by Dustin Rhodes, Vice President of Development

Last week, as I was walking my dogs during my lunch hour, we made a sharp left at the end of my street onto a busier thoroughfare with lots of houses, trees, cars and people and we promptly ran into a black bear. This was not unusual—although I had never seen a bear on this particular street before—but I was still startled. The bear ran quickly in the opposite direction upon seeing us, disappearing into a ravine.

Last summer, while on a hiking trail about 10 miles from my house, I encountered a bear and three cubs. Pepe, my overconfident chihuahua, decided that he would protect us by charging the bear. The cubs, seeing a five- pound ball of ginger fur barreling toward them, climbed a tree. But momma bear was irritated and charged toward us, which admittedly took 10 years off my life.

But I didn’t call animal control. And it would be rare for anyone who lives in Asheville, North Carolina, to do so. This community understands that we live in black bear habitat not vice versa, and it is up to humans to modify their behavior to prevent conflict. Asheville is home to an estimated 9,000 black bears. It is the largest city in Western North Carolina with a population of close to 100,000 people, so of course encounters with black bears are likely.

What sets Asheville’s attitude about black bears apart from other municipalities that might have fewer bears but more so-called “conflicts” is our cultural carrying capacity—the maximum number of bears humans will tolerate in a certain area. People in this town really like and respect black bears and appreciate their ecological role. That’s why, for the most part, people do all the things you’re supposed to do to live safely with bears without complaining about them.

And that’s what keeps bears and humans safe. Scientific studies show there is a weak correlation between the population of bears and bear attacks. Bear-human conflict is more closely correlated with human behavior, according to The Journal of Wildlife Management. Indeed, some states with large black bear populations have fewer conflicts than states with much smaller bear numbers, a study by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies called “Human Black Bear Conflicts” found. For example, Connecticut, which has approximately 400 adult bears according to a 2014 study, reported about the same amount of bear-human conflict as Arkansas, which has 4,000-5,000 bear. California, which has 35,000 bears, reported just 259 conflicts.

In many communities, black bears are seen as nuisances and even dangerous even though biologists describe them as shy and not wanting to have anything to do with humans. People think bears should adapt to living among humans—not vice versa. To me, this is an insane idea—one that we animal advocates must confront, even within ourselves; maybe most especially within ourselves.

We live in a perilous and simultaneously hopeful time—not just because of the pandemic, but the looming climate crisis. However, it’s empowering to know that collectively, if we focus on how we can lessen our impact on the environment, we can make a difference. We need to reduce our use of fossil fuels, protect forests and curb human overpopulation across the globe.

And we need to improve our relationship with wildlife such as black bears. We need to acknowledge that there must be room for all of us, because they are an important part of a healthy ecosystem, which we all need to thrive. That black bears have returned after being wiped out in the early 1900s is a positive thing.

I used to get excited when I saw bears wandering my neighborhood—thinking to myself, “How lucky am I to live among such fascinating animals, in such close proximity.” But now, I can’t help but see how overdeveloped my town is, how tourism and our desirable climate has created another monster that is eating up everything that is beautiful about this neck of the woods.

Forests are being replaced by parking lots, tacky oversized houses, strip malls, wastelands of consumption and cheap thrills. When I see a bear now, I think: “Humans have gone astray; I shouldn’t see a bear meandering down Florida Avenue in the middle of the day.”

Bears are here to stay. And we need to be mindful of the ways we live to keep them and ourselves safe—because it’s the least we can do. Friends of Animals’ work has always focused on co-existence, respect, the right of bears and other animals to live free from our management and self-absorption.

If you have bears in your community, please follow the tips below (for starters don’t act like an uppity chihuahua who thinks he’s 500 pounds instead of five!).And consider yourself fortunate. Several species in the United States are disappearing. Last month, federal wildlife officials announced that 22 animals and one plant have been declared extinct. Globally, around 902 species have been documented as extinct and roughly one million more are threatened with extinction in the coming decades.

Bears are breath-taking animals, whom I never tire of seeing. From a safe distance of course.

  • Secure trash inside bear-proof trash can cans stored in a garage, basement or other secure area.
  • Place bear-proof trash cans outside, as late as possible, on trash pick-up days — not the night before.
  • If you live near bears remove bird feeders and hummingbird feeders from March-November. Bird feeders may be used if the feed is not desirable to bears—that includes thistle ad nyjer. You can still attract birds with birdbaths and plants.
  • Avoid “free-feeding” pets outdoors. Do not leave pet foods out overnight. If you must feed pets outdoors, make sure all food is consumed and empty bowls are removed.
  • Clean all food and grease from barbecue grill after each use. Bears are attracted to food odors and may investigate.
  • Sprinkling ammonia or other strong disinfectants on garbage can mask the odor of food.
  • Frighten the bear. Shouting, clapping, blasting a car horn or motion-sensitive lights may scare off a bear temporarily.
  • Leave the bear alone. Crowds of people can unnerve a bear, causing it to act unpredictably. The crowd should disperse and allow the bear to move on undisturbed.
  • Talk to your neighbors. Make sure your neighbors and community are aware of ways to prevent bear conflicts.