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What to Do About the Bears?

Our neighborhood listserv is hosting a spirited debate about the Mama bear and her four cubs, who seem to have taken up residence in the broader Mink Brook area. Positions run, if I may paraphrase, from “Live and let live; after all, they were here first” to “Off the critters now; people over predators.”

What we do know is that the little ursine family (Dad has not been spotted, and it is unclear whether he is contributing child support) seems to be comfortable watching high school students play baseball, wandering in neighborhoods in broad daylight, mooching around people’s doorways and in their garbage, and even coexisting with hikers in the woods.

However the sow does not like free-ranging dogs, and she’ll produce a barking sound, growl, and even make a false charge towards canines that are strolling too close to her with their owners. Otherwise, no aggressiveness has been noted, even when Mama bear is with her babies and humans are nearby:

Hinsley and the Mama Bear.jpg

Hanover Deputy Fire Chief Michael Hinsley (above) has spent more time than anyone observing our new, for-the-time-being-at-least neighbors. He knows them pretty well, as he told the Valley News last spring:

“They are not afraid. They don’t run away,” Hinsley said. “You are not going to save these bears. When you break into a house with four kids, you are done.”

Hinsley said the bears go on porches, force through doors and sit in chairs around fire pits.

The town has used harassing tactics, such as loud cap guns and shooting the bears with paintballs, in hopes of to scare them away, but to no avail.

“These bears have no interest in going anywhere,” Hinsley said.

The conversation-stopping phrase in the what-to-do-about-the-bears? debate is, “They are wild animals!” — as if the bears might, by their very nature, go on a murderous spree at any time. But is that fearful reaction to their presence a justified one?

According to Wikipedia, eight people were killed in the lower 48 states over the last 18 years due to attacks by wild black bears. The fatalities in New Jersey, Utah and Tennessee were the first on record. As a basis of comparison, DogBites.org notes that, “In the 13-year period of January 1, 2005 to December 31, 2017, canines killed at least 433 Americans.”

Alligator.jpgBut even though the old legal principle holds that, “Every dog is entitled to a first bite,” perhaps Fido is not the appropriate analogy here. What if we were to think about the Hanover bears in the way people in the southeastern United States consider their alligator population?

The fearsome-looking reptiles have killed nineteen people since 2000. Yet there seems to be no call to hunt down and destroy them all, out of a fear that they might hurt more humans. People in that part of the country have adapted and learned to take precautions. As I recall from my own visits, the rule is to consider that there may be gators wherever there is water, even on golf courses:

Of course, if a gator attacks a human, it is hunted and killed forthwith — the gator, I mean — but otherwise laisser vivre is the order of the day.

What if we tried that tack for a while in Hanover?

Addendum: Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling of the Valley News has a long piece in The Atavist Magazine about the ongoing conflict between bears and humans in a libertarian camp near Grafton, N.H.: Barbearians at the Gate: A journey through a quixotic New Hampshire town teeming with libertarians, fake news, guns, and—possibly—furry invaders. Prior to describing a wild bear attack on a woman living near Grafton, he noted:

For a long time, Ursus americanus didn’t rank on locals’ list of worrisome fauna. Though the black bears’ habitat included some 90 percent of New Hampshire, they gave humans a wide berth. Attacks were exceedingly rare; the most recent was in the mid-20th century, and the last fatal one in 1784. Statistically speaking, and not only in New Hampshire, a person was (and still is) much more likely to suffocate in a giant vat of corn than be killed by a bear.

Addendum: A reader writes in:

Having recently moved from Wisconsin to southeastern North Carolina I can aver that you are correct about the local attitude towards alligators. We have been advised that we should consider every body of water to have alligators in residence. Somehow the populace survives despite the proximity to alligators and a plethora of poisonous snakes. We worry a bit about our dogs.

I hope some means can be found to relocate the Hanover bears before they become too addicted to “civilization.”

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