It’s official! The older I get the less I know! I find myself in a dilemma and at the heart of it is a bear. Yes! You heard right….a bear!
Our house backs onto 800 acres of protected forested wetland, a remnant of what used to exist here. With a flock of chickens and a large vegetable garden, it’s hardly surprising that we have some amazing wildlife encounters, since we’re providing temptation for all kinds of would be predators – bobcats, coyote, cougars and black bears. The Black Bear population in Washington State is estimated to be around 30,000 individuals. Housing and business development has replaced much of the surrounding forested area in recent years and this has led to an increase in the number of bear visits to our backyard. Last year we had regular sightings of a female with an ear tag (under surveillance with the Department of Fish and Wildlife), a large bear, presumably male, and a young black bear, seemingly out in the world on his own for the first time. The young bear is the most frequent visitor, a fully paid up, card carrying member of the Backyard Frequent Flier Program. Last Fall he would emerge from the forest every few days, pausing to check the field before cautiously walking round the edge of the flower beds, sometimes onto the patio to sniff, to explore and then back into the woods. While working in the house or garden, I would have a gut feeling and glance up in time to see the bear walk out onto the field and stop. Other days I would be oblivious, only to realize he’s there by a sound or movement that catches my eye.
Fall is a critical time for Black Bears as they have to increase their body weight by as much as 35% in order to survive their winter dormancy. By the end of November the bear disappeared from our yard, having presumably found a suitable den site in the forest to sleep the food-scarce, lean winter months away. Bears don’t strictly hibernate, rather they go into a state of torpor, a drowsy condition which allows them to rouse easily to defend themselves. It also means they respond readily to warming conditions in the spring! By the end of March the young bear was back for a visit.
With each encounter, after my initial, explosive heart pounding, gut clenching “yikes! there’s a bear” reaction, I edge my way back to the house to stand next to the open door, quietly reassuring the bear as I go. Reassuring! If truth be told the soothing talk is more for my benefit. The bear appears completely calm, not threatened by my presence, nor threatening. We both keep a wary, cautious distance, eying one another curiously, spell bound and awestruck! The awe and wonder are very one sided. The bear merely seems to regard me as a curious oddity. After deliberating for a few moments, the bear goes about his business, sometimes venturing close to the house, other times walking the edge of the field, a wary eye on me the whole time.
I’ve hiked in the wilderness and visited enough National Parks to know that it’s vital to one’s own safety and to that of wildlife to know the protocol in a wild encounter, especially with potential predators. Look big, act big, sound big around a cougar in the hope you can convince them you are not easy prey. Bears are omnivores like us, so their interest doesn’t stem from a necessarily predatory instinct. Black Bears, like yellow jackets, are unlikely to bother us if we don’t bother them. In a bear encounter it’s much more important to evaluate the situation, calmly and quietly announcing your presence using non-threatening, non-aggressive body language. Ironically, I’ve had to call on these skills more in my backyard than out in the wilderness!
There’s a belief to which I subscribe that “problem” animals are often created by “problem” people. We’ve tried not to be a “problem” for this bear. Our garbage cans are inside the tractor barn, the worm and compost bin is inside the fenced vegetable garden, the chicken enclosure is fortified, bird feeders are hung from a cable 15 feet in the air. A year ago I removed two seed feeders that were attached to the windows after we watched a mother bear, paws leaning on the glass, lick the feeder clean.
We live in an increasingly suburbanized area and as wildlife habitat is reduced to fragmented islands of forest, people and animal encounters are becoming more numerous. And this is where my not knowing comes in! Is a bear that makes periodically frequent visits, often in broad daylight, considered a “problem” bear? A bear that makes no attempt to break down or climb over fences to access vegetables, garbage cans or worm bins! A bear who shows wariness and caution around people, yet exhibits a lot of curiosity and opportunistic behaviors. Eating all the apples in the unfenced orchard, for example, or coming up to the house to sniff at the barbecue! Even the chickens seem conflicted in how they should react to him. The bear is clearly intrigued and yet the chickens seem undecided as to whether they should continue pecking for food or run for their lives. Necks outstretched, feathers a little ruffled, they usually opt for the middle path. Strut away quickly while trying to feign casual indifference.
Which brings me to my dilemma, since I, too, am conflicted as to how I should be reacting! Is my behavior towards the bear marking me as a “problem” human? Should I be actively chasing this bear away with loud noises, banging saucepans whenever I see it, rather than standing back to marvel? If I’m not actively discouraging the bear, am I passively encouraging him?
The last visit we had from the bear in November was shortly after the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris. The first appearance in Spring coincided with the tragic bombings in Brussels. Most recently, after the shocking mass shooting in Orlando. Each time the bear’s appearance comes as a welcome relief from the tragedy and horror of the news.
As I write I can’t help but think that we humans have a lot to learn about coming into right relationship with our planet-mates, both human and animal. I wonder what it would be like to respond to those different from ourselves, whether race, creed, color, or even different species, not from a place of fear but one of respect, tolerance, understanding, acceptance, and compassion? To acknowledge that we’re all in this together, sharing one finite planet!
So I’m back to my original dilemma! Like I said, the older I get the less I know! Although I can’t help thinking that my encounters with the bear –an animal with such a different reality from my own –is teaching me a lot about what it means to be human.