Should We Feed Bears?

2005-august-16-016-w.jpgI do not recommend people feed bears even though I do it as part of my research as seen on the Animal Planet TV documentary, "The Man Who Walks With Bears."  Feeding bears in residential areas can get bears killed because people's attitudes vary.  Some people enjoy feeding and seeing bears.  Others fear them and want them removed or killed.

Fear of bears is understandable given the barrage of misinformation about these animals.  The business of demonizing bears began centuries ago.  In the older folklore, dragons were cast as the villains in stories that play on our fear of the unknown.  A major theme of our folklore was man against nature, and dragons played the role of the dangerous beast to be conquered. Later, writers in Europe and North America cast bears and wolves in that role, playing on our primal fear of animals with pointed teeth. The stories were fiction, but real animals paid the price of the mischaracterizations.  In Europe and North America, bears and wolves were eliminated from much of their former range as people cleared forests, created farms, and went to extremes to eliminate any threat to themselves, their crops, and their livestock. 

The business of demonizing bears continues today with fearsome covers on outdoor magazines, unnatural snarls on museum mounts, and warnings written by attorneys worried about liability problems.  Black bears have killed only a handful of people across North America in all of history, but those accounts are told and retold until they mischaracterize this animal in many people's minds.

In recent decades, scientific studies of bears and other wildlife have produced solid information that has been disseminated via educational TV, magazines, and books.  This has given the public a broader knowledge and better appreciation of animals that were once only feared.  Bears are also benefiting from the fact that millions of acres of marginal farmland have been abandoned and are reverting to forest.  A more knowledgeable public is allowing black bears to repopulate those areas, some of which have not held bears for over a century.  This is happening despite the fact that many more people live in those areas today than when the bears were extirpated.  In many locations across America, people are again enjoying the sight of black bears, enabling these people to replace the demons of their imagination with the timid bears of reality.

Still, many people fear bears.  Seeing a bear where none have lived for decades prompts some people to call officials.  A problem is that some of the officials who handle those calls hold the same misconceptions as the callers and are afraid that if they do not kill or remove the bear they might be held responsible if the bear hurts someone or damages property.  Responses by officials vary somewhat by region. In some regions, shooting the bear is still the primary response to complaints.  In others, the primary response is information on how to reduce food attractants and live with bears.

People's food obviously can attract bears, especially when natural food is scarce.  Feeding bears can obviously create problems in campgrounds and densely residential areas.  However, most beliefs about bears and people and people's food are untested assumptions.  Scientific study of relations between bears and people, or people's food, is in its infancy despite the fundamental importance of this kind of information to human-bear management.  While many categorically believe that "A fed bear is a dead bear," there is a growing body of knowledge that in some situations, judiciously placed food can serve as a buffer against bear problems when natural food is scarce.  There is a need for more information to determine the situations in which feeding facilitates coexistence.  The Wildlife Research Institute (www.bearstudy.org) is currently studying this and other aspects of the bear-human interface.

At this time, we are recommending against feeding bears, especially against hand-feeding them.  Hand-feeding can lure a very hungry black bear closer to people than the bear feels comfortable.  Most of these bears will eat gently and timidly.  However, when the food runs out, a nervous bear may shift its attention to the person who now seems threateningly close.  At that point, some bears don't dare to turn their backs and leave and may defensively slap the person before turning and running away.  Injuries, if any, from these slaps are nothing close to the folklore that a bear can disembowel a cow with a swipe of the paw.  Slaps usually cause no more than welts where the claws scrape across the skin.  Black bear claws are strong for climbing trees but aren't sharp like a cat's for holding prey.  When bears get used to being hand-fed in a particular location, some may cautiously investigate people there.  Finding no food to trigger familiar hand-feeding routines, some bears become nervous about the proximity and give a quick bite.  These nips are not attacks and seldom break the skin, but they can hurt.  The same bears will run from people they encounter elsewhere.    

Black bears can learn many of our rules of coexistence, but learning our property laws sometimes requires special education called aversive conditioning.  That educational process is not yet available everywhere.  I recall a gentle bear that learned to open sliding glass doors that were left unlocked.  When it got inside and found people home, the timid bear calmly walked back out the door.  When people were gone, it emptied cupboards and refrigerators.  Food was scarce in the woods that year, and the bear probably figured this kind of supplemental foraging was okay-not that different from stealing acorns from squirrel middens.  The people of the neighborhood were familiar with bears, so they did not feel threatened, but the messes became tiresome, and they became worried after the bear brushed past a couple gas stoves and turned on the burners.  With 28 home entries reported, officers shot the bear.

However, some bears are killed unnecessarily when blustery behavior is mistaken as threatening behavior.  In my 36 years of close-up experience with bears, I have never seen a blustery bear attack.  Ferocious-looking body language and vocalizations are signs that bears are nervous and afraid.  Not surprisingly, then, bluster is followed by retreat, often up a tree, especially if the people aggressively come toward the bear.  In residential areas, crowds gather below.  Nervous bears express their apprehension by slapping the trunk and blowing sharply.  Although I have never found any report of a treed bear coming down and hurting anyone, such bears are often shot in the name of public safety rather than waiting for the neighborhood to calm down at night so the bear can come down and head for solitude. 

Where problems with bears and people are common, aversive conditioning can drastically reduce problems, especially if it is done in conjunction with efforts to make food unavailable where bears are unwelcome.  Aversive conditioning involves scaring bears so they learn to avoid people and certain locations.  An advantage of this for the people and the bears is that the bears can continue to live in the area and prevent uneducated bears from moving in.

People who are apprehensive about bears can carry pepper spray.  This is the harmless substance mail carriers use on dogs.  It comes in small containers that can fit into vest pockets.  It is as effective on bears as it is on dogs.  One squirt in the eye and the bear doesn't go away mad, it just goes away.  In hundreds of tests, I have never seen a bear become angry about being sprayed.  In fact, the next time I see a bear that I have sprayed, they usually run away if I just hold up my hand like I'm holding a can and say "SHHHH."  I have never HAD to spray a bear.  In fact, in my 36 years of working closely with bears, including capturing cubs in front of numerous mothers, I have never had a bear come after me and hurt me.

In areas where officials must deal with bear problems, there is a need for training in bear behavior and aversive conditioning techniques.  The Massachusetts Environmental Police are to be commended for holding a training session in bear vocalizations and body language led by the Wildlife Research Institute.  New Jersey, Yosemite National Park, and British Columbia have trained their officers in aversive conditioning.  People who deal with bear problems and people who want to know more about these misunderstood animals are encouraged to take the Wildlife Research Institute Black Bear Course.  It is an intensive course on black bear vocalizations and body language taught mostly by the bears themselves.  I am there to answer any questions based on my 38 years of close-up research.  For more information about the course, click on the "Black Bear Course" button.