I went to bed completely exhausted the Wednesday night of June 1 with the kitchen in a mess. Thursday morning I stumbled to the kitchen, groggily hoping the coffee David made hours earlier before leaving on a work related trip to Virginia was still hot. Still sleep deprived, I noticed the olive oil bottle lying on it’s side. Exhausted or not, I don’t leave bottles side lying. Ever. I thought maybe David knocked it over in the pre-dawn hours but that wouldn’t be like him either.
As I got closer, I realized that not only was my mess still on the counter, there were wet clumps of cut grass and bits of watermelon rind there, too. Then I noticed the window sill was FILTHY. Coffee forgotten and wide awake, I picked up the olive oil bottle. Dirty. Scratched label.
I saw the watermelon had rolled forward from where it had been at the back of the counter, thankfully rolling against a random fork as opposed to falling to the floor and splitting. When I returned it to a safer spot at the back of the counter I noticed it had claw marks.
I stepped outside to see the screen and saw paw marks that reached above my head next to the window.
Seriously alarmed, I circled the house. Sure enough, two windows in the living room had ripped screens from bear claws.
So there I was. 34 weeks pregnant. Three kids. And a husband five hours out of town. Why do our crazy things always happen on the days when he is so far away? He offered to call the DNR and I declined. I was going to play my pregnant with three kids card well and I meant business. I had absolutely zero interest in walking out the hallway some morning to find a bear in my living room, thank you very much.
The bear had been bothering us some over the past few weeks. He bent a two inch metal pole, stripped the metal screws out of the back of the bird house and consumed the poor baby bluebirds. He knocked the hummingbird feeder down and while I was gone one evening telling tales about him, he walked the entire way around the deck and dumped the planter on the far corner before dragging it out into the yard. I was mad at him then, but this was way, way too far. If people go to jail for breaking and entering, this bear needed to be shot.
I called the DNR office and first left a message with the “invasive species” department before realizing I really should have transferred myself to the “nuisance animal” department. I called back and got an answer. The drama worked. She took notes as I was talking, “How far along did you say you are? I’m putting out an emergency call to your area. You should get a call soon.”
I cleaned up the messy kitchen except for all the bear souvenirs and before I’d even finished got the call I was looking for.
“We’re bringing out a trap today and should be there soon after lunch.”
From there, things played out like clockwork. Sometimes they set a trap and nothing happens. Sometimes they set a trap and get a bear a week later. And sometimes they set a trap and get a bear right away. I was super impressed with the warden who came out. He was so patient with the boys and showed them exactly how the trap worked. The plan was to fill the trap with donuts and molasses and then “process” him if he get caught. He’d get pepper sprayed, shot at with rubber pellets, and hopefully figure out that people and houses are not enjoyable. He also confirmed that my bear death threats wouldn’t land me in jail because it would be considered protecting my family.
That afternoon my friend, Anita, arrived for five days. It was the normal hullabaloo of heading out to baseball only this time we got soaked in the rain. She helped me finish putting strawberries in the freezer when we got home and once again we cleaned up the messy kitchen before heading out to the front porch to enjoy our strawberries and ice cream to the sound of the whippoorwill. It was 9:45 and our conversation turned to the bear. What would we do if we suddenly saw an even blacker shadow emerge from the darkness? I was a bit nervous because the rain would certainly muffle any sound of his shuffling. Anita was still damp from the ball game and feeling cold so we opted to head inside. (Ok, ok, we were also a little bit nervous.)
I headed downstairs to tuck the boys into bed and, as I hugged Liam, noticed a flash of lightning. Do you guys want the curtains open so you can watch the lightning? Oh, yes, they did. I flung the left panel to the side and instantly saw a huge, round shadow lumbering between the clothesline and the house … not fifteen feet from where I stood inside the door. “I think I saw the bear,” I said, then immediately crossed it off as fear induced imagination. You can see a lot of things when you’re scared. Still, I checked the other window just to make sure and watched as that big black shadow lumbered straight up to the trap and walked in front of it. The boys yelled upstairs to alert David while I ran to yell through the bathroom door to Anita. By the time I got back to the window David had turned on a floodlight to the yard. I started to yell, “don’t scare him away,” when Liam said, “The trap door is closed!”
We dashed upstairs and out and instantly heard an angry commotion coming from inside the cage. And oh, let the adrenaline rush begin. He was thumping angrily inside the cage, shaking it, rattling it, throwing himself against the sides. I couldn’t stop smiling. Finally, it was HIS turn to get the short end of the stick and I told him so gleefully. Going to bed was a different story. About the time I thought I could settle down, I’d hear the cage start back up. He rattled metal that started to sound like the door and I was petrified he was smart enough to figure out how to open it and get away. I mean what bear wouldn’t love that. Donuts and molasses and no punishment. I kept waiting on him to growl and he never did. Did you know black bears don’t growl? They snort and clack their teeth and sometimes they whine. We only think they growl because of Disney!
(shhh! Yes, we opened the trap door to get a picture of him! And no, we didn’t stick our fingers in the cage.)
By 7 the next morning the bear was the attention of the neighborhood. I called the warden on his personal cell phone and he never even said hello. Instead he greeted me with, “Hi Michelle.” We weren’t the only ones excited. They only catch about three bears per year so it was a big day for everyone! He was so generous about letting camp come over to watch and learn. Seriously, I was completely amazed! I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to hear them say they don’t want to deal with a crowd, it’s not safe, yada yada and I would have totally respected that. Instead Rande said sure and spent an enormous amount of time educating us on how bears get habituated, what is “acceptable” bear behavior (in their book, not mine!), and what happens when they cross a line like this one did. It was so impressive. Kids are always teachable, but at an extraordinary moment like this, they soak in and remember so much! One of our campers from the city decided he wants to work for the DNR because of the presentation and education!
After he explained everything, the bear got put to sleep while our crowd of nearly sixty headed to the other end of the yard. He estimated he might weigh 300 lbs and it’s impossible to know exactly how a bear will metabolize the meds. But it’s a given that if he’s worked up from the noise it’s going to be harder to put him to sleep.
Once he was truly sedated, they dragged him out of his cage and let everyone circle up around him. We guessed his weight and then a few of the campers got to don gloves and help to weigh and measure him. He was HUGE! An average neck circumference is 25 inches. This guy was 29.5! And not only did he reach the estimated 300 lbs, his actual weight was 348!!! His paw was 5.5 inches across and he measured about 72 inches long. He was truly a big, big very naughty boy.
They medicated his eyes and wrapped them with a cloth since the sedation would keep him from blinking, pulled a tooth to check his age, took a hair sample to document his DNA and then tagged his ear so they’d recognize him if he caused trouble again. Because three strikes you’re out. I may or may not have silently told Mr. Bear he wouldn’t get another chance at our house. I was going to learn how to load a gun if I saw him in our yard again. If you are a bear, you don’t mess with my kitchen windows or food sources inside the house and you don’t make me nervous about having kids in the yard without repercussion.
And then everyone got in a line and had a quick turn touching him and posing for a picture. The bear’s respirations were getting less shallow and it was time to get him back in his cage. Which also meant it was time for the crowd to leave because the next part should go like clockwork, but it was unpredictable.
What happened next was supposed to be the dramatic part of the day and actually turned out to be way shorter and sweeter (for the bear) than I expected. The remnant of us hung out around his cage and he was given meds to help him wake up. Once he was truly awake, he got poked at to make sure he was good and awake. He really wasn’t happy. His ear was hurting. His mouth was hurting. He was probably kind of confused if I don’t miss my guess because drugs do that. And then he said all children and unborn children had to go inside. Bummer! David was allowed to stay at his own risk and was planning to get a video of what happened next so we could show everyone at camp since they had to leave. In the excitement, he pushed the wrong button and got nothing!
I dutifully went inside and watched them spray the bear with pepper spray through the window. As soon as the pepper spray was done I sneaked out to the deck to get pictures but I was too late. What I thought would take two minutes took less than ten seconds. They lined up on either side and on top of the trap with “slammers” (rubber pellets and koosh balls) and “bangers” (fireworks that got shot over his head) and then opened the door. By the time I got out and got my camera to focus, the bear was at the edge of the woods! Interestingly, they’d turned the trap away from the house before releasing it and he still emerged and ran straight down through our back yard the way he’d come. Clearly he is way too familiar with the territory!
Did it work? You decide. We haven’t seen him since. But that very night he showed up in the neighbor’s yard about 1/2 mile from our house. They saw him every night for a few nights after that. He’s definitely not afraid of people and houses, just our house.
Less than two weeks later, we saw a black bear at the edge of our yard eating watermelon rind we’d thrown out. We’ve been keeping the trash barrel in the garage ever since the bear trouble started in April and most of our food scraps go in there. But watermelon rind is heavy and messy so we threw it outside. Our mouths dropped open as we stood on the deck and watched him eat. It wasn’t the same bear. No yellow tag. He didn’t look quite as big. And he had a bit more brown on his snout. Still! How did we suddenly have two bears in such close proximity! And this one wasn’t nearly as scared of us, coming out in broad daylight instead of watching our movements and coming when we were inside or gone.
Around 7 that evening I sent Liam out with a bowl of lemon rinds to dump. In typical Liam fashion he didn’t just take them. He ran. He was past the playhouse in the backyard when he suddenly realized the bear was back for more and they were within fifteen feet of each other! His trip back up the hill to the front porch was on wings as he gasped, “the bear is back.” I grabbed my camera and this time David and the kids walked around the outside to the back deck to avoid the very squeaky patio door. I walked through the yard, determined to get a good picture since he was so fearless. I snapped, walked closer, snapped. When he lifted his head I went motionless. Sure enough, he put his head back down for another bite of juicy watermelon rind. I sneaked just past the garage and snapped another picture as he lifted his head. I don’t know if he smelled me or heard the shutter click, but he decided that was enough and turned to amble off.
I realize it’s only June, but I’m quite sure this is likely to be one of my favorite shots of 2016.
Meanwhile, I’m quite fine with the fact that he hasn’t shown up again.
I’ll be even more fine if the almost seven foot black snake on our front porch the following Wednesday NEVER slithers within my sight again.
Wildlife is cool. But not on my porch and not in my kitchen.