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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006
Voices / Column

We fought the bear, and the bear won

Hungry bears eye bird feeders, trash cans, around Windham County

Dummerston

The first time a black bear visited our house in the Dummerston woods, about a decade ago, we grabbed our cameras. We watched in fascination while the bear popped the lids off plastic garbage bins as if they were the tops of Pringles containers. Then, we called our neighbors, who put the grandkids in the car and came to watch.

The next day, on the front page of the Reformer, there was a picture of our bear with a white plastic garbage bag hanging out of his mouth.

That was the first time.

We called the game warden for advice. “Get some pots and pans, make a lot of noise, stand up on your toes with your arms raised, and shout, ’I’m not afraid of you, bear.’ You have to establish dominance.”

We also called our friendly neighborhood carpenter, who constructed a bear-proof metal container for our garbage.

The second time a bear came, we were sleeping. Frustrated by being unable to get into a trash receptacle redolent of chicken carcass, the bear picked it up and threw it at my car. I woke in the morning to find the container on its side and a big dent in the car door.

The third time a bear came, he got into the container. He left a trail of garbage and flapping white plastic up the hillside to the woods. We installed a lock.

Then, there was Sunday morning last week.

My husband Randy was opening the door for the cat when he noticed a big black bear lurking on the hillside.

“Bear!” he shouted and slammed the door, leaving the poor cat to fend for herself. (Later, we found her, and she was fine.)

“Bear!” he shouted again as he ran up the stairs. He grabbed my wok and a long metal spoon, and ran downstairs again.

Opening the door, he banged on the wok and yelled “Go away!” at the bear.

The bear ran halfway up the hill, turned, and examined Randy as if he were thinking about charging him.

Randy slammed the door shut again.

“This wok doesn’t make a good banging sound,” he said. He replaced it with a piece of Revereware. I grabbed two pot covers and started banging them together at the bedroom window to supplement Randy’s noise.

We kept up the racket, but the bear came back to the trash. Using his massive arms and long teeth, he tried to pry off the lid, which was locked. He climbed all over the container with fluid, boneless movements, like a black, furry snake with a long brown nose. It was a beautiful, graceful, thrilling thing to watch.

We finally got tired of clanging metal pots, and Randy went for the camera. He took many shots while the bear pried off the metal top, picked up a garbage bag in his mouth, and ran with it up the hill.

* * *

There’s something frightening about encountering, close up, a creature bigger, stronger, and more primal than I am, one with which I cannot reason, one over which I have not a single iota of control.

I have read with contempt about people who keep their bird feeders up all summer, attract a bear, and then call the game warden to come and kill it. I always side with the bear.

But if I’d had a shotgun, I can’t be certain some atavistic impulse in me wouldn’t have locked, loaded, and shot.

While the bear was occupied with a ham bone that had recently flavored a fine split-pea soup, I ran to the car and drove away. A full half hour later, my body was still shaking as it fought off an adrenaline high.

Here’s a funny thing: tell your bear story and people will hardly listen. They’ll be too anxious to tell you theirs.

One man told me about a 600-pounder who had frequently visited his yard. A woman told me about a bear that had climbed the stairs to her deck. Another man told me about the time he had come face-to-face with a grizzly in Montana. They just looked at each other and, each more uninterested than the other, turned away.

By the time I returned to the house, the bear had worked itself through most of the garbage, and the hillside was littered with white plastic bags. He came again and again. The last time I saw him was about 4:30 pm, taking what was perhaps the last bag up the hill.

I was terrified that, once the bear had finished with the easy stuff, he would try to break into the house. I remembered a lecture a couple of years ago in Dummerston by Benjamin Kilham, the New Hampshire “bear whisperer” and author of Among the Bears: Raising Orphan Cubs in the Wild.

He had said, among other things, that bears have an amazing sense of smell. So, even though we had already taken down our bird feeders when the bears came out of hibernation, there was still half a sack of bird seed in the kitchen. Would the bear be able to smell it?

And what about the tin cans waiting to be recycled on the deck?

The night passed without a bear incident, and the next morning, I called the state police and asked to have the game warden call me. Then, I sent an e-mail letter to Kilham. Both responded the same day.

This time, the game warden, Kelly Price, didn’t talk about dominating the bear. He was sympathetic to my fears, assured me that the bear only wanted an easy meal, and said it was highly unlikely that a bear would break into a home.

Since he had been to Kilham’s lecture, too, I reminded him of the videos we had seen of bears scavenging inside houses and camps.

“Yes, but that wasn’t in Vermont,” he said.

Price said we had done all the right things, like taking down the feeders and constructing a metal trash container. He said we should fix the trash container and try again.

He was very kind and reassuring. He gave me his phone number and said that if I had any trouble at night, to call the state police first, and then him.

Kilham, on the other hand, was sympathetic only to the bear.

He told me that the whole experience was my fault. No argument there: We knew we should have taken the trash to the dump much sooner.

“You’re living in their habitat,” he pointed out.

But the trash container was wrong, too.

It was all about smell, Kilham said.

“I tell people the best way to get a bear on your roof is to put a bird feeder up there,” he said. “Bears are always passing by. I’ve tracked bears and watched them pass by house after house, and then turn and go in someone’s yard. It was because they smelled food there.”

We needed to get garbage containers that are sealed against odors or put food scraps in the freezer until it’s time to go to the dump. Or both.

The bear wouldn’t come into the house, Kilham said, because even though we had food there, the house was sealed and therefore odor-free - at least, to a bear.

I felt like apologizing to Kilham by the time the conversation ended.

The trash container remains on its side. It’s empty. The hill is littered with trash bags and trash waiting to be picked up. And I am sleeping better at night.

Anyone know where I can buy odor-proof, bear- proof garbage cans?

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Originally published in The Commons issue #103 (Wednesday, June 1, 2011).

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