Aspen Princess: We need to protect the bears from ourselves, not us from them
The Aspen Princess
The other night my father-in-law was sleeping peacefully downstairs in (appropriately enough) our mother-in-law apartment when he heard a ruckus outside.
It was 2 o’clock in the morning, so his sleep-cloudy brain struggled to make sense of what was going on. He rubbed his eyes, fumbled for his glasses, and got out of bed to investigate. He opened the blinds and found himself face-to-snout with a black bear.
The bear had already torn the screens and crushed our gas grill like a soda can, leaving big, black prints from the grease on his paws. Ron rushed from room to room as the bear skulked around outside. Eventually, the bear wandered off, in search of more food and mischief.
After 17 years in the Roaring Fork Valley, I’ve had a lot of experience with bears. There was the time the bear smacked Allyn Harvey’s dog in the head outside the Red Brick. Once, Ryan heard a banging and opened the front door to find himself nose-to-nose with this giant, imposing creature. He let out a loud and very uncharacteristic scream, and slammed the door shut.
Black bears have become quite the attraction in Aspen in recent weeks, and not in a good way. A series of incidents involving bears attacking humans have garnered the attention of statewide media. A restaurant manager in downtown Aspen was bitten Sunday by a black bear he encountered in the alley by the trash bins and sustained puncture wounds to his leg. In July, a large black bear swatted a man in Aspen Meadows, tearing his clothes and injuring his arm. Back in May, a black bear bit a woman who was hiking on the Hunter Creek Trail.
These are the incidents where injuries occurred. Incidents involving bears trying to break into homes, turning over dumpsters, and showing no fear around people happen every single day in Aspen.
Needless to say, wildlife officials are worried. The bottom line is if people don’t start taking bear precautions seriously, someone is going to get seriously hurt or killed.
The first time I ever encountered a black bear I was 20 years old and on a 30-day wilderness course with the National Outdoor Leadership School. For privileged prep school kids from Connecticut, this was practically a rite of passage. Looking back, I was probably the last person on Earth who should have been sent off to camp and backpack for a month where there were no toilets, no running water, and everything you needed had to be carried on your back. I liked to sleep late. I was pretty lazy, and I was slow, like literally. I had a reputation for being late to class all through high school. In the “Senior Will and Testament” page of our yearbook where it predicts where the graduating class will be in 10 years it read, “Alison Berkley is still late.”
I won’t sugarcoat it: I hated my NOLS class. I got blisters on the first day that riddled me the entire trip. Unlike most people who feel a real sense of space and freedom in the outdoors, I felt claustrophobic knowing how much distance was between me and the nearest road. I got eaten alive by bugs. I almost got struck by lightning. Because of said lightning strike, I had a most unfortunate fall as I was doing my business in the woods and just happened to be perched above a steep ravine. I tumbled down that hill with my pants around my ankles as if god herself had reached out and pushed me. I was a spoiled little brat and probably deserved it. To make matters worse, everyone in my group hated me because I was the slowest one in the group and couldn’t read a map to save my life. Leadership, it turned out, was not my bag.
I also had an encounter with a black bear who traipsed around our campsite every morning for three days. We hung our food the way we were taught, between two trees. That bear climbed up that tree and swatted at the string until it broke. He scored a treasure trove of everything from peanut butter and millet to toothpaste. We were taught to stand on a rock with our arms over our heads or to stand close together, so we looked big to the bear, and to talk to him and sing and bang on pots and pans and make lots of noise, but without coming across as a threat.
“Hey Benny bear,” we chanted nervously, waving our arms around like a bunch of lunatics. “Hey boy, how you doing, bear?”
I thought of this the other night when I let the dogs out and was standing in the yard by myself wondering what I would do if our neighborhood bear just so happened to pay me a visit. It was the first time I can remember that I felt fear. In the past, it was pretty clear to me that the bear wanted nothing to do with us humans. Anytime I’d ever seen a bear it skittered off as soon as it was aware of our presence.
That’s not the case anymore. The more exposure the bears have to us, the less fear they have, the more dangerous they become. There are measures we can take to prevent this from happening: make sure your trash is secure. Make sure your house is secure. Make sure your gas grill is covered and cleaned after every use or put away where a bear can’t smell it.
As I stood there in the dark talking to this bear that my mind conjured up in the shadows, I realized I should not be afraid of bears. It is the bears who should be afraid of us.
We owe it to the bears to protect them from us, not the other way around.
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