after a young, 200-pound male black bear sighted Scott on a trail, “looked straight into my eyes,” stalked him with precision, and gnawed at his legs until another group of hikers walked up and scared it away. Scott recovered in six weeks, but the bear’s piercing look lingered in his memory. After the attack, Scott turned down interview requests from lurid nature shows that hoped to exploit his experience to paint a horrific portrait of bears in the wild. (“I don’t want to be involved with anything that’s prejudicial to bears,” Scott told me. “I’m a proponent of bears. I like bears. I like them being in the wilderness.”)
Instead, Scott conceived of an intense version of a hand-held laser pointer that might distract an aggressive bear when shone directly into its eyes. Scott read up on bear psychology, interfaced with bear biologists and physicists, and, in 2011, filed his patent for the bear dazzler, which “produces eye irritation in an animal” without the need for a short-range chemical spray. Scott is still hoping to test the device, but in the past few years, city life’s gotten in the way. When he does bring his laser into the wild, Scott says he’ll need access to “a bunch of bears,” he says, along with alternate means of protection in case his laser doesn’t cut it—including, naturally, some trusty bear spray.