Happy to be here — Keep distance from bears, despite the cute, cuddly look

Published 12:37 pm Monday, August 8, 2022

Maybe you’ve seen amusing bear videos on the internet. There’s a cute one with a cub climbing onto a swing. Another shows a bear running off with a soccer ball. There are bear families splashing in pools or hot tubs. Some bears open car doors or climb into the beds of pickup trucks. Others sit patiently at picnic tables.

In many of these shared snippets of bear encounters, the animals seem cuddly and amiable. They often stand up and wave with a friendly greeting. The images elicit memories of childhood teddy bears and adventures with Winnie the Pooh. They bring to mind stories such as the one about Corduroy, who is loved despite his lost button.

Viewed from indoor safety and across the distance afforded by a computer screen, I’ve laughed along with thousands of others and had my heartstrings tugged. But here’s the reality: the presence of a bear, a real live bear, feels much different when it’s wandering around in your own neighborhood. Bears are wild animals. They are unpredictable. They can be dangerous to pets, children and adults, especially if they get accustomed to being in close proximity to their human neighbors.

One morning earlier this year, I came face to face with the reality that bears are wild animals. When I opened my front door, I saw a limb torn from a small tree in my yard. Closer inspection found deep claw marks along the severed branch and up the tree trunk. I had no doubt that the marks had been made by a bear. Nothing else would have been big enough or had the strength to gouge so deeply.

My husband and I speculated about what could have happened. Perhaps the bear wanted to see if the tree contained fruit. Upon finding none, it got angry and ripped the branch off. Maybe it was chasing prey up the tree, discovering too late that the branch could not support its weight. Or perhaps it just wanted to climb up for a view through the window to see what might be cooking in our kitchen.

More recently, I’ve read information that some people believe bears mark trees in this way to identify their territories, communicate with other bears, or to announce availability for mating.

Our neighborhood bear didn’t limit its activities to dismantling small trees. We have an enclosed garage where we keep trash cans, so we were lucky. Some of our neighbors use outdoor bins secured with bungee cords and enclosed in structures designed primarily to thwart racoons.

These deterrents proved ineffective against the determined bear, who simply stole the cans and carried them off into the woods to destroy at his leisure.

The bear also made quick work of neighborhood bird feeders. He deposited evidence of his guilt in soup-can-sized, seed-filed droppings in our side yard. One neighbor had reported the loss of a sealed and stowed storage container with food for a feeder. My husband joked to him, “I found your missing birdseed!”

According to the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR), three bear species live in North America, but only one, the black bear, lives in Virginia. Black bears are often solitary and usually most active between April and November.

Adult males frequently weigh between 130 to 500 pounds, much bigger than females, who usually weigh between 90 to 250 pounds. Based on its size, we think the bear wandering our neighborhood was male.

DWR offers these tips for discouraging bears in residential neighborhoods: Secure garbage in a building or in bear-resistant trash cans. Remove bird feeders. Keep grills clean. Don’t put meat scraps in compost piles. Don’t leave pet food outdoors. Pick ripe fruit and remove any that falls to the ground. Everyone in our neighborhood adopted these practices, and bear sightings petered out. At least for now.

My preferred live-action bear sightings are the astronomical bears, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, better known as the Big and Little Bears, which contain the Big and Little Dippers. I don’t have to worry about their claws and teeth. As a precaution, however, my husband and I added bear spray to our collection of astronomy equipment. Fortunately, we haven’t had to use it.

Karen Bellenir has been writing for The Farmville Herald since 2009. Her book, Happy to Be Here: A Transplant Takes Root in Farmville, Virginia features a compilation of her columns. It is available from PierPress.com. You can contact Karen at kbellenir@PierPress.com.