The American black bear (Ursus americanus) is a mighty and noble beast. I have not had the joy or trepidation of seeing one here at Flower Hill Farm for many years now.
My neighbor did see one about three years ago in early spring, as he was driving by on his tractor. First he thought it to be a large dog but that did not seem to fit. Backing up he noted a large black bear standing up on its two hind legs attempting to open the French doors on the south side of the old farmhouse. Imagine the sight! Guests visiting the downstairs apartment had a cat and must have had cat food in that room. They left a front window open a bit, which allowed the bear to easily pick up the smell of food.
Any food may attract bears especially in early spring, when they leave their dens. I eyed a bear the summer before in one of my apple trees. The sound of its huge black mass thrashing within the leaf and fruit laden branches alerted me.
I remember well standing not so far from the tree, clapping my hands while shouting loudly. That black bear immediately climbed down and began to walk away . . . though it hesitated, stopped and turned around, as if to say . . . why am I walking away from that whimp of a person. I must confess, that at that moment, I had my doubts and felt frightened, for I was too far from any shelter, but I continued to talk to the bear in a loud voice, asserting my territorial pluck. He continued to depart and I felt sadness at having to shoo him away.
Bears must remain afraid of humans and should not feel comfortable foraging too close to their homes and gardens. People who feed bears do a great disservice to both bears and people, for with such a powerful wild creature in such close proximity, injury can happen, and in the end the bears will suffer the most. Over the last two decades I have had numerous black bear encounters and will try to share a few of those tales. Some were exciting and joyous while others were very sad and tragic.
Sedately Soundly Sleeping
Many years ago, as a younger farmer, I met three black bears that were sleeping on the grounds not far from where my old farmhouse stood. The tale is too long but the luck of being in the right place at the right time did allow for this engrossing encounter. My building brush piles to encourage wildlife was a key factor.
For years, bear biologists had been following a female black bear they had collared and given the name Samantha. The bear had been hibernating on my land for eighteen years yet I had never known it! I found the biologist walking on my land, and they came over to introduce themselves and to explain their mission. I was invited to join them at the den once the bears had been sedated. In this photo I am holding Samantha’s cub or yearling, whereas earlier I had been sitting on the ground with the mother’s head in my lap. Holding the black bear’s paws up with my hand, I was humbled and in awe of her long, solidly- sculpted, horny claws. Her fur was silky and remarkably clean.
I was greatly honored to be there along with the biologists as they examined and weighed the bears. The second cub had run away but he was brought back and sedated along with his family. Soon after, all three were returned to the cozy environment of their den and hopefully when they awoke, they remembered only having a bad dream. I realize the importance of closely observing bears when they live so close to humans. I was impressed with the respect and wisdom I witnessed in the biologists’ handling of the bears.
The following year, I received a call from the biologists letting me know ahead when they would be coming so that I was able to have my son join in on the research. Samantha had chosen the same den and had given birth, during the winter, to a single female cub! We could hear the poor wee one crying, and once the mother bear was sedated, we walked over to the den. What a joy to see the tiny black bear. Because of the cold day, we were allowed to hold the baby inside our jackets to keep it warm. Her eyes were still closed and she did stop crying once held within our coats.
Having a baby bear’s heart beat next to mine and then seeing my son gently hold the bear warmed my heart and educated a young boy about caring for wildlife. The day proved to be a remarkable live biology course for Sean, and it was a joy for me to be able to share such an extraordinary personal encounter with black bears. My son was given the honor of naming the baby cub ‘Ginger.’ I know it must sound ridiculous to name wild animals, but it sounds better than some number. This was to be our last encounter with sedated black bears, as Samantha did not choose to hibernate in that particular brush pile again. I cannot say I blame her.
Awake and Lively
Several springs and summers slide away and return since the days I held Samantha and her cub . . . then I have a few more episodes to add to my black bear belt of knowing. One such encounter was while watering some newly planted shrubs. You know how it is when you are happily watering and admiring the landscape . . . the birds, sky and floating clouds along with the wondrous peace of it all . . . when suddenly the water flow halts and you realize there is a kink in the line. Imagine yourself still with me as I turn around to fix the hose . . . when startled out of this common occurrence, I notice a big black bear enthusiastically running on all fours right towards where we are standing but thirty feet or so away.
Now you must not run away for the bear can outrun us. Let’s stand our ground and see what happens. I would have felt more courageous if you had truly been with me but I did master enough boldness to shout with all my strength, and with great relief did I admire the stunning creature as it turned and quickly ran out of view.
There were no bird feeders in sight, nor salmon cooking on the grill . . . I’m not sure why the bear was bounding towards me and my house with such determined energy. The bird feeders had all been removed a year or so earlier. Now, that is a tale to be told . . . where a sleepy mind merges with black largeness and fright. Like many of you, I would guess, I had many feeders located at different windows so that I could better watch the birds. A suet feeder by a kitchen window, a cylinder feeder hung outside a living room window, and a tiny plate with suction cups attached to a storm window right next to my bed.
It is just before dawn. I am sleeping at this hour, but hear sounds and later find they correlate with the pulling down of the suet feeder and then the cylinder, and when those had been emptied a peculiar sound more completely shakes me from sleep . . . the body of a black bear turning the corner of my house. I can nearly feel its force as its heavy full form moves along the wall just outside where I lie. Then before I can move there was this large black beast looms only a foot away and over me with but a thin plate of storm glass between us.
I lie silent and in a state of shivering shock while the bear tears the feeder off and runs down the garden path towards the compost. I immediately sit up and watch it digging around in the compost pile. The feeders never went back up but the bear returned about the same time the next morning and I was prepared with pots and pans to scare it off. I never again saw a wide awake black bear so near my person.
Living close to wildlife has its daunting and dangerous moments too. Sometimes there are clashes where wildlife becomes a threat to humans or their domestic animals. Such was the case in the story I am to relate, where a male black bear . . . most likely a teenager . . . meets its early death due to stepping precariously within man’s habitat.
A dairy farmer neighbor engages in battle with said bear, and in the end the man wins. The beautiful burly bear lies dead. At early dawn, before the conflict occurs, all the humans involved in this tale are sleeping soundly. Suddenly, the explosive sound of a gunshot startles and shakes me from my sheath of sleep. The violent noise pierces layers of dreams and I sit up and wonder where and why.
Later, I call my neighbor and ask if he heard the gunshot. He shares his story, which I recount here. Several calves leap from their pens in fright and frantically assemble before their caretakers’ house just below the windows where both husband and wife are sleeping. Upon descending the stairs and seeing all the panic-stricken calves, the dairy farmers know something must be terribly wrong.
The man runs over to the pens and finds, to his horror . . . a large black bear attacking one of his helpless calves. Harrowing shrills and the heartbreaking sight, lit up by a flashlight, of the pitiful calf maimed and held in the powerful jaws of the bear set adrenaline in motion and the farmer, still foggy from sleep, kicks the bear with all his power, breaking a toe in the process. At this point the bear begins standing up with its full six foot stature, drops the calf and backs a few steps away. With loud shouts and the bright light of the flashlight, the bear is finally scared off and runs across the road. It is not long before the bear returns to reclaim his kill, but the man is waiting and armed with more than just a flashlight. The sharp shot that awoke this narrator is released and with it the bullet fires into the flesh of the black bear, tearing into tissue towards its heart. Now this tale is at an end and the dear bear’s life all spent.
It is not but two weeks later, when another sudden stabbing sound tears through the page of another pleasant day. One more murderous tale I must impart here. Some doubt as to the justification of this assassination may arise, however.
Not far from where the first tragic death occurs, yet one other male black bear does run into his early demise. The land that soaks up this bear’s blood is just next to the neighbor’s dairy farm. The humans of this land have a small child, and one day, they see to their alarm, a sturdy, stout black bear sniffing and stirring up sand in their daughters play box, which is quite close to the house. Since their cousins had recently had such a frightful and sad experience of having a small calf attacked and killed by a black bear, one can understand how they may fear the same could happen to their dear child, who after all is even smaller than a calf. The decision is fast and firm as the finger pulls the trigger and another great beast falls. I cannot pass judgment on the man that took that precious life for wild things can be most unpredictable. I can only say that when I arrived to see the slain animal I was sickened and saddened that it could not have been avoided this time.
Recently I called the Mass Wildlife folks and asked to speak with a bear biologist. I asked him why I never see bears anymore. He answered that they had all moved closer to the village, for that is where people feed the bears. I knew what he meant.
Most people do not intentionally put out food for bears, but when we feed birds during the months when birds can easily find plenty of food and bears are active, we are not really doing the birds or the bears any great favors.
Wild animals are not so unlike people when it comes to being attracted to fast food. Though the quality of the food is never as good, the convenience often outweighs judgment. It is up to thoughtful people to consider all wildlife when feeding the birds.
We also need to be careful about putting out garbage, cleaning grills and feeding pets. My neighbors have installed electric fencing to discourage bears from attacking their calves. When we live in bear-land, we need to protect ourselves and the bears with caring practices. We also need to understand the wildlife around us. Here are some links if you would like to learn more about the American Black Bear:
I cannot say that I wish to encourage black bears to visit my wildlife gardens. When gardening for wildlife, we will always inadvertently attract some wildlife we might wish would not visit too often. Though I admire their beauty and power, I truly wish to maintain a very healthy distance between myself and these remarkable beasts.
Note – The photos of the bears at the bird feeders were taken by my friend Anna, who lives in the village. She and her family did stop feeding the birds after this rather thrilling viewing. Her father is 97 and unable to get outdoors, feeding the birds brings him much joy. I am sure there are many such cases.
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