On the frontlines with Nicole Rivard

One of my pet peeves is when Connecticut’s TV news stations share videos from residents of black bears playing near swing sets in their yards, snooping around in their garages or eating from bird feeders.

One video shared by an Avon resident recently shows a bear in a hammock in her backyard. She and her family members are watching from a window and are heard saying, “Oh my god, he’s so cute. Look, he’s making himself comfortable.”

While these videos may garner thousands of likes for the news station, they are sending the wrong message about what people should do when they see a bear to keep the animals and themselves safe. 

Humans should be making bears feel uncomfortable if they are lingering in their yard without harming them. The right thing to do—from a safe distance—is make loud noises, shout, bang pots and pans together, or use an air horn to scare the bear away.

Allowing them to feel welcome teaches bears it’s OK to approach homes and people. Bears are wild animals and will defend themselves if a person gets too close.

The news media is missing an opportunity to educate CT residents and anyone watching those videos on how to live responsibly with black bears. They should be saying that the footage shows what not to do when they post these videos.

Science shows preventing bears from losing their wariness of people depends on changing human behavior. In addition to scaring bears away if they are remaining in your yard, people need to stop baiting them with bird feeders, unsecured trash, pet food left outdoors, and chicken coops and beehives not surrounded by electric fencing. 

If you live where bears live, you should take down bird feeders from March-November and use a bear-resistant trash container. Do not use gasoline or ammonia in garbage cans to deter bears. If ammonia gets in their eyes it can injure them or cause blindness. Not to mention these tactics are also dangerous for the trash haulers.

It is especially critical in the fall, when bears are fattening up for the winter, not to lure bears with food attractants.

By fall bears are foraging up to 20 hours a day for calorie-packed nuts and seeds in a race against the clock. This annual power-eating marathon is called hyperphagia.

During hyperphagia, bears need to eat 10 times the calories they normally consume–that’s at least 20,000 calories a day. 

A pound of acorns has about 2,100 calories; a pound of blueberries, just 256 calories. It takes many hours of foraging each day for bears to find 20,000 calories’ worth of nuts and berries. But just one bird feeder full of black oil sunflower seed or one garbage container overflowing with leftovers can reward a bear with a day’s worth of calories for less than an hour’s work. 

That’s why human-provided foods can be even more tempting as winter closes in.

Of all the bear “conflict” reports in Connecticut from in 2022, 796 involved bird feeders; 1,234 involved trash cans, 146 involved livestock and 35 involved beehives. And most of the black bear home break-ins reported were bears responding to the scent of a food attractant, according to a Freedom of Information request. 

The details of these reports matter. Fear-mongering headlines about bears entering homes don’t tell the whole story, and that’s a disservice to bears and humans. People need to know that if they live where bears live, screened-in porches and open windows won’t prevent bears from smelling what’s on the menu at their house—they can smell food from more than two miles away. 

Keeping bear-accessible windows closed and locked will keep bears out. And if you must leave a downstairs window open, install sturdy grates or bars. People like doors with lever handles because they’re stylish and easy to open. Bears only care about the easy-to-open part. It’s important to keep doors locked or replace lever handles with sturdy round knobs. 

Some weird things can even attract bears. Formaldehyde smells like ants and bears love ants. So, anything insulated with a material made with formaldehyde, such as hot tub covers, bicycle and snowmobile seats, and refrigerators and freezers, may attract bears. Lantern and propane stove fuel, as well as citronella and scented candles, are also attractive to bears.

I’m writing about all of this because public education is critical in preventing the habituation of black bears. Animal advocates often unfairly get accused of not caring about humans. Nothing could be further from the truth.

When it comes to black bears in Connecticut and other states, wanting to protect them and the public is not mutually exclusive.