News flash: Screens do not keep black bears out

by Nicole Rivard

It’s September and that means predictable, fear-mongering headlines about black bears from the Connecticut news media.

In 2018: “Bear break-ins continue to climb, CT residents share their terrifying encounters.”

In 2019: “Black bear knocks hiker down in Southbury” (Actually when the hiker stepped back away from the animal, he fell down, according to the police report.)

In 2020: “Record numbers of bears entering Connecticut homes this year.”

Sigh. Those headlines don’t tell the whole story and that’s a disservice to humans and bears.

The truth is, black bears aren’t breaking down doors to harm you, your children or your pets like some scene out of a horror movie.

News flash: Bears are looking for food.

It’s a natural behavior for all wildlife. And as fall begins, black bears will increase their food intake to add fat reserves needed to help them survive the winter, when they typically fast and reduce their metabolism.

While the media wants to make it seem like the state’s black bears are getting bolder—the truth is efforts by people living near bears to apply bear awareness guidelines at home to avoid habituation are not bold enough.

If you live in bear habitat, screens don’t keep bears out. And screens and open doors and windows do not prevent these opportunistic feeders from smelling what’s on the menu at your house, what’s in your trash or what pet food or birdfeed your stocked up on.

Of the 43 black bear home break-ins reported by CT DEEP from April 1-Sept. 10, 2020, most were bears responding to the scent of a food attractant of one form or another, according to information Friends of Animals received through a Freedom of Information request. That means they could have been avoided by modifying human behavior.

Irresponsible human behavior is deadly for black bears—three were killed so far this year as a result of entering homes.

A snapshot of the reports

In Goshen, a bear pushed through a screen window and ate a portion of peach pie before the homeowner scared the bear back through the window.

In Cornwall, a bear went through a screen door of a pool house/guest house after someone cooked a breakfast that included bacon—the bear managed to help himself to some donuts and cookies before running out the door after seeing the homeowner.

In a Shelton condo complex, where most homeowners have birdfeeders, a bear got through a screen door and ate bird seed left nearby. There was also food on the grill outside the screen door.

In Canaan a bear pushed in a door to a closed-in porch where bee-hive cones were stored.

Also in Canaan, a bear pushed through a screen door next to a baking cabinet where the animal proceeded to indulge in chocolate chips, molasses and walnuts.

In Bloomfield a bear got into an enclosed porch where birdseed was stored.

In Salisbury, a bear entered a basement through a screen door and ate birdfeed and suet cakes that were in a plastic storage bin 10 feet inside the door.

There were also a handful of so-called home entries that weren’t technically break-ins at all—the black bears entered homes/garages because of doors and windows left wide open.

Bears follow their noses and always will, so again, it’s up to humans to modify their behavior. Remember Toucan Sam, the mascot with the catch-phrase, “Follow my nose. It always knows,” because he could smell Fruit Loops from great distances and invariably locate a concealed bowl of the cereal.

Well, bears’ sense of smell is keener than that. Actually, after perusing information about black bears on the websites of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service I learned that bears are commonly thought to have the keenest sense of smell in the animal kingdom.

If you hadn’t noticed, black bears’ noses are extremely large. The area inside a black bear’s nose, called the nasal mucosa, is 100 times greater than humans. It is estimated that black bears’ sense of smell is about seven times greater than a bloodhound’s, dogs so famous for their sense of smell that they’re used to track missing people.

Conservative estimates of a black bear’s sense of smell state that a black bear can smell a food source from over a mile away, while other sources claim a black bear can smell food from over two miles away. A personal account from “The Great Bear Almanac” describes a black bear in California traveling “upwind three miles in a straight line to reach the carcass of a dead deer.” More generous estimates place a black bear’s sense of smell between 18 and 20 miles.

Bear-proofing best practices

Public education is critical to reversing the trend of this year’s record number of black bears entering Connecticut homes.

It is encouraging to see the CT Dept. of Energy and Environmental protection is ramping up its public education efforts. It recently released the video “There’s No Free Lunch – Managing Food, Garbage, and Other Attractants” on YouTube and it offers a comprehensive Living with Bears section on its website.

Here are some best practices and tips for bear-proofing your house:

●Keep all bear-accessible windows closed and locked. If you must leave a downstairs window open, install sturdy grates or bars. Screens do not keep out bears.

●Don’t leave garage doors open. Install extra-sturdy doors if you have a freezer, refrigerator, pet food, bird seed or other attractants in your garage.

●Replace exterior lever-style door handles with good quality round door knobs that bears can’t push or pull open.

●Bears are great climbers—remove any tree limbs that might provide access to upper level decks and windows.

●Store garbage in secure, airtight containers inside a locked garage or storage area. Adding ammonia to cans and bags will reduce odors that attract bears.

●Periodically clean garbage cans with ammonia to reduce residual odor.

●Garbage for pickup should be put outside the morning of collection and not the night before.

●Bring in Bird feeders March through November

●Do not store leftover bird seed, suet cakes, recyclables or food of any kind in an unlocked garage, porch or screened sunroom as bears can smell these items and will rip screens to get at them.

For more tips on living peacefully with black bears, check out FoA’s How to Bear it in Black Bear Season brochure here.

One of the reports revealed a resident was adamant that the black bear that got into her basement through a screen door could not possibly smell the suet cakes in the plastic storage bin she had stored there, and she also refused to stop feeding birds.

Sigh. That’s just the type of attitude that is setting bears up to learn bad behaviors and get into trouble.

The truth is, some humans are simply unbearable.

Nicole Rivard is editor of Friends of Animal’s quarterly magazine Action Line. She brings 18 years of journalism experience to the front lines, protesting and documenting atrocities against animals.