Bears and humans, oh my!

We may remember the summer of 2012 as the Summer of the Bears. If your home has not been invaded, your trash container ransacked, chances are you know someone who has. My small home in Lake Hill was invaded by a bear twice in the past month. This the story of what followed, and the surprising responses from people of different opinions.

The sound of smashing glass in your living room at 2:45 a.m. is never reassuring to a homeowner. My first thought was that our cats had knocked down the curio cabinet, but when I rushed to our living room, the cats looked like they had shape-shifted into raccoons. I followed their terrified eyes to the broken window — it had been wrenched out of its frame, awkwardly awry, the nails torn from the house, and broken glass was everywhere. This was not the work of cats.

For the second time in a month, a bear had attempted to break into our cottage home. The first time it wrenched our glass-slatted back porch door off its hinges in search of the kitchen trash. Both times, I was less than two feet away from it when I blasted the air-powered boat-horn, an ear-splitting loud sound guaranteed to send a bear running in the opposite direction. It works, but facing a determined bear head on twice in a month is not an experience I recommend. It was only one of several recent bear experiences in our small hamlet of Lake Hill — such as a neighbor whose garage door was torn off in a bear’s attempt to get at his trash. Now we hear daily stories of home invasions by bears all around our area. Why is this bear problem so acute now, and what can we do to stop it?

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One of the major causes, and a preventable one, is well-meaning people feeding the outdoor animals. Every community seems to have at least one person with a long history of feeding wildlife, despite repeated warnings, citations and fines. When driving by certain homes, it is common to see mother bears and their cubs waiting in her yard for their daily feeding. This has resulted in several generations of bears who have been taught by their mothers that homes are a reliable source of food. And quite clearly, some of the enterprising younger and newly independent bears have decided not to depend on the kindness of strangers for that food.

But a greater cause is the sudden and sizable increase in the bear population, coupled with a drought-ravaged summer that has killed off their usual supply of berries and vegetation. They are starving and desperate. And they are now looking to humans for their food.

Ironically, the bear attempted to break into the house because it was disgruntled at the poor quality of the food served at our diner, the trash barrel. In accordance with Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) recommendations, we saturated each plastic bag of trash with vinegar and ammonia, whose pungent scents are deeply offensive to a bear’s profoundly sensitive sense of smell. It most certainly worked. The plastic trash bags were left intact, not even opened by the offended bear. But it went directly from the offensive trash bags to the house, aggressively trying to get to the kitchen trash, filled with meat wrappers and scraps from the Fourth of July barbecue. We had carefully washed and ammoniated all the trash — but the smell of meat hung in the very still air. This bear had now moved from a nuisance to a threat.

It was not our intention to euthanize the bear when we called the DEC to report the break-ins. But they explained their policy and the history behind it: once a bear has developed a pattern of breaking into a home for food, that pattern is ingrained forever. There is no behavior modification therapy for this, it will simply keep happening. And once inside the home, if the bear feels trapped or threatened by the humans inside it, it will attack. If that home includes a child eating food, it can be killed with a single swipe of a bear paw. The threat to human life once a bear feels trapped inside a home is so high that DEC policy is to trap and euthanize any bear that has broken into a home. It is the most painful but necessary part of their job.

I heard a chorus of howls from angry people when they heard about this. “Transport them to the Adirondacks!” was the most frequent refrain, as though the Adirondacks were some penal colony for bears like Australia in the 18th century. Here is the reality: only bears who were a nuisance (e.g. raiding chicken coops) were relocated in the past. Even that requires considerable time, personnel and money that the DEC, in this age of extreme budget cuts, no longer has available.

But bears who pose a direct threat to human life have always been legally slated for trapping and euthanasia. And when I asked these people why it was acceptable to expose the people of the Adirondacks to a risk to life and property, in order to remove the risk to the people of the Catskills, there was always silence.

The DEC advice was deeply distressing. They would bring a special trap onto our property to catch the bear, but in the meantime, we had to board up the smashed window and door, and keep a loaded shotgun next to the bed for the next break-in. And the next break-in was only a matter of time, they warned, as the pattern was now set. We slept in our clothes, alert to the slightest sound. Neither my husband nor I had a sound night’s sleep for two weeks, affecting our health and peace of mind.

It was deeply painful to see the bear trap in our yard, even more painful to see the bear tranquilized and euthanized. She was clearly sick, a young female who may have been abandoned by her mother, scraggly, mangy and undernourished. Her death this autumn and winter would have been slow and dreadful.

As bad as the experience was, the worst part came from enraged, self-righteous people who had seen the trap in our yard and decided we were cold-blooded murderers of innocent wildlife. I saw an ordinary face turned into an ugly and shocking mask of rage when a passer-by saw the trap. She screamed that I should be the one shot. When I tried to explain what had happened, she snarled “I don’t care about you!”

A neighbor apparently viewed me as a cold-blooded murderer, too. Why did I “have to kill the bear?” (I hadn’t.) Why hadn’t I “transported it to the Adirondacks?” (Your car or mine?) For those who have never experienced this: once the DEC is involved, it is out of the homeowner’s hands, and managed by law enforcement. Your personal wishes don’t count.

There are 8 comments

  1. jen tsakis

    I feel for the author. Just having moved back to the area after 20 years I was not prepared for meeting a bear in the street. When it happened I was close enough to get down my driveway to the house. The bear got into the neighbors trash, even though they had a sturdy box built to house it. The next day he was in our yard at the trash cans. I haven’t felt very safe outside since, and I do worry about keeping the windows open at night now. I don’t think anyone should critisize the authors’ motives in calling the DEC. Until you have a close encounter with a wild animal like a bear, you cannot say how you would react yourself. I am an animal lover and have worked as a volunteer for years in animal rescue. I think the bears are a beautiful and amazing creature. But I also believe that human life has value so I do think something needs to be done that is humane for the bears as well as the human involved. I assume there is no practical or affordable way to feed the bears where they normally live deep in the woods, to keep them there? Other than that, what else could possibly be done besides euthanizing the ones that have become dangerous? I hope the authors’ neighbors will learn to be a little more neighborly and maybe offer to help them instead of critisizing them.

    1. Geoff Bliss

      Jen, I couldn’t agree more. I think this remains a sensitive issue. Visiting my parents, after coming home from Cincinnati, I can still remember how bears remain a problem and nuisance – that continues in perpetum mobile – in Woodstock and the whole of the Catskills. But the Woodstock Times and other newspapers should perhaps instead create a more progressive attitude towards Bear encounters? Maybe instead if simply stating that Bears ransacked another garbage can, Woodstock could spend more time educating the population about native territories of Bears and give proper instructions for dealing with them. Obviously – bears will continue to harass people – so long as their hunting & foraging territory is carved up for new housing development. But given Woodstock’s sensitivity to wildlife conservation, I’m surprised there hasn’t been more of a local response from conservationists, academics and activists alike.

  2. Alan D.

    I live in pretty far back in the woods in West Saugerties. Last year I had three really cute cubs frolicking on my terrace with momma bear looking on from nearby. I was also regularly visited by an adolescent bear. This year two of cubs returned without momma. The adolescent also returned. I’ve got all of this well-documented with photos…taken from inside the house.

    One evening this summer, while I was working in the garden, I had a stare down with a large male. He just sat there on a pile of rocks watching me for about five minutes. Then he ambled off into the woods. Yes, I felt as if I had made some kind of connection with the guy, but some serious trepidations had also begun to creep into my thoughts.

    I love my birds and I had devised a way to keep the feeders 20 feet in the air, suspended from a wire strung between the house and a tree 50 feet from the house — both bear-proof and squirrel-proof. Or so I thought. I had read somewhere that if the feeder is more than 12 feet in the air, the bears won’t be able to smell it. Ha, ha, ha!

    Every morning I would wake up to something like Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls: goldfinches, cardinals, titmice, cowbirds, chickadees, nuthatches and even occasional visitors like rose-breasted grosbeaks and indigo buntings chowing down at the feeders; hummingbirds swarming around the honeysuckle; doves, chipping sparrows, chipmunks, squirrels, and wild turkeys hanging around below, breakfasting on the seeds that fell like manna from above. It was a beautiful fantasy while it lasted. Just like an old Disney cartoon.

    Then one evening I caught the adolescent bear trying to climb up the side of my house. I knew he was a good climber because last summer I had seen him tumble about 30 feet from a tree in the woods near the house. I managed to scare it off, but I left the feeders up there.

    The following morning I found the feeders smashed up, with crushed bits scattered around the grounds. Around the same time a friend told a story of one of these hungry guys breaking into a car and completely destroying the interior.

    Now I’ve given it all up and take every possible precaution: absolutely no more feeders; no food or garbage outside the house or in the car. All garbage inside the house, shut up tight and deodorized.

    Yes, I miss my little fantasy…and at night, when I hear any noise downstairs or around the outside of the house, I wonder if it isn’t one of my ursine friends paying a visit. Actually, I hope it isn’t.

  3. Jill Aberle

    I agree with the author. We had that trap on our property this year provided by the DEC after a bear attacked our 35 lb dog. Our dog never barked, never asserted himself and got attacked and was lucky to live through the experience:$3600 in vet bills later, Money we did not have. less than a mile away from us and 4 days later the same bear charged a women in a residential area of Woodstock (Zena) wit her 2 dogs (5lbs & 15lbs). the bear picked the 5lb dog up in its mouth and punctured its kidney & lung….after 6-9 days of expensive vet care she had to put her dog down. Don’t tell me the bears deserve to co-habitate when a bear like this one is bold enough to act this way. Normal bears know their boundaries and limits…and yes, unfortunately not enough negative human interaction has resulted in them getting too comfortable with us. So perhaps the DEC has to step their education of residents in how residents should be interact and co-habitaing with the bear. I have lived here for over 37 years and hiked all the Catskills, support wildlife and education of protecting them, but their are limits.

  4. Barbara Danehy

    Hi Donna…..we are in Portland Oregon now, but I do remember bear cubs coming up on my deck in Lake Hill to feed from my bird feeder that I left out to long in the season, and it was exciting yet scarey all at the same time. Knowing you like I do, I know this was heart breaking for you and Terry, and I am sooo sorry you had this experience. All the years you spent taking in cats and incurring medical expenses for them, you are the BEST !!!!!

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