Nature Is a Woman's Place: How the Myth That Bears Are a Danger to Menstruating Women SpreadLatest
Ladies, do you have a secret fear a bear will track and attack you when you’re menstruating in the wild?
Everyone else, do you avoid going camping in bear country with menstruating women?
As a woman who surfs in California’s red triangle (known for regular shark attacks) and who loves hiking in the wild, this is a topic that I think about regularly. And I am embarrassed to admit that a few months ago, my answer to that first question was yes. I wasn’t alone in my ignorance about women and menstruation-related animal attacks. Just this week, pro surfer Laird Hamilton confidently told TMZ that “the biggest, most common reason to be bitten [by a shark] is a woman with her period.” When I set out find an answer to the bear question, most people I asked replied with some variation on, yeah it’s blood, so they can smell it. A few people said I don’t know. No one offered a definitive no—except for Caroline Byrd of Bozeman, Montana.
But before we get to Byrd’s story, let me tell you about the night the menstruation myth I and others have bought into was born—The Night of the Grizzly.
Almost 50 years ago, on August 13, 1967, two women—camping 20 miles apart from each other—were killed by grizzly bears in Glacier National Park. It was the first recorded bear attack since the park had opened in 1910. Both women were dragged into the woods by a grizzly and eaten. Was menstruation to blame?
Michele Koons was menstruating that night and wearing a sanitary pad. She was camping with three men, one other woman, and a dog. One particular female bear had been harassing campers all summer, including Michele and her friends, so they left their camp and unrolled their sleeping bags along the banks of Trout Lake to sleep. When the first camper was awakened to the sound of the bear sniffing around his sleeping bag, he panicked, jumped out of his bag, and climbed a tree. The bear moved on to the next camper, who also leapt from his bag and got away. Moving down the line of campers, like Goldilocks looking for the perfect meal, she came to the last camper. According to one of her friends, Paul Dunn, Michele couldn’t get her zipper undone and could not get out of her bag.
Julie Helgeson was also attacked that night, but she wasn’t menstruating. She and Roy Duncat had set up camp near the Granite Park Chalet, whose employees had been dumping garbage in a nearby gully, attracting bears. When a mama bear and her two cubs attacked the couple that night, they went back and forth between the pair until Julie started to scream. The mama bear then dragged her to her death.
The National Park Service (NPS) was scrambling for answers about why these attacks took place, so they latched onto the coincidence that both victims were women. The Park’s report on the bear attacks reads, “The Trout Lake girl [Michele] was in her monthly menstrual period while the Granite Park victim [Julie] evidently expected her period to begin at any time.” Although grizzlies killed these women, the literature that emerged after this incident would imply that menstruation could also be implicated in their deaths. The NPS and the United States Forest Service (USFS) co-published Grizzly, Grizzly, Grizzly, a six page brochure containing information on how to be safe while camping, hiking, and exploring in bear country. It explicitly advised women to “stay out of bear country during their menstrual period.”
The Dangers of Homogeneous Decision-Making
After this brochure was published, a cascading series of events began to unravel in which men made fundamental decisions about women’s health, safety, and rights to nature—without women. A scientific study done by biologist Bruce Cushing in 1978 and 1979 called The effects of human menstrual odors other scents and ringed seal vocalizations on the polar bear became a pivotal tool for restricting women’s rights to nature and the outdoors. Cushing explains:
The possibility that human menstrual odors might attract bears has been debated for years. This issue came dramatically to light in 1967 when 2 women campers were killed by grizzly bears in Glacier National Park, and menstruation was suggested as the cause of the attacks […] With the increasing use of bear habitat by humans it has become imperative to determine whether or not menstrual odors attract bears.
To study this supposed phenomenon, Cushing and his team of researchers captured four polar bears in Manitoba, Canada, and took them to Churchill Bear Laboratory to put them in several scenarios. They placed fans on used tampons near each bear’s cage and recorded their responses. Actual women—some menstruating and some not—were placed near the cages. Free-range bears were tested 18 kilometers from the lab by putting used tampons on pedestals in the forest, where Cushing and his team recorded the polar bears eating the tampons. Cushing also tested both wild and caged polar bear responses to seal oil, seal blubber (seals being their main food source), chicken, horse manure, musk, sardine mush, seafood, human blood, unused tampons, and sanitary napkins. According to Cushing, this two-year study led him to conclude that yes, menstruation posed a risk for women: “More must be done to warn, and possibly protect, women who venture into bear habitat during their menstrual period.”
While the image of a giant white polar bear noshing on a used tampon is both unsettlingly hilarious and terrifying, I was eager to find a counter-argument. So I followed the path that was blazing around this topic during that decade, and ended up at Caroline Byrd’s 142-page report Of Bears and Women: Investigating the Hypothesis that Menstruation Attracts Bears, published in 1988.
In March of this year, I gave Byrd a call at her office at the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in Bozeman. When she got on the line she exclaimed, “I haven’t thought about that paper in decades!” I asked her to summarize what she thought of Cushing’s research.
“This study was not blind,” she explained. “It wasn’t measured, or really relevant. Putting a bunch of used tampons out in the Arctic is not gonna tell you anything except that polar bears eat used tampons. It has nothing to do with women.”
In other words, Cushing and his team of researchers knew they were trying to prove bears are attracted to menstruation. But a blood-soaked tampon in nature is not the same as a woman who is menstruating in nature.
For 15 minutes, Byrd and I chatted lightheartedly and laughed about bogus science. But her voice tightened as we shifted to the personal story she shares in the preface of her report, which happened in 1983, while she was working on a timber crew in Wyoming for the USFS.
After marking trees in Shoshone National Forest all day, she was heading back to the ranger station with her crew when they came upon a hunter’s camp that had been ravaged by bears. The tent wall was ripped open, and upon further investigation they realized the hunters had not bear-proofed their food. They reported it to the District Ranger’s Office, and the USFS agent assigned to enforce grizzly regulations during hunting season investigated the situation. Byrd writes in her report, “A few days later, my crew (three women and one man) was informed that due to the recent bear trouble, women would no longer be allowed to work in the backcountry during their menstrual periods. The women on the crew failed to make the connection between the incident involving food in a hunter’s camp and working during our menstrual periods.”
Together, the three women shared over 19 years of experience working in bear country. The policy would mean they couldn’t work at least 60 days a year.
Byrd recalls being shocked, and called her friend and grizzly bear specialist, John Craighead. Craighead told her that the claim was unfounded, her superior should know better, and that the NPS had recently tried to pass the same legislation in Glacier. Byrd got on the wire with the ladies on the timber crew up in Glacier, where she confirmed that they had to fight the same policy. The three women typed a letter arguing that the policy was a gross violation of their privacy and sent it to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity office. The policy was rescinded, but Byrd elected to not return to Shoshone the following year.
Women Staying Wild and Free
Let’s review this chain of events: two women were killed by grizzly bears, one while menstruating, and so the NPS and USFS told women to avoid nature while menstruating. Cushing then conducted his study to validate the myth that menstruating women are not safe in bear country. All three incidents almost resulted in a policy forcing women to become unemployed for two months every year because of their menstruation cycle.
Surely the NPS and USFS felt they were protecting women when they tried to pass their policy. If you look at the science according to Cushing, it suggests that women are unsafe in nature and are a biological threat to themselves and those around them.
But beyond any accepted scientific standard, these men used one another to add credibility to their claims. According to Cushing’s report:
Credibility has been leant to this theory by the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service, which jointly distribute a brochure entitled Grizzly, Grizzly, Grizzly advising women to stay out of bear country when menstruating.
One could infer that Cushing’s report also proves that men are incredibly safe in nature; he found that bears do not react to human blood, which could prove that even if a man gets injured and is bleeding in the wild he will be alright. Why were men conducting this research, but were not part of the research itself? Shouldn’t a man have been put next to the polar bear cage, too? What if the polar bears unanimously tried to attack men? Would only one third of forest rangers be women today?
I asked Byrd why she wrote her report. “After I wrote it, I sent it to the park services, the forest services, and people in agencies because I wanted them to change their literature. And they did,” she told me.
“Is that it?” I asked. “Case closed?”
Byrd laughed. “While I never wanted to write the word menstruation again, there’s more to be explored with attitudes toward women, women in wild places, and women in leadership,” she said. “It helped me to have a skeptical look and to say, ‘Wait a second, what’s the evidence, the data, and the science that supports people’s attitudes towards how women are supposed to behave?’”
Today, the Yellowstone National Park/NPS has the page Grizzly Bears & Menstrual Odors: Are bears overly attracted to menstrual odors? on their official website. The site states, “While there is no evidence that grizzly bears are overly attracted to menstrual odors more than any other odor and there is no statistical evidence that known bear attacks have been related to menstruation, certain precautions should be taken to reduce the risks of attack.” Even when there is admittedly no conclusive evidence, the belief that women do not belong in nature persists.
The simple existence of this piece of literature perpetuates the longstanding myth that women in the wild are different—and negatively so—from men. (Where, one wonders, is the brochure entitled Grizzly Bears and External Genitalia: Are grizzly bears overly attracted to external genitalia?)
In reality, nature is not wholly sexist, and bears aren’t sophisticated enough to discriminate by gender. If you set up camp near the garbage dump or get stuck in your sleeping bag, a bear might eat you. It isn’t more complex than that, and the fact that The Night of the Grizzly resulted in a durable, longstanding, pernicious myth about bears’ irresistible attraction to period blood speaks to much larger forces at work.
Women have been told to stay inside for a long time, and claims that the outdoors is inherently a man’s place have manifested in a million different ways. As far as I can tell, much of the research, health warnings, beliefs, and legislation have kept the patriarchal order in power by keeping many women indoors. There’s a deep irony that these spaces where women are told they’re unwelcome and unsafe are called, of all things, Mother Nature.
Warning women to stay indoors to protect themselves from a menstruation-hungry grizzly is just one example in the dizzying universe of ways sexism imprints itself on the world, from women being required to wear organ-crushing corsets—then forced to stay in bed all day because of ‘menstrual pains’—or, in more modern times, being given dolls instead of skateboards. And it’s just another way in which superstitions, ignorance, and fear around menstruation wreak havoc on women’s lives. Even the absence of periods have been used against women: in the Middle Ages, according to the author Hilton Hotema, a woman who had ceased to menstruate was believed to be a witch, able to effect particularly potent evil spells that could injure men and animals alike. In modern times, some cultures banish women and girls to “menstrual huts” once a month; in December, a 15-year-old Nepali girl died of smoke inhalation in hers.
But preventing women from spending time in nature might have repercussions that extend past just their quality of life. Byrd’s studies showed real benefits to being a woman in nature, particularly when it came to bears. “What my analysis revealed is that women usually react in a smarter and more cautious way when they’re around bears than men do,” she told me. “What my statistics showed, is that it’s all situational and the best thing to do is keep your head on your shoulders and respond in the safest way you know how.”
“I think any excuse to believe that women are not capable or less capable than men will be latched onto,” she told me. “When you look at the history of how women have been excluded from fully living in society, it’s just despicable. To use the basic reproductive function as an excuse to keep women from doing whatever they want is like living in the dark ages, and in many ways we still do.”
Luckily, women aren’t deterred by the many myths stacked against them: today, more than ever, women are pulling on wetsuits, exploring the backcountry, and occupying wild spaces. Our presence in nature will, in time, swing statistics (more than 80 percent of recorded shark attacks have involved men, for example). In recent years, proportionally more women have been attacked by bears and sharks—not because of mystical wildlife-drawing powers of menstrual blood, but because more women are engaging in formerly restricted activities. But brochures will continue to belittle us. The patriarchy will try to “protect” us. We must be smarter and louder if we want to stay wild and free.
Margaret Seelie is a San Francisco based artist and writer who teaches for Sea State, a surf study abroad program. She is the founder of the OTHER Project.