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Bears and the city: this story is no fairy tale

Greater Sudbury is located smack dab in the middle of black bear country. Thousands of homes have backyards that end where the bush begins. No wonder so many of us have bear stories to tell.

You’ve probably heard a few. Bear munching away at the compost heap. Bear walking through the badminton net, digging up the garden, dragging away the garbage can, pulling down the wash line. Bear at the barbecue.Summer 2009Greater Sudbury is located smack dab in the middle of black bear country. Thousands of homes have backyards that end where the bush begins. No wonder so many of us have bear stories to tell.

You’ve probably heard a few. Bear munching away at the compost heap. Bear walking through the badminton net, digging up the garden, dragging away the garbage can, pulling down the wash line. Bear at the barbecue.

Or how about? Bear ambling along the sidewalk on Melvin St., just a few blocks from downtown Sudbury, sighted by a cab driver at three in the morning. Unusual? Not really.
Bears have been seen in that part of town for years.

It was mid-afternoon when one wandered through O’Connor Park on Morin St. Kids climbed to the top of the monkey bars and stayed quiet until the bear wandered off. Residents believe the bears follow the railroad tracks into town.

The local Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) office likes to keep track of such incidents through its Bear Watch program. In 2007 there were 3,200 sightings reported in Greater Sudbury. That doesn’t translate into 3,200 bears (one bear could be reported by 50 people). Still, it’s good to know some safety rules.

Start with the idea that bears are not “cute.” They are big, dangerous, and can be unpredictable. Fortunately, unless they’re rabid or we’ve done something silly to provoke them, bears want to avoid us just as much as we want to avoid them.

An MNR biologist whom I interviewed on CBC Radio many years ago routinely did things like crawling into bear dens in winter to fasten transmitting devices on the (hopefully) sleeping occupants. Did George Kolonoski have a story to tell? Indeed he did.

He was walking in the bush when he rounded a bend in the trail and encountered a large bear, face to face. Neither bear nor man moved, they just stood there, staring at each other. The seconds ticked away. Finally, the man spoke. “Well, Mr. Bear, are you going to move, or am I?”

A few more seconds passed before the bear grunted, stepped aside and melted into the bush. And the man continued on his way. (The usual advice in such situations is not to challenge the bear but to slowly back away. Presumably, Kolonoski was prepared to step aside if the bear didn’t blink.)

Most of us would prefer to avoid such an encounter. One way is to make noise. Let the bear know you’re coming its way. Talk, sing, or recite poetry. Some people hang a string of bells over their shoulders.

Instead of bells, Tilton Lake resident André Clement carries a can of pepper spray when he walks his property. Should a bear venture too close, he tries to frighten it away with a bear “banger,” which makes an explosive sound, and if that doesn’t work, he brings out the klaxon horn, a fearsomely noisy blaster.

MNR spokesperson Don Mark says the biggest problem in rural areas is that humans are careless with food. Bears are always hungry and they’re happy to eat the same things we do. We cook our food, releasing through open windows tantalizing aromas that linger and drift into the forest. We leave baskets of fruit on the back porch, food scraps on the picnic table, and bags of garbage at the end of the driveway. We locate bird feeders right next to the house and leave the meat-spattered barbecue sit overnight on the patio. No wonder they like to hang around our yards.

Once in a while, in their eagerness to eat, bears just plunk themselves right down among humans. If that should happen to you, do not scream or start running. Stay calm.
Ida Paivio, a grandmother several times over, and her daughter, Teri, who told me this story, were picking blueberries in the Long Lake area. It was a particularly lush patch and the two women had been there for some time when they looked up to see a bear had joined them and was pigging out at the other end. Since the bear had obviously come to eat blueberries, not humans, and since there was more than enough for the three of them, the women decided to keep on picking. Only when their baskets were full, did they stand up and quietly back out of the berry patch. The bear didn’t even look up.

Bears are curious and smart. They watch us from the trees and learn from us. Trouble is, they’ve become accustomed to our faces. As more and more of us have moved deeper and deeper into their territory, bears have lost their fear of us. Or perhaps, we have lost our fear of them.

One summer evening, when I was still living in my little house at Loon Lake, I was in the kitchen when I glanced into the next room and saw a bear standing upright in the doorway to the screened porch, watching me. (It had opened the sliding door and came into the porch, attracted perhaps by the aroma of hot chili). I was horrified! I’d heard of bears coming into people’s houses and trashing them while looking for food.

My mind raced. Instinct told me the bear was not at that moment a threat. It was more curious than hungry. On the other hand, I know bears like to chase things and that any sudden movement on my part might make it decide to chase me. I remembered hearing that (sometimes) bears can be intimidated by humans.

Ever so slowly, I got to my feet. Up on my toes, standing as tall as I could, I began to slowly windmill my arms to make myself as big as possible. In the deepest voice I could muster, I bellowed, “OUT! OUT! OUT!” and advanced on the bear. Slowly but steadily. “OUT!”
The bear stepped back into the porch, turned, and ran into the sliding screen door, which was closed. It hit it so hard that the door popped right out of its tracks and landed with a crash on the deck outside. (It’s only then that I realized this smart bear had opened the sliding door and politely slid it closed again before checking out the rest of the house!)
“GET OUT!!” The bear trampled over the fallen screen door, scuttled down the stairs and disappeared into the bush at the edge of the yard. “AND STAY OUT!! I placed the screen door back in its tracks. Amazingly, it wasn’t damaged.

Minutes later the bear was back, crashing the screen door into the porch this time. I grabbed two cooking pots, banged them together, and headed for the porch. The bear took off. When it came back again, I grabbed the pots, chased that bear out of the yard, and stayed outside for five to 10 minutes, banging away. The bear didn’t come back.

I couldn’t believe what I had done. I had just risked my life. But abandoning my beautiful little home to the bear just wasn’t an option. I’d been foolhardy. I’d also been lucky. Not everyone who messes around with a bear survives unscathed.

I know a woman who spends serious time in the wilderness. One afternoon she was walking in the bush accompanied by four big dogs, two of her own and two belonging to a neighbour. The dogs began barking. Jan (not her real name) found them at the base of a tree, leaping, lunging, yapping. A frightened cub clung to a branch 10 feet above them.

Now, if there’s one rule even greenhorns know it is to never, ever get between a mother bear and her cubs. Frantically, Jan tried to call off the dogs. That’s when Mama Bear came charging out of the bush. She was on the dogs in an instant, slashing and snarling. Three of them escaped but the bear snared the fourth and sat on it. And that’s when Jan rushed forward and attacked the bear! She punched it in the nose before it turned on her.
The dog escaped unharmed. Jan fared less well. The bear bit a chunk of flesh out of one arm and tore three narrow strips of flesh from her chest.

She somehow found her way home, where she wrapped a towel around her bleeding arm, and went to look for help. A neighbour drove her to hospital. What in the world was she thinking? Jan says that the dog was like a child, she had to protect it.

Jan needed plastic surgery and psychological counselling to stop the flashbacks.

Afterwards, she was so embarrassed by her own actions that she told no one, not even the MNR, about the encounter. She does have a bear story, though. Only she tells it as if it had happened to someone else. Some bear stories are just too good to go untold…even when they turn out badly.

photographs courtesy of Ministry of Natural Resources

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