By Dr. Kasandra Garner
When my husband and I moved back to Asheville almost two years ago, we were excited to see so many black bears in our neighborhood. I would run outside with my phone and snap pictures and video to post on social media whenever one ambled through the yard or down the road. It felt like nature was adapting to the increasing presence of people in the western North Carolina mountains. The bears were learning to coexist peaceably with the suburbs.
Fast forward to this past summer, and the bears no longer seem to be coexisting quite so peacefully. I have tried several methods of “bear proofing” my trash can, none of which has worked. I am tired of having to pick up trash strewn across my (and my neighbor’s) yard by a certain momma bear and her cubs. Several times it was my dogs who first discovered the ripped trash bags, leading to dietary indiscretions and gastrointestinal upset that - luckily - so far has been mild. But last week my dogs got into some rib bones thanks to the bears and I was worried for the next few days that I would be doing surgery on my own pets to remove the bones. (Again, luckily, they threw them up and/or passed them with no problems.)
I put the trash can in the shed. The bears broke off the door. My Dad reinforced the shed door and added a heavier bolt to the two that were already there. The bears somehow still got the door open. For now, the trash is in the garage but it makes the garage stink so I am going to add a lock to the shed door sometime this week and try the shed again. Keep in mind my shed is inside our fenced backyard. The bears have no respect for fences, unless they are electric.
A quick search of the internet shows that for a few hundred dollars, one can buy a bear proof garbage container. Unfortunately, Asheville City garbage trucks are designed for the city issued cans that are definitely NOT bear proof. Hardware stores do have locks that you can apply to the city garbage containers. As long as you remember to unlock them before putting them out on garbage pick up day these seem to work for some households. At my house, the momma bear that has been raiding our garbage seems pretty determined and I am afraid she would damage the garbage can trying to get the lock open. Bungee cords actually kept the bears out of our trash for a few months in the spring, but momma bear eventually figured out how to get them off.
I have read that sprinkling ammonia or pouring bleach on your garbage will mask the food smell. I don't want to do this because the chemicals could make the bears sick or cause permanent damage if they get the chemicals in their eyes. There are various bear repellent sprays sold in sporting goods stores, but most of these are for use if a bear is confronting a person directly and don’t work to keep them away from your property. You can reduce garbage odor by putting food waste in the freezer until trash pickup day.
When I am hiking in the back country I do carry pepper spray and an air horn, but so far I have never had to use it. Unlike the neighborhood bears, the bears in the back country stay clear of my dogs and me as long as we make plenty of noise so we don’t surprise them. Some hikers put bells on their backpacks and their dogs’ collars to let the bears know they are coming and give the bears plenty of time to get well away from the trail. When I am hiking and see signs that there are bears around, I usually just sing my favorite bluegrass and folk tunes at the top of my lungs.
In the back country, bears are more likely to avoid humans, but not so much in the suburbs. Several times when I have let the dogs out in my fenced back yard, the bears have been just on the other side of my fence. The dogs bark their heads off, but the bears don’t seem too intimidated and are in no hurry to move on. I have to bang metal food bowls together or blow my air horn to get them to go away. I have also watched the momma bear and her cubs clamber over my six foot privacy fence as easily as stepping over a baby gate. One memorable day a bear cub was up a tree at the edge of my property, and the dogs were barking and wouldn’t come to me. As soon as I got the dogs dragged inside by their collars, the momma bear came over the fence and helped her cub down, while three more cubs followed. I stood on the deck and watched them walk slowly across my back yard and climb back over the fence on the other side, all while my dogs were going nuts just inside the sliding glass door. That made me worry that the bears weren’t scared enough of my dogs. Now, in the early morning or late at night I yell “Hey bear! Hey bear” before I let the dogs out to warn any bears that might be in my backyard to get out. I have seen what happens when dogs and bears clash, and I don’t want it happening to my own dogs if I can avoid it. Black bears will protect themselves and their cubs if dogs or humans get too close, typically with a slap of their long and powerful claws.
If you want to keep the bears away from your house, you can’t have a bird feeder or a compost pile. Use electric fencing to keep them out of gardens or bee hives. Don’t feed any of your pets outside. Bears in some neighborhoods have learned how to open sliding glass doors and have gotten into unlocked cars, so make sure to lock your doors and don’t leave windows open. When the bears DO show up, scare them off with loud noises, because the worst thing you can do for bears is make them too comfortable around people. Although black bears rarely attack humans, it does occasionally happen. If we want to protect the bears and ourselves and our pets, we need to make sure bears keep their distance from our houses and our pets. As much as I enjoy watching the bears from the safety of my deck, I know that if I don’t take steps to warn them away from my yard it is only a matter of time before an unfortunate interaction between the bears and my dogs may occur.
So please, no matter how tempting, don’t feed the bears.
Don’t Feed the Bears
By Dr. Kasandra Garner