The wild beasts of Abbey Road

(Illustration by Will Lytle)

Blame the tourists, blame the neighbors, blame society. For all of her crimes, the only one not to blame for Miss Ulster County #332’s death was the bear herself.

By the time #332 was shot to death by a Woodstock police officer early on the morning of Wednesday, May 24, on Abbey Road on the side of Mount Tobias, she had a very long rap sheet. Tagged by state conservation officers as a nuisance bear when she was a yearling in 2015, she spent last summer breaking into sheds and chicken houses, peering through front doors and getting into garbage. She damaged a hot tub, she broke through a screen door, she bluff-charged a police officer.

Rewarded again and again by easy access to garbage and bird feeders, emboldened by familiarity with humans, she had lost her natural fear of people. This spring, amid a series of attempted break-ins on Abbey Road, she climbed through a window and into a local home.

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A week later, she sealed her death warrant by returning to the house and poking her head into the same window. On the day she died, #332 was circling a home she had been trying to enter, ignoring a trap set for her by state Department of Environmental Conservation officers. After two years of tracking, and multiple failed attempts to trap and haze her, DEC officers finally gave Woodstock police the greenlight to take her life.

Miss Ulster County #332 leaves behind three orphaned four-month-old cubs, now in wildlife rehab — and a small army of Instagram followers.

“We saw her at least three to five times a week,” said Abbe Aronson, a local publicist who posted regular video clips of the bear family visiting her Abbey Road backyard. In one late April video clip on Instagram, the mama bear strolls fearlessly through Aronson’s manicured lawn just steps from the house, three fuzzy awkward cubs in tow.

Aronson says she was scrupulously careful not to leave out garbage or anything else attractive to the bears, but she couldn’t resist watching the three cubs play. “The world’s going to hell. That was a nice thing to do, to watch those bears. Those bears were delightful. I cried a lot yesterday.”

It’s possible that if every homeowner on Abbey Road had reached for an air horn instead of a video camera when the bears came around, maybe #332 could have avoided her fate. Or maybe, with a two-year degree in breaking and entering under her belt, and three new mouths to feed, she was already on a collision course with the law. “A fed bear is a dead bear,” the adage goes — and #332 knew long before she brought her cubs to play on Abbey Road that humans meant food.

A quick stroll along the social media trail left by #332’s death reveals a familiar pattern: a public outcry of grief, followed in short order by toxic words and bitter acrimony. Venom has been directed not only at DEC officers, but at homeowners who call them for help — a dynamic sure to make people fearful to come forward publicly about their problems with bears.

For their part, DEC leaders are more comfortable dispensing brief and bloodless fact sheets than allowing their field officers to speak candidly to the public they serve. Despite nearly a week of attempts to set up an interview with an officer involved in the decision to euthanize the Abbey Road bear, the agency would release only a few brief statements on the incident.

Many local residents are furious with the agency for the death of #332. But regardless of where you stand on euthanasia, the DEC is right on this count: Trapping and releasing bears that are already deeply reliant on humans for food is no solution. “Nuisance” bears will travel many miles to return to their old neighborhoods, or will simply become someone else’s problem in their new environment.

With that in mind, once a bear has become too bold, the only real question for wildlife policymakers is: how much risk to life and limb (and garbage bins and screen doors) are we willing to endure? Perhaps we would be willing to endure a little more, if it had not been for Esther Schwimmer.

Schwimmer was just five months old when a young male black bear, possibly attracted by food or diaper smells, dragged her from her stroller and into the Fallsburg woods on an August afternoon in 2002. The bear soon dropped her, but the damage was done; Schwimmer was declared dead on arrival at the Ellenville Regional Hospital.

It’s been 15 years since then, but Schwimmer’s death still casts a long shadow at the New York State DEC, and especially here in Region 3, the division that includes both Ulster and Sullivan counties. The wildlife officers charged with keeping the peace between bears and humans in the Catskills know exactly what is at stake.

As a community, we who live in the rural Catskills have not done a great job of coexisting with bears. We — and the weekenders who share our mountains in the summertime — need to work a lot harder at keeping our homes from becoming bear habitat. There are easy steps we can take, like not leaving trash where bears can get to it, or taking bird feeders down during bear season, that will go a long way toward keeping local bears alive. The DEC’s website has plenty of good advice on this front.

But that’s only part of the story. Another part of being able to live in harmony with wildlife is having the strength of mind to face animal death, and talk about it with the respect and maturity the topic deserves. Judging by the furor over #332, this town is full of people who have boundless compassion for the animals that haunt their backyards, but see nothing wrong with publicly wishing suffering or even death on neighbors and civil servants.

As a community, we are going to have diverse opinions about what should be done about bears that have become bold enough to break into our kitchens or challenge us in our own backyards. It is one of the symptoms of our alienation from the natural world that so many of us are unable to disagree about wildlife policy without turning on one another.++

Lissa Harris is the former editor of the Watershed Post. She lives in Margaretville with her wife and daughter, and studied natural resources at Cornell in a past life. Send her Catskills news tips at lissa.e.harris@gmail.com.

There are 5 comments

  1. Anne Carlton

    This is so sad. Now the cubs will be reared by humans and will never really fear us either. I hope they’ll be relocated far from human habitation – not an easy thing to find these days.

  2. Lea Cullen Biyer

    Thank you for this thoughtful article. It is impressive how easily our compassion dries up when faced with a human in need.

    Little Esther’s mother could only carry 2 of her children indoors when the bear came across the lawn. She raced back for her daughter only to find her gone.

    We can solve this by living as a part of nature rather than trying to dominate the landscape with our urbane ideas and anthromophic disrespect for those creatures who live differently from us. Education and community commitment is key. We can help each other become better neighbors and better stewards of the Catskills.

    Who wants to pick up the banner of this work? I’m always excited to help.

  3. GrayBear

    Can you really call a bullet to the head euthanasia?
    Wildlife “conservationists”? Murderers and rapists get better treatment & care.
    Still disappointed with their easy way out solution, it’s just flat out wrong!

  4. Susan

    This was just plain murder, NOT, euthanasia. The DEC is no friend to animals, but a danger to the environment and the planet. As for the policeman who shot this beautiful animal, shame on You!

    Those who murder wildlife are criminals and should be treated as such. May Karma pay you a visit!

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