WE FOUGHT THE BEAR AND THE BEAR WON
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
June 8, 2011
DUMMERSTON, Vt. - The first time a black bear visited our house in the woods, my husband grabbed the camera. We watched in fascination as the bear popped the lids off plastic garbage bins as if they were Pringle's tops. Then we called our neighbors, who put the grandkids in the car and came to watch.
The next day, on the front page of our local newspaper, 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 dumpster for our garbage.
The second time a bear came we were sleeping. Frustrated by being unable to get into a dumpster redolent of chicken carcass, the bear picked it up and threw it at my car. I woke in the morning to find the dumpster on its side and a big dent in the car door.
The third time a bear came, he got into the dumpster. He left a trail of garbage and flapping white plastic up the hillside to the woods. We put a lock on the dumpster.
Then there was Sunday morning, a few weeks ago.
My husband 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. (We found her later 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 was 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 dumpster. Using its massive arms and long teeth, it tried to pry off the lid, which was locked. It climbed all over the dumpster 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 bears and then call the game warden to come and kill them. 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 which 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 so anxious to tell you theirs.
One man told me about a 600-pounder who frequently visited his yard. A woman told me about a bear that climbed the stairs to her deck. Another man told me about the time he came 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. It came again and again. The last time I saw it was about 4:30, taking what was maybe the last bag up the hill.
I was terrified that once the bear had finished with the easy stuff, it would try to break into the house. I remembered a lecture last year 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 amazing senses of smell. So even though we had 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 on the deck, waiting to be recycled?
Randy locked the door, and I put a box of glass balls by the back door so if something tried to break in the house, I would hear it. It was a hard night; at midnight I got up and did all the dishes, just in case.
The night passed without a bear incident, and in the morning I called the state police and asked to have the game warden call me. Then I sent an email 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.
It left me wondering if New Hampshire bears agitated for a flat tax, while Vermont bears made a V sign and said, "Peace, dude."
Price said we had done all the right things, like taking down the feeders and constructing a metal dumpster. He said we should fix the dumpster 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 only sympathetic 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 dumpster 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 is time to go to the dump. Then take them along, frozen. Or do 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, but at least I slept better that night.
The dumpster is still on its side. It's empty. The hill is littered with trash bags and trash. And I'm sleeping better at night.
Anyone know where I can buy odor-proof garbage cans?
Joyce Marcel is a journalist and columnist in southern Vermont. You can reach her at email@example.com.