Every year, they break into hundreds of homes on the northwest shores of Lake Tahoe in California, and once inside, they leave destruction in their wake -- not to mention piles of poop. Homeowners, frantic to protect their castles, employ elaborate schemes to thwart these powerful animals. They buy mechanical dogs that bark at anything that moves, erect electrified fences, install braying air horns and mount nail-studded boards -- all to keep bears away from homes.
Some second-home owners also keep their windows shuttered: Bears peering in have now learned to recognize refrigerators. But no deterrent is failsafe, so residents still fear the next attack.
And what do some lucky members of the community do -- the ones who have never been visited by a determined black bear? They purchase cute wooden carvings of bears and attach them to trees or display the effigies in their front yard as if they were religious symbols. They encourage the furry behemoths to hang out in the neighborhood by letting them repeatedly rob birdseed, and they don’t bother to bear-proof their garbage cans the way new residents are supposed to do. They let the bears get close to their homes so they can take pictures, and if anyone tries to harm these prized creatures, they react with horror. (California traps persistent pests, eventually killing them.) Meanwhile, the sheriffs of Placer and El Dorado counties are inundated with complaints from residents who find living with bears annoying and expensive.
When I was growing up in Tahoe, the residents rarely saw bears. In my first 30 years, I saw only one or two. People talked about bears with respect; they were regarded as wild animals to be feared and hunted. Now we look at these clever garbage-raiders almost as pets or cartoon characters -- like Yogi Bear, or even Winnie-the-Pooh.
Over the years, Lake Tahoe has changed in many ways. It has become urban in nature, a place that attracts lots of second-home owners. The local bears have gotten soft and citified as well. They’re rarely hunted and have gotten comfortable hanging out in backyards where nobody chases them back into the woods. Indeed, some people get to know “their” bears so well that they give them pet names. The result: Bears fatten up on our abundant food supplies, they produce more cubs, and they teach their cubs to become freeloaders. But bear families are anything but good neighbors: They eat like slobs and have no respect for private property.
A few years ago, a bear broke into my next-door neighbors’ house. When the owners returned, they found cupboards ripped from the wall; what was left of the contents was all over the floor in an enormous pile of slimy goo. Leather couches were ripped to shreds by deep gashes; bear poop was everywhere. It was a disturbing mess, and what was truly frightening was that there was no reason to believe that the marauder wouldn’t be back again soon.
The owners boarded up the lower windows, and they installed boards covered with long nails on nearby trees to keep the bears from climbing onto the second-story deck. They sprayed Pine-Sol to disguise any scent of food and left lights and a radio on. They even followed somebody’s advice and peed in the yard to set territorial boundaries.
Since they were second-home owners, they asked me to keep an eye on the place for them while they were gone. But only a few days later, I noticed bear tracks in the snow leading towards their home. I went over to investigate. As I approached, I heard the noise of a bear on the upper deck, followed by a loud thump as the bear dropped to the ground -- deftly sliding over those nail-covered tree trunks. Entering the house, I was immediately assaulted by the powerful stench of bear. The kitchen and living room looked like a tornado had hit them. It was not a pleasant experience to have to call the owner and tell him that a bear was back.
We have reached a dangerous impasse at Lake Tahoe. A group of bear lovers feeds bears out of carelessness, refusing to believe that they’re wild animals that need to be kept at a distance and treated with respect. Some of them even threaten anybody who is responsible for a bear being shot. Meanwhile, homeowners who have done everything they can to keep bears out of their homes and cars feel trapped and desperate, because no matter how many bear break-ins occur, there isn’t much anybody can do about it.
Tim Hauserman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer, hiking guide and ski instructor in Tahoe City, California.
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