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 Black Bears

History of Black Bears in Kentucky

Black bear in tree, Photo by Dave BakerOnce abundant throughout the United States, the historic range of the American black bear (Ursus americanus) was significantly reduced by habitat loss and fragmentation. In Kentucky, historical accounts indicate that bears were essentially eliminated by the early 1900s. Reasons for that decline included wholesale logging of mature hardwood forests, unregulated hunting and a lack of protected areas.

Currently, black bears are the most abundant and widespread of all eight bear species in the world. In Kentucky, the return of black bears over the last 20 years is proving to be a true wildlife success story. Contrary to some beliefs, however, today’s growing population is not the result of a “restocking” effort. As oak forests matured after extensive logging efforts of the early 1900s, bears recolonized these habitats from our neighboring states of West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee.

Vast portions of Kentucky region that were cleared for timber are once again mature hardwood forests. Consequently, bears that filtered into Kentucky from our Southern Appalachian neighbors had access to large, remote tracts of quality forest habitat. As a result, Kentucky is now home to a resident bear population that is experiencing considerable increases in both numbers and range.

Photo by Kentucky Historical Society

Bear cubs in den, Photo by Steven Dobey

Photo by Steven Dobey

Physical Description

Bear in grass, Photo by James Inman  

Black bears are powerful, large-bodied animals that grow to 4–6 feet in length when full grown. While variant color phases may exist, bears are typically black with a brown muzzle and may exhibit a white patch on their chest. In Kentucky, adult females usually weigh between 120–170 pounds, while adult males average 250–350 pounds. Weights among bears are extremely variable, however, and are determined by food availability and the time of year. It is not uncommon, for example, for a bear to almost double its summer weight after spending the fall months feeding on acorns. To date, the largest bear handled in Kentucky was a 480-pound adult male that was captured as a research animal during the summer of 2008. The heaviest wild black bear ever reliably documented was an 880-pound, 10-year old male that was harvested on the coast of North Carolina in the fall of 1998.

Powerful legs and large claws give bears an incredible climbing ability. With claws seldom greater than 1.5 inches in length, black bears are actually the most efficient climbers of all the world’s eight bear species. This ability is critical to bear survival as climbing is an important adaptation that enables bears to obtain food, locate suitable denning habitat, and escape from predators. On the ground, black bears are equally powerful as they may run at speeds approaching 35 miles per hour for relatively short bursts. While the life expectancy of male bears is shorter than that of females, bears may live 15–25 years in the wild.

Distribution

Kentucky is home to a growing bear population that offers frequent and widespread viewing opportunities in the wild. Long-term monitoring and ongoing research has identified the core population as concentrated along the Pine, Cumberland, and Black Mountain areas within in Harlan, Letcher, and Pike counties. Their current range also includes the entire eastern region of the Commonwealth along the Southern Appalachian Mountains bordering Virginia and West Virginia.

In addition, bears have become increasingly common in McCreary and surrounding counties expanding outward from junction of the Daniel Boone National Forest and Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area (BSF). It is suspected that growing bear numbers in McCreary County are the likely result of population expansion from the BSF in Tennessee, which was home to an experimental release of 14 female bears from Great Smoky Mountains National Park from 1996–1997. Since 1998, the KDFWR has received sighting and nuisance reports from 54 Kentucky counties.

Movements

Black bears are wide ranging and relatively long lived animals. Consequently, bears spend vast amounts of time moving in search of food, cover, mates, and denning habitat. Ongoing cooperative research with the University of Kentucky has provided a wealth of knowledge concerning travel patterns and movement rates of bears in eastern Kentucky.

Black bear track, Photo by Jason Plaxico

Bears are now being equipped with GPS (global positioning system) radio collars that link with orbiting satellites to remotely collect locations at varying time periods. Research shows that male bears range over areas from 200–500 km2; that is an area of approximately 77–193 square miles! Conversely, female home range size averages about 20 km2, or almost 8 square miles.

Such dramatic differences in home range area between sexes are due to two things- reproductive condition and season. Male bears travel incredible distances throughout the breeding season of June and July, while movements by female bears are generally limited to the highest quality habitat available. Female home range area is further limited as they often have cubs or yearling bears in tow. In addition, home range area varies considerably between seasons due to significant shifts in food availability.

Interstate movements of a male Kentucky bear equipped with GPS radio collars.

Food Habits

While biologically classified as a true carnivore, black bears are omnivorous, meaning their diet consists of both animal and plant matter. These animals are very opportunistic feeders and this adaptationallows them to thrive in so many varied habitats and climates. In fact, the majority of the natural diet of black bears is actually composed primarily of plant matter.

During the spring and summer months, bears in the Southern Appalachians feed primarily on grasses and fruit, such blackberries, blueberries, and huckleberries. In the fall, a diet of hard mast composed of acorns and beechnuts allow bears to put on extraordinary fat reserves that enable not only survival, but cub production, during the denning season. The remainder of their diet typically consists of insects and any animal material discovered while foraging. Favorite insect items include grubs and underground yellow jacket nests, which bears often dig up to consume this protein-rich food source.

Reproduction

Female black bears typically reach sexual maturity at three years of age, depending upon their physical condition. Biologically, male bears may reach maturity at three to four years of age, but their ability to breed is often limited due to the presence of older, more mature males. The breeding season occurs from June to mid-July and males will breed with as many females as possible. Births occur in January while the female is denning. Females give birth to one to five cubs, with an average litter size of two. Litters are produced every other year and cubs generally weigh only 8–16 ounces at birth.

Mother bear and cubs, Photo by Dave Maehr

While pregnancy lasts approximately 220 days, embryonic development does not continue throughout the gestation period. In fact, bears possess a unique reproductive adaptation called “delayed implantation” that allows births to occur when females are generally in prime physical condition. After females are bred in June, the fertilized eggs remain in a state of arrested development and are not implanted in the uterus until the fall. Once implanted, embryonic development resumes and growth only occurs during the remaining 10 weeks of pregnancy. Consequently, cubs are born in late January while still in the den and weigh only ounces at birth.

The advantage of this reproductive strategy is that females are able to devote all energy reserves towards milk production at a time when natural foods are practically nonexistent. In years of poor acorn production, however, females may not be able to store adequate fat reserves and reproduction can be significantly decreased. Generally, however, cubs that weighed only ounces at birth will emerge from their dens weighing 5–10 pounds and will be physically prepared to meet their new world.

Offspring remain with their mother for the entire year after birth and generally throughout the second denning season. After spring emergence, the mother will run off the yearling bears as she comes into estrus and prepares for the new breeding season. This is actually for the benefit for her young as adult males will often kill smaller bears during the breeding season. Yearlings can weigh anywhere from 20–100 pounds, depending upon food availability, as they strike out to establish their own new territory.

Inside the den of a radiocollared female black bear - listen to hear the sounds of cubs nursing!

Denning

Denning serves as a way for bears to not only survive, but successfully produce offspring during the cold winter months when natural foods are almost nonexistent. While black bears are often referred to as “hibernating” during the denning period, this is actually not the case. Rather, bears enter a sleep-like state referred to as “winter torpor” in which they are fully capable of moving and even exiting the den. During that time, their metabolism slows so that all reserve energy is used for basic life functions and milk production for cubs. This is why fall food abundance prior to denning, primarily in the form of acorns, is critical for black bears in the Southern Appalachians.

Timing of den entry varies considerably and is primarily determined by sex, reproductive condition, and fall food availability. In Kentucky, females typically enter dens from mid-November to December. Collectively, female bears den before males, and pregnant females or those with offspring den before solitary females. Sometimes older males den for relatively short periods, and may travel a bit before denning in another location. That is especially true if there is ready access to garbage or other human-related food source during the winter months. During poor mast years, however, bears den later as it takes longer to acquire enough to make through the 3–4 month denning period in which bears do not eat, drink, urinate, or defecate.

Bears in Kentucky usually den in rock cavities, hollow trees, or open dens in thick brush piles. Cubs grow rapidly as their diet consists exclusively of high-calorie and fat-rich milk provided by the mother’s fat reserve from the previous winter’s hard mast consumption. Females with offspring generally emerge from dens in March or April. Females with offspring remain together throughout the second winter in which they again den as a family unit. At about 16 months of age the yearling bears disperse soon as the mother comes into estrus in preparation for the breeding season.

Behavior

Black bear family, Photo by James Inman

Black bears are solitary animals with the exception of individual family units or breeding pairs during the June-July breeding season. The great majority of their time is spent alone and on a seemingly endless quest for food. Bears are naturally shy and elusive animals that generally avoid contact with humans. The activity pattern of black bears is generally “crepuscular”, meaning active during the early morning and late evening hours.

Bears are extremely curious animals as a likely result of their intensive learning process as offspring. Emerging from dens weighing only 5–10 pounds, cubs have less than one year to learn the necessary skills to ensure their survival as solitary yearlings. This quickly promotes the development of exploratory behaviors as bears learn to locate food, find escape cover, and navigate through large territories.

Although black bears are generally secretive towards people, they can become extremely tolerant in the presence of concentrated food sources. Unfortunately, those sources are almost always a direct byproduct of human-related foods. Access to garbage, pet food, and intentional feeding creates behaviors in bears that are neither safe for humans nor beneficial to bears. While bears may appear very calm and non-threatening, they should be treated with respect as they are wild animals whose behaviors can be unpredictable.

Human-Bear Conflicts

Black bear in trash, Photo by Dave Huff

Today, Kentucky is home to a growing bear population that offers widespread viewing opportunities in the wild. While the core population is concentrated along the Pine, Cumberland, and Black Mountain areas, bears may now be found throughout the eastern portions of the Commonwealth. As numbers continue to expand, however, human-bear interactions have become commonplace and it is necessary that residents and visitors learn to live in bear country.

Data collected by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) clearly illustrate that most conflicts are the result of intentional feeding, or access to other human-related sources such as garbage, pet food, livestock feed, and birdfeeders.

Following these simple guidelines will enable you to minimize human-bear conflicts and help the KDFWR better manage our growing bear population. Residents and visitors to Kentucky need to be responsible so negative behaviors in bears are not encouraged. Doing so will not only prevent nuisance problems for you and your neighbors, but will ultimately maintain the integrity of our bear population by keeping it wild.

Understanding Nuisance Behavior

Nuisance behaviors in bears are typically those that cause problems with people in and around homes, neighborhoods, or businesses. Generally, those behaviors include some form of attractant such as garbage, food scraps, pet food, birdfeeders, livestock feed, or other human-related items. The important thing to remember when dealing with nuisance behaviors, however, is that “problem bears” are not born- they are a product of their environment. Situations that invite bears into or near human dwellings can create cycles of behavior that can be very hard to break. Unfortunately, bears can become so tolerant and bold around people that issues of human safety arise. In those instances, bears may have to be trapped, relocated, or even killed.

When bears have ready access to human-related foods, two behavioral situations can arise that seriously affect the potential for future nuisance activity- food conditioning and habituation. If a bear has continued access to garbage in a neighborhood, for instance, it may become increasingly dependent on that food source. This behavior is the same as giving your pet a food reward for successfully completing a repetitive task. In the case of bears, the task is overturning a garbage can or climbing into a dumpster, and the reward is the food that is obtained.Black bear in truck window Without any negative stimuli, that bear will become increasingly “conditioned” to human food and more bold in its attempts to acquire those items.

Unfortunately, bears that become conditioned to human foods often develop a second and even more negative behavioral condition as a result of spending so much time around humans. This second trait is referred to as “habituation” to humans, and it is simply a loss of their natural fear of people. Once that fear is lost, bears may become day-active in search for food, approach people, and alter their home range to include human population centers. The sad truth, however, is that food-conditioned and habituated bears live considerably shorter lives as a result of so much time spent near people. Those bears often die prematurely as a result of vehicle collision, poaching, or euthanasia due to unacceptable behaviors around people.

Fortunately, all of these negative patterns of behavior can be prevented by eliminating access to human-related foods. Help protect Kentucky’s bears by being responsible and following our guidelines for living in bear country. Doing so will not only help us keep bears wild in Kentucky, but it just may save a bear’s life.

Black bear vehicle collisions in Kentucky, 1993-2008

Managing Attractants

All bear species have an incredible sense of smell. Consequently, it is important to remember that it is the odor of food items that first lure bears near homes or neighborhoods. If that lure is strong enough, and food is successfully obtained, then bears may very likely make it a habit to visit those types of areas for food. The most successful measures to alleviate human-bear conflicts must, therefore, be proactive and be put into effect before a problem develops.

Bears are powerful animals and they may damage property in their pursuit of human-related foods. By following these simple guidelines for managing attractants you can prevent unnecessary damage. More importantly, you can help stop the cycle of food-conditioned and human-habituated behaviors that bears learn when feeding near human dwellings. And remember that even one person intentionally or unintentionally feeding bears will cause problems for an entire neighborhood. So please, encourage your neighbors to follow these important precautions.

Garbage

Black bear family in trash, Photo by Dave Huff  

Access to garbage annually accounts for approximately 70% of all nuisance complaints received by the KDFWR. As such, garbage is the most abundant and widely distributed attractant available to bears. Following these guidelines will significantly reduce the potential for human-bear conflicts at your residence.    

  • Do not store garbage or other potential foods outside as odors will attract bears.    
  • Do not leave garbage on a deck or porch, even if it is screened; doing so will only result in a bear on your deck or a torn screen.
  • Do not leave trash in the back of pick-up trucks as commonly results in damage to the vehicle.    
  • Put out garbage the day of pick-up, rather than the night before; this will significantly reduce access to food.     
  • If garbage must be left outside, store in a sturdy building or in a bear-resistant container.     
  • Lobby your local municipal government for the use of bear-resistant containers.

Pet Food

Injuries to pets by black bears are not a common occurrence in Kentucky. The threat is possible, however, and simple precautions can eliminate this unnecessary problem. In fact, almost all pet injuries are the result of bears attempting to obtain pet food, rather than attempt to intentionally harm the pet itself.    

  • Store pet food inside or in a solid, enclosed structure.    
  • Feed outside pets only enough food for one meal at a time.    
  • Do not toss food scraps outside to feed pets; this is a strong lure for bears.    
  • Dogs can be a great deterrent for keeping curious bears out of your yard. Keep in mind, however, that aggressive dogs could suffer injury or death if a physical conflict arises.

Birdfeeders

Black bear destroying a birdfeeder  

Birdfeeders are often overlooked when it comes to minimizing human-bear conflicts in residential areas. However, these feeders supply an easy food source and provide an easy meal to bears.

  • Store birdfeed inside or in a sturdy, enclosed structure.    
  • If you see a bear in your neighborhood, remove birdfeeders for a minimum of 7 days.    
  • If you insist on feeding birds, minimize potential damage by hanging birdfeeders on a pulley system at least 8 feet above the ground.    
  • Natural foods for songbirds are abundant in the summer months when bears are most active, so removing feeders will have no negative impacts on birds.

Grills

Careful maintenance of barbeque grills is an overlooked precaution that will prevent unwanted visits by bears and other wildlife.

  • Burn grills clean after each use and keep free of grease.    
  • Remove all food residues from grills.    
  • Properly dispose of contents from grease traps after each use.     
  • Odors from cooking can travel long distances, so never leave grills unattended if you live in bear country.

Livestock/Feed

As is the case with pets, injury or death to livestock is an uncommon occurrence in Kentucky. The potential does exist, however, so we encourage landowners to minimize conflicts by following these guidelines.

  • Store livestock feed inside a sturdy, enclosed structure.     
  • If possible, do not store feed in the immediate vicinity of livestock. This is especially true for chicken coops that may be easily entered by a bear.     
  • Locate calving grounds away form forest edges, and enclose with electric fencing if possible.    
  • Bury or move dead livestock away from living animals as carcasses will attract bears and other predators.

Beehives

Damage to apiaries can be extensive and very costly if action is not taken quickly. Due to the potential for significant monetary loss, the KDFWR strongly recommends all bee yard owners to follow the guidelines below.

Black bear beehive damage, Photo by Jayson Plaxico  
  • Locate bee yards away from forest edges and riparian areas (river bottoms, creek drainages).    
  • Surround bee yards with at least 2 strands of electric fencing, with the lowest wire no more than 15 inches from the ground.    
  • Use solar chargers as a power source if bee yards are left unattended for extended periods.     
  • Be certain to face solar chargers so as to receive the most sunlight.    
  • Clear growing vegetation away from the lowest as this will ensure a closed circuit and render maximum charge upon contact with the fence.     
  • Bears are incredible diggers- irregularities in terrain should be filled in with heavy debris so as to prevent bears from crawling under low points.     
  • Clear overhanging branches from bee yards to prevent bears from climbing into fenced areas.     
  • Immediately notify the KDFWR of any bear damage to beehives.

Extensive research has shown electric fencing to be extremely effective at deterring nuisance behavior by bears. Additionally, costs associated with the installation of an electric fence can be minimal when compared to potential losses in money by destruction of honey and bees.

Download a technical bulletin entitled “Black Bears and Bee Yards”

Bears in Town

As bear numbers increase, so may the occurrence of black bears in towns or local municipalities. These situations generate serious public safety concerns, however, when viewers encroach upon bears and leave no obvious path of escape. Help prevent safety concerns by following these guidelines.    

  • Do not approach a bear in town.    
  • Bears will almost always find an escape route if they are left alone.     
  • Shout and throw sticks or rocks in the vicinity of bear to encourage flight once an escape route has been established.     
  • Females with cubs will often climb a tree to for escape cover; never surround a tree holding any bear, especially a female with cubs!    
  • Locate and remove the lure that caused the bear to come into town.

There is almost always a safe escape route when bears enter towns. Crowd control is the initial concern as the behavior of a cornered bear can be unpredictable. Immediately report to the KDFWR any sightings of bears within areas of human population centers.

Feeding Bears

Feeding bears is illegal in Kentucky  

Feeding bears is the worst thing that people can do when it comes to creating human-bear conflicts. Bears are extremely intelligent and quickly learn to associate people with food. When this occurs, bears may become habituated to people and lose their natural fear of humans, which creates potentially dangerous situations. Keep in mind the following notes if you see people feeding bears:    

  • Food-conditioned bears live considerably shorter lives than wild bears.    
  • Habituated bears are often killed by poachers or struck by vehicles because they frequent residential areas.     
  • Conditioned bears increasingly rely on human-related foods.     
  • These bears often cause property damage as a result of being taught to feed in neighborhoods.    
  • Feeding a bear even one time can create a pattern of nuisance behavior in that animal.    
  • Nuisance behaviors learned as a cub will often stay with that bear for life.     
  • Direct or indirect feeding of black bears is illegal in Kentucky!

It is important to remember that bears are powerful animals and their behavior can be unpredictable. As such, bears habituated to humans can pose public safety concerns and often need to be destroyed as relocation is not a responsible management action. Immediately report any instances of people feeding bears to the KDFWR by calling 1-800-25ALERT (1-800-252-5378).

Realize that one person feeding bears will create a problem animal that may affect multiple neighborhoods. Be responsible and help us keep bears wild in Kentucky!

If You Encounter a Bear 

While black bears can be tolerant of people, they should always be treated as the wild animals they are, whether in a residential or backcountry area. Black bears are rarely aggressive towards people and typically go out of their way to avoid contact. As human development continues and bear numbers increase, however, interactions will be unavoidable.

Following these simple guidelines will minimize any unnecessary and potentially dangerous encounters.

  • Never approach a bear!    
  • Black bears are extremely powerful animals whose behaviors can be unpredictable.    
  • Black bears are very curious animals and this should not be confused with aggression.     
  • If a bear approaches you in the wild, it is likely only trying to assess your presence.    
  • Bears will often stand upright to obtain a better sense of smell.
  • If you see a black bear from a distance, alter your route of travel.    
  • When camping in bear country, keep all food stored in a vehicle or away from tents.     
  • If approached by a bear- stand your ground, raise your arms to appear larger, and yell until it leaves the area.     
  • Never run from a bear! This will often trigger its natural instinct to chase.
  • If a black bear attacks, fight back aggressively and do not play dead!

If cornered or threatened, bears may slap the ground, “pop” their jaws, or “huff” as a warning. If you see those behaviors you are too close! Slowly back away while facing the bear at all times. Notify the KDFWR immediately if you witness aggressive behavior by black bears!

Frequently Asked Questions

On several occasions I have seen a bear around my house. Is this normal?

In many areas of Kentucky it is fairly common to bears near human dwellings during the spring and summer months. This time of year natural foods may be limited and bears could be looking for an easy meal. Bears have an incredible sense of smell and are likely being lured by some type of food attractant. These attractants typically include garbage, pet food, and birdfeeders. The best thing to do is identify the attractant and remove the source. Bears will move on after realizing there is no food to be obtained.

What can I do to if I have a bear getting into my garbage and making a mess of my yard?

The first thing to realize is that the bear is simply going after an easy meal. Almost all of these types of problems can be eliminated by simply removing the attractant. Store garbage in a closed structure and put it out the morning of garbage pickup, not the night before. This way, garbage does not sit out overnight and lure bears into your area. Problems may be further addressed by purchasing or constructing a bear-resistant garbage container.

Are black bears dangerous?

Black bears are normally very elusive and shy animals… and unless they have become accustomed to human food sources, they tend to avoid people. Bears are very curious animals, however, and this should not be mistaken for aggression. Prevent any conflicts by treating bears with respect as they are wild animals whose behaviors can be unpredictable.

What should I do if I encounter a bear at close range?

The first rule is that you want to make your presence known by yelling and shouting at the bear in an attempt to scare it away. If a bear is reluctant to leave then proceed to throw rocks or other objects at the bear while continuing to yell. Portray yourself as the dominant animal and do not back down. If a bear is close enough that you feel uncomfortable, slowly back away, continuing to yell while watching the bear at all times. Never run from a black bear as this may trigger a natural response to chase.

Is it legal to feed bears in Kentucky… even if it’s just a few doughnuts?

NO!!! In addition to contributing to the likely death of that bear, you are also breaking the law. In Kentucky, the direct or indirect feeding of black bears is a crime that is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, up to a year in jail and the loss of hunting and fishing privileges for up to 3 years. Feeding bears creates behaviors in those animals that are almost impossible to correct.

What is so wrong with feeding bears?

Despite what some people think, black bears do not naturally occur in trashcans or a person’s backyard in the middle of town. Animals exhibiting those behaviors are doing so because they have either been fed or have learned to feed on improperly stored garbage or pet food. When bears are intentionally fed, they learn to associate people with food and lose their natural fear of humans.

The home range of black bears in Kentucky can exceed 80 square miles. If you feed a bear in your backyard, that animal is eventually going to leave and may travel to a house 10 or 20 miles away. The bear will again expect to be fed… because you have taught it to associate people with food. At that point the safety of other people becomes a concern because they may have absolutely no interest in having a bear in their yard. Even worse, their new “problem” is of absolutely no fault of their own but they are stuck with the consequences.

If I have a bear getting into garbage in my neighborhood, wouldn’t the simplest thing be to just trap the bear and move it someplace else?

While relocation is an option to the immediate issue it will not solve the underlying problem. Unless garbage is properly stored another bear will move in and the problem will start all over again. In addition, black bears have an incredible homing instinct and can travel amazing distances in relatively short periods of time. The KDFWR has trapped bears and moved them 10, 20 even 55 air miles away and they still find their way home. Ultimately, relocating bears is not an effective long-term management tool. Instead, the proper storage of human-related foods and never feeding bears is the key.

Why is it that nuisance complaints always seem to rise in April and peak in the summer?

Black bears den for the winter months and typically emerge in late March or early April. When they emerge from dens, natural foods are scarce and often bears are lured by the smell of human-related foods.

Nuisance reports peak in June and July for two reasons. Number one, that is the breeding season for bears and males are traveling great distances in search of females. In doing so, they have increased opportunities to encounter human dwellings. And second, yearling bears are now on their own trying to establish a suitable home range. In their travels, young bears may also be lured by the smell of human-related foods.

What should I do if I see someone feeding a bear?

Immediately call the KDFWR and report the offense. Feeding bears is absolutely the worst thing that people can do to ensure a bear’s death. Fed bears lose their natural fear of people and become habituated to humans. Consequently, habituated bears live shorter lives than “wild” bears as they tend to die by vehicle collision or poaching by spending so much time around human dwellings. In addition, people who feed bears are teaching those animals to associate people with food. Would you want a bear like that coming around your house?

If I think a bear is acting aggressively towards me should I run?

No! Running from a black bear will likely trigger a natural instinct to chase. In addition, bears are extremely powerful animals that run at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour in short distances. Make your presence known by yelling at the bear and slowly back away without turning your back. In the event of an attack, fight back using everything in your power - including fists, sticks, rocks, or any other debris. Do not play dead!