by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
September 5, 2002
BEAR WITH ME
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- You know how sometimes you see something completely unexpected and your brain tries to turn it into what you think you should be seeing there, and it takes a little time to realize that you're seeing something absolutely new?
That's what happened last week with the bear.
I was going up the stairs from my office to the living room when I happened to look out of the window. Where there had never been anything before, there was now a big, black, glossy animal sitting next to the garbage cans.
Somebody's dog got loose, I thought. But it was pretty big for a dog. And anyway, I couldn't make the beige, cone-like snout with the black tip into a dog's snout. No way.
"What the...?" I thought. And then "Holy ----!" That's when I yelled for my husband.
Randy couldn't believe it either. We live in the woods, true enough, where deer are an everyday occurrence (I have to plant my garden in buckets on the deck, they're such an everyday occurrence). But we've never seen a bear.
So we watched as maybe 300 pounds of black bear happily popped the lids off our "animal-proof" garbage cans one by one, and pawed open the plastic bags. He seemed to like the chicken carcasses best.
Randy started taking pictures, but the window wasn't exactly clean. So - albeit with hesitation - we opened the front door to get some better shots. The bear was about 10 feet away, but we figured that if it charged, we'd have time to slam the door shut.
Charging us, however, was the last thing on this bear's mind. Only once did he look up at us. Then I saw that his long nose was powdered with garbage remnants. If he'd been our cat, I would have grabbed a napkin and wiped him off.
At this time of year, next to the garbage cans we have a berry patch full of berries. Did the bear care? Nope.
It took about 20 minutes before the bear finally finished with our garbage and ambled down the driveway. He detoured to the waterfall for a drink, then turned left and disappeared up the road. Just like that.
Being a media creature, the first thing Randy did was take the film down to the local paper. The bear's picture was on the front page the next day.
I had a lot of questions, so I called game warden Kim Klein. He turned out to have a fine-tuned sense of humor and lots of bear wisdom.
"This must have been a young male bear," he said.
"How do you know?"
"I make observations based on behavior," he said. "He was probably trying to establish his territory. Probably his mother has new babies and she kicked him out."
"I didn't know there were bears in Dummerston."
"Oh yes. I just talked to someone there who had two bears, one at the front door and one at the back. They carted off a 40-pound sack of dog food."
Wouldn't our scent scare him off?
"No, he's probably been bothering other folks. He's acclimatized to humans."
I thought of that baby in upstate New York, recently carried off and killed by a young bear.
"So, is this bear dangerous?" I asked.
"One thing you can predict about wild animals is that they're unpredictable," Kim said.
"He didn't seem to mind us being there."
"Well, he knows that yelling and screaming is not a threat," Kim said. "Bears are just like kids. They tune you out. His mind is focused on one thing only - food. He has to eat 24 hours a day, because he's going to bed shortly."
"When, exactly, would 'shortly' be?"
"Middle to late November. But Sept. 1 is the start of bear season, and after that, I don't get any more bear complaints. I get complaints about bear hunters, but not bears."
"Hunters can't shoot near my house, can they?"
"You don't want to know."
"Is the bear a threat to my cat?"
"Probably not. Probably the cat is too quick and too smart."
"That bear was pretty good at popping the lids off garbage cans. Can he open a door?"
"He can tear a door right off its hinges," Kim said. "In Whitingham we had one that came through a screen into a kitchen. But I don't envision him turning a doorknob."
"What should I do if I meet him coming down the road when I'm picking up the mail or the newspaper?"
"Don't turn your back," Kim said. "Keep eye contact. Slowly back toward the house. Don't run, because it might trigger a charge. Make yourself as big as possible - hold your arms out. Bark like a dog. Yell, 'Go away, you idiot, I've got a gun.'"
As you could well expect, that has become a catchphrase around our house. Every time Randy teases me, I stand on my toes, raise my arms and say, "Go away, you idiot. I've got a gun." It never fails to crack him up.
Kim suggested I call Forrest Hammond, the "resident bear expert" at the Dept. of Fish and Wildlife in Springfield, Vt.
The aptly named Forrest told me that we were enabling the bear.
"You have to make the bear know it's not wanted," Forrest said. "Bang a pot, honk your car horn, yell, shoot off firecrackers, or, if you have a gun in the house, shoot it into the ground. Make a lot of noise. That's how the other animals let him know he's not wanted. By letting him sit there and eat garbage, you're letting him think he's in his territory. He must have thought he was the king."
It's been a week and the bear hasn't returned, although we very much want to see him again. We've gotten rid of the garbage, so there's no scent of rotting chicken to draw him near, but we still look out of the window many times a day, trying to turn the empty space into bear.
For me, the truth is that seeing a bear close up for the first time is like being allowed to see a little piece of a very large mystery. t's like seeing a whale or a moose, a giraffe or a rhinoceros - creatures whose very existence are so amazing that they thrill us at the same time they scare us.
They are bigger and stronger than us. We can't talk or reason with them. They operate on imperatives we know almost nothing about. They represent the highest kind of creativity, the kind we will never approach, even with computers. They give us a feeling of helplessness, humility and awe.
At a time when our need to dominate and extract profit from everything around us has almost destroyed the planet, they are the last vestiges of the Garden of Eden that this world used to be.
For mankind in the 21st Century, feeling helpless, humbled and awed are very good things.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.