Bearing up with bears

(Illustration by Will Lytle)

(Illustration by Will Lytle)

I was five years old when we moved from New York City to the Hudson Valley. I remember telling my dad that I wanted to see a bear. He promised me that I would, but that wish was to evade me for almost 10 years. It was while hunting with him that I finally came across this great bruin, there in the rise just above us, moving uphill at a surprisingly swift pace.

These days such a scene is more commonplace, and not the great happening that I remember. As few as 10 short years ago, a bear sighting was an unusual event, privy to hunters willing to climb higher into the mountains in hopes of tagging one, or maybe a brief glimpse in the headlights as one scurried across the road, in search of those fallen apples, forced out of its territory due to dry weather or short supply of acorns or berries. (Usually their habitat is limited to forested and sparsely settled areas. As we infringe upon them, their territory grows smaller and ours grows larger.)

The bears in my neighborhood have discovered that I serve up an array of culinary delights, packaged in a large plastic container, from which no manner of securing discourages them in the slightest. This is happening all over the region. The Northeast is reporting the largest growth in bear population in 20 years. We have desensitized this once shy and elusive creature to our scent. “Nuisance bears” make nightly visits to dumpsters and backyard birdfeeders. Sometimes they find their way into the kitchen.


I photographed what I believe to be three different bears with my trail-cams last summer at different locations. Then suddenly in August, I only got photos of deer, coyotes and some hiking youngsters. No neighbors’ garbage spread into the woods, no containers overturned, too early for hibernation, what happened? I live near some large farms, which apparently applied for and got permits to destroy problem bears. I spoke with one farmer, who would like the public to know of the problems farmers face with this growing menace to their livelihood.

The bears in our area are not extremely dangerous and aggressive. Some caution is common sense: if you see cubs with their mother, back off. Bears are large, strong and omnivorous (which is a fancy word for animals that eat both meat and plants). They belong to the mammal class. Why? Because they are covered in hair, they have a spine, they’re warm-blooded and they feed milk to their babies once they are born. Many people often think of bears as big, ferocious creatures that are brown, black or white. Bears are much more than that. They are definitely big, and yes, they are very strong. They can be scary, but most will only become aggressive when threatened or when their babies are threatened and even then many species of bear won’t attack, especially the black bears we have in the Northeast. Bears are solitary and quite docile animals that have been given a bad reputation. They are smart, shy and are great at hiding when they need to. There is very little information on some bears because researchers have a hard time finding them! Bears come in many different colors, shape, and sizes and they live all over the world, except Antarctica and strangely enough, Australia. Their habitats range from the snowy northern tundra to dense rainforests and high mountains. Most species of bears live to around 25 years of age.


If you see a bear…

Don’t panic! Don’t shoot! Don’t approach it!

Back away slowly.

Go inside and wait for the bear to leave.

Most bears fear people and will leave when they see you.

If a bear woofs, snaps its jaws, slaps the ground or brush, or bluff charges, it is simply saying YOU ARE TOO CLOSE!

Learn to tolerate bears. Many bears are killed or injured when not causing problems.


A bear’s life

In my next life, I’d like to come back as a bear. When you›re a bear, you get to hibernate. You do nothing but sleep for six months. That could work. Before you hibernate, you›re supposed to eat everything in sight. I could deal with that, too. When you›re a momma bear, your children are born (who are the size of walnuts) while you are sleeping and you wake up to partially grown, cute, cuddly cubs. I could definitely deal with that. If you›re a mama bear, everyone knows you mean business. You swat anyone who bothers your cubs. If your cubs get out of line, you swat them too. I could deal with that. Your mate expects you to wake up growling. He expects that you will have hairy legs and excess body fat.

Sure enough, next time, it’s a bear’s life for me!