A bear ate my old landlord?!
The title of this blog has a horror movie ring to it. It even sounds a little too ridiculous to be real. But for High Country News staffer Tammy York, it's the truth. This isn't the sort of thing we usually report on, but it's a pretty incredible (and tragic) story to have so close to home. (And, being cutthroat journalists, we couldn't let the L.A. Times -- they plan to call Tammy tonight -- get this on record before we do.)
Back in 2002, Tammy moved into a basement apartment in Donna Munson's quiet log house, nestled on a densely vegetated 40-ish acre parcel between the small mountain towns of Ridgeway and Ouray, Colo. Munson had put an ad in the paper, but at first she resisted the idea of Tammy becoming her tenant. Not because Tammy had lots of loud parties or 50 cats (she didn't), mind you, but because Tammy had two young children: a one-year-old daughter, and a four-year-old son. As Tammy quickly found out, Munson was worried about the kids because she was in the habit of feeding several black bears, right off of her upstairs deck.
"She was always making trips, I think to Wal-Mart, and she would come back with her SUV loaded to the brim with dogfood and catfood," Tammy says. The huge bags were too heavy to carry up the stairs, so Munson apparently used a pulley system rigged to the side of the house to haul them to the upper deck. Then she'd fill a bucket with the stuff and strap it to a picnic table in front of the house's big picture window. The bears would take turns: They came up the stairs, one at a time, and ate from the stash of dogfood. "I think she would just watch them all night long," Tammy says. "I think for her it was like TV." Munson apparently also left buckets of food around the property for the bears. "Sometimes we'd help her pick them up," Tammy says. "That was thrilling. We'd grab them and run back to the house as fast as we could."
The feeding didn't stop with the bears. During the single year that Tammy lived at Munson's house, she says Munson also left grain in the driveway for elk. There were too many cats to count: their cubbyholes filled the garage and lined a portion of the upper deck. There were also skunks.
Munson built a fence around the lower patio to protect Tammy's kids from the bears. She also gave the young family bear bells. (Munson was "a really sweet lady," Tammy explains). But the encounters were close and intense all the same.
Tammy's front driver side window got busted out by a bear, which sampled a head rest and the child safety seat before going on its way. Munson's car was also often a wreck: the back window taped up, the seats nibbled, claw marks in the paint. The garage door was always beat up from bears pawing at it. One time, Tammy pulled into the driveway to find a big black bear standing on his hind legs. Another time, she and her kids raptly watched a bear -- maybe five feet away -- through the fence that Munson had built.
"At the time I didn't realize. I feel bad -- like I could have changed things if I had been more aware," Tammy says now, shaking her head. "I'm just thankful nothing happened to my little ones."
But something did happen to Munson. Last week, the 74 year-old woman, now with a walker and some dementia, according to newspaper reports, was found dead in her front yard. This week, authorities confirmed that she had been killed and eaten by a bear, likely one of those she had fed regularly. According to the Colorado Division of Wildlife, she (and potentially some of her tenants) had been feeding the bears for more than a decade, probably much more.
Munson's daughter has told the press that her mother loved animals. She probably did. But bears that lose their fear of people are dangerous. They tend to be more aggressive. They break into houses instead of just knocking over garbage cans. During the time that Munson was feeding bears, her neighborhood -- a rural subdivision of sorts -- became a hotspot for bear calls, says DOW spokesman Tyler Baskfield. It still is.
The DOW tried to stop the feeding. Officers visited Munson's home several times over the years to explain the consequences: Feeding bears carries a maximum $1,000 penalty, and the state must kill aggressive bears. She barred officers from her property and stopped responding to their warnings. Without conclusive, photographic evidence, the state couldn't press charges. And Munsen's property was heavily wooded. Besides, Baskfield says, the officers weren't trying to punish her, they were trying to change her behavior. Even so, in a certified letter to Munson dated April 7, 2008, officials spelled it out clearly: "We will vigorously investigate all future complaints regarding the feeding of bears on your property. If these complaints are substantiated we will cite the offender to the fullest extent of the law. In addition, any bears trapped near your property and known to have been on your property will immediately be euthanized."
And so they have. Including the two aggressive bears officials have killed in the area since Munson's death, Baskfield says a total of six bears have been killed over time because of the feeding that took place on Munson's property.
"I don't think people understand the impacts this has on the community as a whole," he adds. "She has neighbors who are very scared. Imagine what that would be like if you have small children or pets or something that you care about that’s vulnerable to a black bear."
Now, because of the attack, "we’re going to be highly sensitive to any bear calls that come in from that area. If we’re seeing aggressive bears in that area, they're going to have to be put down, unfortunately," Baskfield says. "We're erring on the side of human safety."