California is going through something of a black bear boom. At any given moment, there are more than 25,000 black bears roaming the state’s forests with their narrow heads, small ears, and tan, brown and black bellies.
But that also means there has been increased contact between bears and people.
A troublemaking bear in Kern County
Earlier this summer in Pine Mountain Club, a private community in Kern County, a hungry black bear had been scavenging inside of dumpsters and homes in search of food. According to Steve Torres, a supervisor with the Wildlife Investigations Lab, an organization that watches over California wildlife, this mother bear had become a local troublemaker.
“This bear had gotten into several homes, and the cubs had been following along,” Torres says.
Yet this pattern, Torres says, wasn’t entirely the bears’ fault. People had been feeding the bear and her cubs. That’s illegal in California and can cause bears to forget how to hunt for their own food. In one incident, the mother bear had wandered into someone’s kitchen. The woman inside began banging on pots and pans. And then the mother bear freaked out, too.
“The bear swatted her and then ran out of the house, and it put an injury to her arm,” Torres says. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), a state natural resource agency, was called in to capture the bear and her cubs using a trap with food as the bait.
“So the bear climbs into it, gets the food and trips the trap so the door closes behind it. And that's how the bears are usually caught in California,” Torres explains.
A bear gets a second chance
Bears that injure or attack humans are usually euthanized. But this time around, the Oakland Zoo offered to take in the mother bear and her cubs. For the first time in California history, a bear who injured a person would avoid euthanasia, and live on in a zoo.
Now, the bears serve as an education opportunity in the zoo’s California Trail exhibit. Once the exhibit is completed in summer 2018 the zoo will nearly double in size, with a mission to advocate for the future of California’s native wildlife.
The bears are hidden from the public for now, but there are lots of videos of them online. You can even watch the happy bear family playing with ice.
When bears attack
One of the goals of the exhibit is to educate people about black bears, and why it’s important not to feed them. But there’s at least one woman in California who doesn’t think bears are so cute. Allena Hansen lives in Kern County, where bears are common.
“They're not the little Care Bears, they're not the Charmin toilet paper bears, they will eat you, they will kill you, they will hurt your children, they'll hurt your pets. They're fun to watch and they have their place,” Hansen says.
Nearly a decade ago, Hansen was attacked by a black bear. She was working on her ranch, and looked around and saw a bear staring at her. The bear leaped at her, grabbed her by the ears and bit into her head.
“Quite frankly I got angry, I got really mad. I thought of all the people who would take great pleasure in my grisly death,” Hansen recalls. “I just said, ‘Dammit bear, do you know who I am?’ You can't do this to me.’"
She then jabbed the bear's eyes, and called for her two dogs to fight it off, traveling almost five miles down the mountain to get medical help. She says bear attacks are rare, but there have been more encounters recently where she lives. One reason is because the drought has made it harder for bears to find food.
“They tend to go into areas where human beings are, because where humans are, there's food. and it's just a short step from humans having food to humans being food, as I discovered,” Hansen says.
Don’t feed the bears
But Steve Torres with CDFW says it’s not fair to blame the bears. The black bears at the Oakland Zoo, for example, only began wandering into people’s homes because they were used to people feeding them.
“A lot of the conflicts that come up with wildlife and with bears ... aren't so much problems with bears. They're problems with people,” he says.
And there may not always be room in zoos for all the California bears considered dangerous.
“It's becoming harder and harder to place bears in zoos, because they're full of bears. There may be a time where we have to euthanize animals, because there’s not a place for them,” Torres says. “Fortunately, that hasn’t happened yet, but it’s on the horizon.”
Now, the responsibility falls to the Oakland Zoo to use these bears as a way to educate the public about the dangers of getting too close to wildlife — ironically, by bringing the bears face to face with people.
Remember, black bears are usually shy, not dangerous. But please, don’t feed them.
Kasey Chen was part of KALW’s SFUSD high school summer internship program in 2017, and is a student at Burton High School.