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The Bear in Your Back Yard

May 23, 2023May 23, 2023

By Jill Lepore

I keep a cannister of bear spray on a shelf by the mudroom door, next to a cakey-capped tube of sunscreen and two mostly empty and partly rusty green aerosol cans of OFF! Deep Woods insect repellent. I’ve never used the bear spray, and most days I forget to bring it with me when I trudge out into the woods, even though, to encourage the habit, I got a nifty little holster for it, with a carabiner for hooking it to a belt loop. Honestly, I’m more scared of the spray than of the bears. A few years ago, a robot in an Amazon warehouse in New Jersey inadvertently burst a cannister of bear spray, and twenty-four humans had to be hospitalized. (The robot was unharmed.) Technically, according to the label on my cannister, which is decorated with a drawing of a grizzly with a gaping red mouth, baring his teeth, it’s not bear spray. It’s “BEAR ATTACK DETERRENT,” and you can see why the clarification is necessary. Last spring, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation tweeted:

Listen,bear sprayDOES NOTwork like bug spray.We would like to not have to say that again.

Bear spray is dangerous, but hardly regulated in the U.S.: you can get it at a gun shop; you can get it at Walmart; in most states you can order it online. If you’re camping in the backcountry in certain national parks, you’re urged to carry it, and you damn well should, but having it on hand is no guarantee that you’ll know what to do if you encounter a bear. Most people are stupid about bears, and I’m one of them. Either they’re too scared (“bearanoia” is, I gather, the term for this) or they’re not scared enough (beardevils?).

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There are eight living species of bears, on four continents: polar, panda, brown, black, sun, moon, sloth, and spectacled. Bear populations are plummeting in most of the world, and all except the black and brown kinds are listed as either endangered or vulnerable to extinction. But in some parts of North America bears are getting to be as common as squirrels in Central Park, if not quite so innumerable as rats in Brooklyn. The population of black bears in North America—roughly nine hundred thousand—is more than double the worldwide populations of the seven other kinds of bears combined. Every year, people hunting in Alaska kill thousands of black and brown bears, more bears than there are in Western Europe. There are about a thousand grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park—twice as many as in 1975. (A grizzly is a type of brown bear, much bigger than a black bear.) Since the nineteen-seventies, American bears in the Lower Forty-eight have been on the move, expanding their range. Not too long ago, a grizzly turned up in Nathan Keane’s back yard, near Loma, Montana, which was, at that point, the farthest east a grizzly had been seen in more than a hundred years. Told that he should have known better than to keep chickens in bear country, Keane said, at first, “Well, we aren’t in bear country.” But then he reconsidered: “Maybe we’re starting to be now.” Today, there are probably about five thousand black bears in Arkansas. There are black bears again in Texas. In the early nineteen-seventies, there were estimates of fewer than a hundred black bears in New Jersey; by 2003, there were fifteen hundred. That number is now about three thousand, and they’ve been spotted in every county in the state. In 2014, a black bear killed a twenty-two-year-old Rutgers University student who was hiking with friends. Bear hunting has returned to parts of New Jersey, too, making it less a garden state than a game preserve.

Bears, in short, are coming back to places they haven’t been in generations. What does it mean to rewild Montclair, New Jersey, or Grand Rapids, Michigan, or Atlanta, Georgia? “It’s an uncontested fact that there are no bears in downtown D.C.,” a prosecutor said in 2021 at a hearing for two men charged with attacking a Capitol Police officer on January 6th, pointing out that they had no good reason to be carrying bear spray in the city. Maybe no one had reported a bear sighting in downtown D.C. back then. But last month a black bear turned up on the corner of Fourteenth Street and Monroe, not far from the Brookland Metro station. He wandered around, crossed the street, climbed a tree, and took a nap. Animal control shot him with a tranquillizer gun, put him on a truck, and released him in Maryland. (This wasn’t necessarily a happy outcome for the bear; relocated bears often die.) “Curious Cub Captured,” the chyron on the local TV news read, as if he were Rupert, or Corduroy, or a young Baloo.

Some of the oldest art made by humans depicts bears, painted on the walls of caves. In the latest version of cave paintings—online videos—you can watch bears breaking into people’s houses. They rifle through kitchen drawers. On the patio, they climb into the hot tub; in the back yard, sows cool off in the swimming pool, and cubs swing on the hammock. In 7-Elevens, they shoplift candy. Bears have been up to these kinds of high jinks for as long as people have been building houses, or maybe since people and bears fought over the same caves. Behavior like that lies behind the bear-in-the-kitchen stuff of storybooks: Paddington with his jar of marmalade, Pooh and his cupboard stocked with pots of honey, the Teddy bears’ picnic. But in the past several decades, as Americans have been knocking down more forests and building more subdivisions, and, at the same time, conservationists have been trying to stop the killing of bears, bears have become more likely to turn up on your doorstep. “The victim wasn’t off walking in the woods,” Charlie Rose announced in a CBS News report from 2014 about a Florida woman horribly mauled by a bear. “She was attacked in her own suburban yard.” The victim survived, with thirty staples and ten stitches to her head. Wildlife officials, hunting her ursine assailant, trapped and killed at least four bears. Since 1960, the human population of Florida has risen from five million to twenty-two million, and seven million acres of forest and wetlands have been destroyed to house them. “I just can’t imagine that,” Rose went on, shaking his head. “In your own back yard?” But it was also the bears’ back yard.

It was during another housing boom, in the industrializing England of the eighteen-thirties, that the poet Robert Southey wrote “The Story of the Three Bears,” a fable about how it’s not the bears who are the burglars—it’s us, peeping through their windows and barging through their doors, sitting in their chairs and eating up their porridge. “In the words of Wee Bear, ‘someone’s been lying in my bed,’ and, well, here we are,” Gloria Dickie writes in “Eight Bears: Mythic Past and Imperiled Future” (Norton). Bears aren’t sleeping in our beds; we’re sleeping in theirs. And that ticking you hear, that’s the bedside alarm clock, about to brrrring.

People have been living with bears since people began. People are smarter, but bears are older: they got here first. Both bears and people belong to a mammalian order called boreoeutheria. The branch of the tree which led to bears, dogs, and seals emerged tens of millions of years ago; primates branched off the tree many millions of years after that. Before Darwin made the case that humans had a common ancestor with apes, humans all over the world—across tens of thousands of years and hundreds of thousands of miles—assumed that our closest relatives were bears. Father Bear. Mama Bear. Grandfather Bear. Grandmother Bear. In many languages, the word for “bear” is a familial term: “cousin” (Abenaki), “grandfather” (Penobscot), “chief’s son” (Plains Cree), “uncle” (Yakuts). In stories told everywhere from Siberia and Lapland to the plains of the American West and the forests of Vietnam, people came from bears, or bears came from people, or people and bears intermarried and made furry babies. “What other animal occupies as much space in the human imagination as the bear?” Bernd Brunner asked in his brisk 2007 book, “Bears: A Brief History.” Into the Middle Ages, European noblemen claimed to be descended from bears. “In some tales,” Brunner reports mysteriously, “humans became bears as a result of unfortunate tree-climbing episodes.”

There is an uncanniness to bears, as if they were wild men, or people dressed in bear suits. They can walk standing up. They are very clever. They use their paws like hands. Their footprints look like ours. Like us, they’re omnivores. I have read that a skinned bear looks eerily like a human. I have never dared to Google this. (I’ve seen it in Red Dead Redemption 2, and that was enough for me.) But there was a time in history when a sizable percentage of people wouldn’t have needed a picture to know what a skinned bear looked like.

A sense of likeness has never stopped people from hunting bears and eating them. “You used us, and yet you knew, and the knowledge was a kind of comfort, that we were something like you,” the animals say in John Berger’s haunting 1980 film, “Parting Shots from Animals.” To be fair, the reverse is also brutally true: bears occasionally hunt and eat people. Timothy Treadwell, an environmentalist and a filmmaker who lived with brown bears in Alaska for thirteen summers, loved the bears, thought of them as his friends, his kith and his kin. When Werner Herzog made a documentary out of Treadwell’s footage, “Grizzly Man” (2005), he saw something entirely different through the lens of Treadwell’s camera. “What haunts me is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy,” Herzog says over footage of a brown bear. “I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature,” he goes on, as the camera zooms in on the bear’s blinking brown eyes. “To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears, and this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food.” Soon after Treadwell took that footage, a bear, maybe that very bear, ate him and his girlfriend.

Still, bears don’t wear our scalps or our hides or string our teeth or keep our hands and our feet as trophies. And only people undertake the dark work of torment and imprisonment. Some species of bears, including the cave bear, were likely hunted to extinction; others live mainly in cages. “Overwhelmingly, I encountered bears behind bars,” Dickie writes, of her quest to meet all eight kinds of bears. Of those species, few can be said to be thriving. Bears live in forests, and the forests are disappearing. Southeast Asia, the home of the sun bear, is losing ten million acres of primary forest cover a year. Spectacled bears, maybe about fifteen thousand in all, live high up in the Andes, in Peru, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, and Argentina. Their habitat is disappearing owing to climate change. Dickie went hiking in Peru and never saw one, though she once “heard a bearlike huff.” Ice is forest to polar bears; there are around twenty-six thousand left, and the ice is melting. The World Wildlife Fund adopted the giant panda as its emblem in 1961; more money has been spent on saving the panda than on any other wild animal. Once found all over China, pandas now appear in the wild in only three of China’s provinces—Gansu, Shanxi, and Sichuan—but in 2016, with two thousand in the wild, the species’ status was downgraded from endangered to vulnerable.

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Kings and queens and emperors and sultans throughout history have ordered their soldiers to capture bears and bring them to amphitheatres, to watch them fight. Beginning in the sixteenth century, Kalandars, a nomadic Muslim group from North India and Pakistan, made sloth bears dance; mainly, they’d capture cubs and kill their mothers. “A bear does not dance,” Dickie writes. “To break a bear’s wild spirit, the Kalandars punctured its nose often with a hot metal poker and looped a rope or chain through the oozing wound. Then they removed the young bear’s claws and bashed out its teeth, sometimes locking the animal’s snout in a muzzle full of nails.” There and elsewhere, bear trainers starved the cubs and beat them with sticks. Among the Kalandars, nearly half the cubs died within a year of captivity. Although hunting bears was banned in 1972 under the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, the practice of capturing them continues. During the past few decades, India’s bear-rescue facilities have housed some twelve hundred ex-dancing bears. In other parts of the world, bears still perform in circuses, dancing and riding bicycles.

Bile from the gallbladders of bears has been used in Chinese medicine since at least the first century A.D. Bear bile contains ursodeoxycholic acid, which makes it possible for bears to hibernate for half the year without their bodies falling apart. Mostly in China (where bear farming is legal) but also in Vietnam (where it’s not), Laos, Myanmar, and South Korea, people keep some twenty thousand moon bears, sun bears, and Himalayan brown bears on factory farms, often in iron cages where they cannot stand up or turn around. Many bear-bile farmers, Dickie says, use a method perfected in North Korea: they “cut into the bruin’s abdomen, inserting a stainless-steel needle through the incision to create a permanent canal leading directly into the gallbladder.” The bears live like that for years, milked for bile, withering away.

I was once in a sort of greenroom with Tucker Carlson, the former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, and the Times reporter Kate Zernike. Mainly what I remember is my silently taking a vow to organize my life so that I’d never have to be in a room like that again. But I also remember this: Carlson and Armey started talking about hunting, comparing kills, telling tall tales, and then just plain making stuff up. Talking about hunting endangered species. The white rhino. The snow leopard. Trying to own the libs before owning the libs was a thing, they’d look at me and Zernike and venture something like “You can take down a polar-bear cub with a twelve-gauge,” or “Panda tastes like chicken.” It reminded me of a chair that used to be in the White House, a gift to President Andrew Johnson, presented to him in 1865 by a hunter and trapper from California. It was made out of two grizzly bears and had four clawed grizzly-bear feet and two clawed grizzly-bear armrests and a grizzly-bear pelt on the seat and the back, and if you pulled a cord a great grizzly head came out from underneath, jaws gnashing. What is it in man that makes him wish to sit on such a throne?

Americans drove grizzly bears nearly to extinction in the Lower Forty-eight in the nineteenth century, through hunting and through clearing forests. Bears had disappeared from Texas by 1890, from New Mexico by 1931, from Colorado by 1953. As with wolves and bison, Progressive Era efforts to save the bears were pushed by conservationists, like Theodore Roosevelt, who were also hunters. What is the American definition of wilderness? A place where there are bears. Roosevelt and other conservationists wanted to save the wilderness, and the bears, and during the great craze for scientific management it was decided that the government ought to manage these things: forests, bears, parks. Roosevelt also started the Teddy-bear craze, in 1902, after he refused to shoot a big-eared bear that had been tied to a tree by his guide. (The bear wasn’t spared; already badly injured, it was knifed to death.)

Today, there are more Teddy bears than there are real bears. In “Much Loved,” Mark Nixon’s collection of photographs of adored stuffed bears, each bear comes with a story. “I received Bookie from my mama and papa when I was three months old,” twenty-four-year-old Lauren de Rosa writes, about a bedraggled and much repaired white bear in a pink dress. “We were inseparable until I left for college.” I gave my first baby a stuffed bear named Ellie, for Eleanor Roosevelt, and he would not leave the house without her. We had to get a double, so that, in case we lost her, there would always be an Ellie at home. Once, when he was not yet two, we turned a corner inside a big, fancy toy store in New York and discovered a giant version of Ellie, maybe eight feet tall, slumped against a wall, her furry arms open wide. He shrieked, climbed in her lap, and burrowed his face in her chest, pressing his own little Ellie to her, too, another nursling cub.

During decades when most people’s experience with bears came from Teddy bears and children’s books, real bears lived on in national parks, where visitors got into the habit of feeding them, as if they were pets. At least as early as the eighteen-eighties, campers and staffers deliberately left trash out at Yellowstone—the world’s first national park—in order to watch bears, as Alice Wondrak Biel reported in her 2006 book, “Do (Not) Feed the Bears.” In the eighteen-nineties, one of the park’s first acting superintendents kept bears chained to the side of his house. Roadside feeding started with the first automobiles, in the nineteen-tens, and a Yellowstone superintendent developed “bear feeding grounds.” At a feeding area built in Otter Creek in 1931, fifteen hundred people squeezed into an amphitheatre to watch the bears come out of the woods and eat trash.

Outside of zoos and national parks, the bear population kept falling. Thirty-one of thirty-seven grizzly populations in the Lower Forty-eight disappeared between 1922 and 1972. The fewer bears there were in the wild, the less experience people had with bears. Bears are wary of people, but the more they associate people with food the closer they’ll come, and the closer they come the more likely they are to end up attacking, especially if a person gets between a sow and her cubs, or between any bear and a source of food. In the nineteen-fifties, Yellowstone began printing brochures telling the public that bears can be dangerous, but in 1958 the goofy Hanna-Barbera cartoon character Yogi Bear débuted on television, in a green hat and necktie, begging for food from picnicking campers at Jellystone Park. In 1961, Yogi got his own show, and around the same time Yellowstone adopted a bear-management program. “You’ve got that bear’s ailment, picnic-itis,” a doctor tells Yogi in one episode from that year. “You’ll have to stay on a strict diet. You’ll have to eat bear-type food: nuts, berries, absolutely nothing from a picnic basket!” But, after Yogi keeps begging, the ranger relents and gives Yogi a picnic basket, “loaded with goodies.” Jellystone’s superintendent scolds the ranger: “Don’t you know the first rule of the park is ‘Don’t feed the bears’?” When Yellowstone finally began seriously implementing its bear-management program, closing the park’s dumps, teaching visitors not to feed the bears, and ticketing violators, bear-related injuries fell, from sixty-one in 1967 to three in 1975.

Yellowstone’s bear management is a success story in handling “human-bear conflicts.” Curiously, the language of wildlife management is an artifact of the Cold War. “Conflict studies” and the field of “conflict resolution” both date back to the nineteen-fifties and policymakers’ thinking about nuclear deterrence (negotiating, that is, with the proverbial Russian bear). By the nineteen-eighties, environmentalists, too, were talking about conflict resolution. The first international gathering about human-bear conflicts, or H.B.C., was held in Canada in 1987. What, exactly, H.B.C. means is very different in different parts of the world. In North America and Europe, people see bears chiefly as an annoyance, if they think about them at all; in Asia and South America, conflict with bears can affect people’s livelihoods.

In the U.S., bear management mainly involves managing people, by way of providing public education and bear-proof trash bins. New York State has a program to teach people to be “BearWise.” Gloria Dickie got interested in bears in part from hanging out in Boulder, Colorado, with a group of trained volunteers called Bearsitters. Since 2002, they’ve tried to make sure any bears that wander inside the city limits get out again, without hurting anyone or getting hurt; the main tactic is to drive them out by hazing them—clanging pots or making other loud, irritating noises. “The hope is that the bear will return to the mountains and remember how horrible we humans are, never wanting to return to town,” the Bearsitters’ Web site,, explains.

How worried should you be about bears? “Every year more people are injured by toilets than they are injured by bears,” the National Park Service has claimed. Basically, it depends on the bear, and the situation. The mnemonic goes: If it’s brown, lie down; if it’s black, fight back; if it’s white, say good night (as in, you’ll never survive a polar-bear attack). But that’s not real advice. Generally, don’t run. And bring bear spray, which, studies prove, is better protection to have during a bear attack than a gun. Otherwise, the only rule is: don’t take out your phone to look up the rules.

It’s not all “Cocaine Bear” out there. Bears are not very interested in you. Still, as one ecologist told Dickie, “if we can’t live with black bears, how the heck are we going to learn to live with grizzlies? It’s one thing to have a black bear in your house, but it’s a whole different ball game to have a grizzly in your house.” And, outside of conflict-managed national parks, the record of people living next door to bears doesn’t augur well. Last year, a black bear mauled a woman in Vermont, just outside her front door, after her Shih Tzu chased its cub up a tree. She lived right by Green Mountain National Forest. “It’s easy for me to be mad at the bear,” her boyfriend told NBC News, after saving the woman by whacking the bear in the head with a heavy flashlight. “But we’re asking for it.” ♦

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