While many of us might think that the best way to survive a bear attack is to play dead, Altha Williams knew better. When she had a bear lunge in her face, her quick thinking left everyone stunned.
It's the stuff we see in movies: people walk mindlessly in the forest until they suddenly come face to face with a bear twice their size. Some respond with screams; others run in the opposite direction.
However, bear attacks are happening in real life, too, all over the world. According to scientific reports, there are over forty bear attacks a year across North America and Europe. While numerous cases are reported, one story sticks out from the rest. That is the story of Altha Williams.
Where It All Began
Altha Williams was a ninety-year-old woman living alone in Sevierville, Tennessee. Over forty-five years ago, she purchased the home of her dreams on Abbott Road in Wears Valley near Great Smoky Mountains National Park and had been living there ever since.
Up until June 2022, she lived a calm, quiet life with no cameras around. She got on well with her neighbors and mostly kept to herself. Then one day, she received a visitor to her porch step, which would lead to a terrifying encounter, an act of bravery, and a headline-worthy outcome.
Altha's favorite part of her home was the outside porch. Looking out onto the surrounding forests and waterfalls, it was an idyllic setting in which she had always dreamed of being. Feeling cool in the house with the AC on, she went outside to warm up.
Heading to the porch swing to relax with her book and a bottle of water, she took a seat and breathed in the clean remote air. It was the perfect afternoon. It was peaceful and quiet, and there was no one else around to disturb her. Or so she thought...
An Unexpected Visit
Little did Altha know that someone had heard her out on the porch and was looking to join her. She'd been sitting there for just two or three minutes when a ruffling noise caught her attention. It sounded like someone was there, so she opened her eyes to see.
As she did so, she jumped in her seat as she caught a look at what was in front of her. A black bear and its three cubs were walking toward her. And they didn't look too happy. Were they going to attack her? No one could have known what would happen next.
Although it went against every natural instinct in her body telling her to scream and panic, Altha managed to control her body and heart rate, keeping her cool throughout. After a few seconds of momentary surprise, she pulled her attention back to the animal in front of her.
While most of us cannot imagine how one can remain calm in a scary and life-threatening situation such as this, there was a pretty good explanation behind her response. Years of living on this property had prepared her for this very moment - even if she hadn't necessarily known that.
Altha had developed this calming approach because bear visits were common for her. As crazy as it sounds, bears frequently walked across her lawn, and she had grown somewhat used to it. It, of course, wasn't an ideal situation, but it was the price to pay for living near the beautiful Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Altha theorized that the bears wanted to visit her property grounds because they hoped to eat from her apple tree. Although she knew she really should remove the tree to prevent attracting these visitors, she wanted to keep benefiting from the tree's fruits. So, she looked for other preventative measures.
On High Alert
Because it was a common occurrence, Altha was always prepared for a surprise bear attack. She'd spent time researching the best ways to deal with the wild animal if it were to attack, and she knew how to recognize the different types of bears and their attacking styles.
On top of this, she'd learned about the practical ways to prevent the attacks from happening in the first place. She made sure to lock up her bird seed in a closed container. She knew that things like this could attract the bears to her lawn and make her more vulnerable to an attack.
Tensions Were High
So long as those measures were taken, the bears typically kept to themselves. Altha told the WVLT News that whenever she had seen a bear outside her home in the past, they would usually see her, get scared and run off quickly. She had no reason to assume this bear visit wouldn't end the same way.
However, when she took a closer look at the bear coming toward her, she realized that something was different this time. It was unlike anything she'd ever seen before. The bear was not alone, and it did not seem startled by her appearance either. She needed to act, fast.
A Mother & Her Babies
While she had seen plenty of bears in her vicinity, this time was different. The mother bear was with her three cubs, protectively keeping them by her side. Bears are famously more fearful for their safety when they have their offspring with them and will often be more aggressive.
Calculating this, Altha recognized that this bear might not be there on the most friendly terms. While she wanted to be able to live peacefully side by side with the wildlife, she sensed the impending danger and attempted to get away. But the bear had other ideas...
Just as she got up off her lawn chair to dash inside to safety, the bear saw her instant movements and lifted its front legs to be fully standing. Now taller than her, it seemed more intimidating than before, and the woman and bear stared into each other's eyes.
As they both waited to see who would make the next move, the bear suddenly lunged right in front of her. "Its face was right in my face," she told WVLT News. She quickly hopped behind her outdoor furniture, hoping to put a physical barrier between her and her attacker. As she did so, she felt a scratch on her arm.
Fight or Flight
Although she had found an effective way to keep calm in the presence of bears, this type of interaction was unprecedented. She had not prepared for such a close face-off. As she stared into her attacker's eyes, she allowed herself to briefly imagine the worst.
But Altha didn't have time to waste panicking, and she knew that. This animal seemed incredibly angry and what it would do next was anyone's guess. And that's when she had an idea. It was a risky one - but she had nothing to lose at this point. There was no going back now.
The Moment of Truth
In a moment of clarity, the ninety-year-old woman remembered that experts recommended that when faced with a bear, making a loud noise could effectively scare off the predator. She desperately looked around her for something that could make a threatening sound. Then she had a lightbulb moment.
Her lawn chair! It was right there between her and the bear! She instantly began moving it back and forth in front of the bear and lifting it up and down on the decking; she did her best to make the maximum amount of noise possible with what she had around her.
A Haunting Realization
Although the bear initially flinched from the noise and commotion of the chair, it regained its confidence quickly after. Continuing to fight against the weight of the chair between it and the woman, the animal was clearly not planning on giving up without a fight.
Altha wrecked her now-fried brain for other ideas. She frantically tried to remember what else she had read in her various research books. She remembered reading that making noise was a great way to scare off bears, but it had not worked in this case. What else could she do??
It All Happened So Fast
Then it happened. In a matter of seconds, the bear appeared to back down and admit defeat. Altha could not believe her eyes when she saw the bear lower its front legs and ease away from her. Was this a clever attacking technique? She had no idea what to expect.
Not knowing if more was to come, Altha waited for what felt like hours to see what the animal would do next. Finally, it ran off into the distance along with its three cubs, and the woman breathed a sigh of relief. She ran back inside the house to inspect the damage it had done to her.
Giving herself a quick inspection, she noticed a few deep scratches on her arm and face that she reckoned would need stitching up. Hesitantly opening her front door and running to call her neighbors for help, they immediately took her to the hospital for treatment.
Here, she met the doctors and recalled the entire incident to them. They gave her a thorough medical examination and were shocked to see that she had managed to escape the bear attack with just no life-threatening injuries! They stitched up what was needed and sent her home for a full recovery.
Making The News
With a story as wild as this, it was only a matter of time until it broke the news. Within days, millions had heard the heroic story of the ninety-year-old woman who single-handedly fought off a black bear on the front porch of her home. It was an unbelievable story of courage and bravery.
Altha was contacted by multiple news outlets, including WATE 6 On Your Side and ABC, who all came to her home for an in-person interview. For the sake of the viewers, she recalled her harrowing tale for the cameras, sitting on the infamous porch as she did so.
“She… Walked the Walk, While Talking the Talk”
As the story quickly reached all the corners of the internet, viewers took to the comments section to send their well-wishes and praise the woman for her remarkable courage. "Kudos to this 90-year-old TN woman for defending herself and fending off the bear," one comment said.
"This woman should immediately be appointed as Director of Homeland Security, she has walked the walk, while talking the talk," wrote another impressed stranger. Many began to wonder what they would have done and how they would have reacted if they had been in her position.
A Matter of Life or Death
It was not only the local people that were impressed by Altha's brave actions. Many wildlife experts also couldn't help but admire her quick-thinking approach to the attack and used their appearances on the news programs to highlight to the public what she did right.
"The way she responded was exactly what we tell people to do," Matt Cameron, the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency spokesperson, told WVLT News. "To get big, yell at them, make noise. To intimidate them. Pat on the back for how she responded; it very well could have saved her life."
Where Did the Bear Go?
Amongst all the excitement surrounding Altha's victorious bear fight, no media outlet had mentioned what had happened to the bear after its showdown with the ninety-year-old woman. After it backed down, where had it run off to? Many bears are known to run back into the forest, but what about Altha's opponent?
It soon became known that after admitting defeat to Altha, the bear attempted to attack her neighbor. Running onto the neighbor's lawn, it used the same lunging attack style. However, in this case, there was no lawn chair involved. This neighbor had a weapon and neutralized the bear in an act of self-defense.
Calling For Backup
Luckily for the bear, the wounds were not fatal. However, it did cause the animal to fall unconscious, where it was then captured by local authorities. What to now do with the bear was the topic of much discussion. Could the bear be safely relocated, or was further action needed? It was not an easy decision.
On the one hand, it had almost fatally attacked two residents. There was no saying how many more victims it would have had if it hadn't been stopped in its tracks. On the other hand, could this bear be blamed for just acting on its predatory instincts? It remained in captivity until a decision could be made.
Looking back on the terrifying encounter, Altha replayed the incident over in her head. She recounted her steps and each movement that led to her surviving the attack. Thankfully, she had the background knowledge to know what not to do in situations such as these.
More than anything else, she feels an overwhelming sense of gratitude. "I've been praising the Lord ever since then because I could have not have been here," she told WVLT News with tears building up in her eyes. "If it hadn't been for this lawn chair, I guess!"
Surveying the Area
Amongst the press coverage of Altha's attack, the local community told reporters that they had noted an increase in bear sightings in the area. "During the summer, we can see them every few days. It has increased over the past ten years," a neighbor told ABC News.
That being said, they note that this bear's aggression was very uncharacteristic as most of these bear appearances have not resulted in attacks or aggressive behavior. "It is a mama with cubs, though!" another neighbor rationalized. Others speculated it acted out because of an uptake in people feeding the animals.
The Second Of Its Kind
This potentially life-threatening bear attack against Altha was actually the second of its kind that week, causing concerns that this would become a new pattern. Just a few days prior, a bear ripped into a tent pitched at the Elkmont campsite in the neighboring Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Within seconds of entering the tent, the animal attempted to harm a mother and her three-year-old child. Thankfully, the park rangers were alerted quickly of the incident and were able to capture the bear before it could do any more than lightly scratch the campers.
The Underlying Cause
Straight after this attack, many locals wanted answers as to why the usually tame bears had attacked in this way. "In this incident, the bear was likely attracted to food smells throughout the area, including dog food at the involved campsite," said Lisa McInnis, Chief of Resource Management with GSMNP.
According to experts, left-out food is the most common underlying cause of bear attacks. "It is very difficult to deter this learned behavior and, as in this case, the result can lead to an unacceptable risk to people," explained McInnis. It is important for bears not to associate people with food.
Experts Speak Out
Established in 1949, The Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA) works tirelessly to "preserve, conserve, manage, protect, and enhance the fish and wildlife of the state and their habitats for the use, benefit, and enjoyment of the citizens of Tennessee and its visitors."
For those worried about how they can protect themselves in the case of a bear attack, the TWRA, along with BearWise, has provided a list of instructions, guiding people on how best to act. Furthermore, they have provided a list of pre-emptive measures that can be taken to reduce the chances of a bear interaction.
Remove Luring Items
The TWRA maintains that both the wildlife manager and the public are responsible for protecting the habitat which is shared with the bears. For the safety of the bears and residents, they ask that the people remove any items which may lure the bears in.
They suggest keeping trash indoors until pick-up day or making sure it is in areas non-accessible to bears. Grills and smokers should be cleaned and put away securely. All food should be in bear-resistant containers. Give pets the exact amount of food needed, so there is none left over for bears to come and eat.
Keeping Them Away
It's not just the enticing objects but also their smell that can attract the bears. The TWRA recommend that all visitors to the camping grounds at the Great Smoky Mountains should make every effort to ensure they do not have in their procession any strong-smelling items.
Anything with smells such as candles, deodorant, shampoo, and perfume should be left behind when camping in the area. The bears will smell these fragrances and want to investigate what they are. This can lead to some undesirable camper/bear interactions.
Do Not Feed
Feeding the bears might sound like a friendly, generous gesture towards the wild animals, but in fact, the TWRA note that giving them food will do more damage than good. "The survival rate of bears receiving food from people is likely a fraction of that of wild bears that do not have repeated contact with humans."
They explain that "the deliberate and accidental feeding of bears is socially irresponsible" and causes animals to become conditioned to eating human food." Additionally, the more interactions they have with humans, the less they will fear them, which can be extremely dangerous for everyone involved.
Do Not Approach
Although black bears may seem friendly and cuddly and mostly harmless, one should remember that they are wild animals. They are powerful, strong animals, and their behavior can be totally unpredictable. For this reason, the TWRA instructs people never to approach them.
If a bear approaches a human, it is important that they do not run away. As tempting as it is to flee from the animal, running will trigger its natural instinct to chase after the person. As scary as it sounds, the only thing left to do at this point is to fight back.
The one clear message that one can take away from this story is the importance of reacting when a bear attacks. As seen with the case of Altha, 'playing dead' is perhaps not the way to go when it comes to bears. Matching their level and attacking back seemed to be Altha's only way to scare them off.
The TWRA recommends shouting, screaming, and using whatever is around to fight back. Pepper spray, sticks, and rocks can also be thrown at, or in the vicinity of, the bear. Try to back away slowly and face the bear at all times. While we are no experts, we hope these tips can help keep both our wildlife and readers safe and sound!