The opportunist |

The opportunist

An orphaned bear cub peers down from a tree in the yard of an Aspen residence a few summers ago.
Art Burrows/courtesy photo |

Editor’s note: Aspen resident Art Burrows wrote this guest column regarding an experience he had with a bear at his house a few of summers ago. His intent is to inspire people to take precautions against a bear getting in their house.

It was about 3 a.m. I don’t really know why I heard it, as I am usually a sound sleeper.

Hearing the freezer drawer roll open and sensing a weak glow from the freezer light, I slid out of bed. My son Tullis sometimes had a nocturnal thirst, so I thought I would investigate.

I was still mostly unconscious and my eyes had that painful sensitivity to light and my eyelids were mostly glued shut as I forced them open to see better. I had no glasses on and with only my poor translucent vision I peered over the kitchen counter into the freezer light. What I saw about 4 feet away was a gentle, furry hump surveying a prized catch of frozen food.

As I peered toward the rather large silhouette, I could see he or she was big, probably a 300-pounder poised and ready to consume their catch. He (I’ll assume as the bear was really large) sat exploring a 20,000 calorie bounty of frozen steak, tater tots, ice cream, vegetables and blueberries. He must have been delighted by his find because the saliva was already drooling off his massive jowl and dripping on the floor — as I found out later when I stepped into the slime. My stomach was turning too but for different reasons. My mind was racing but my body very still. Sheeeeeeeit!

That year we had bears traveling through the yard every night in July and often during the day as the kids played in the backyard. We had a young orphan sleeping 20 feet up in the large 100-year-old spruce near Lilli’s and Tullis’ bedroom window. That sleeping bear was a rookie, not yet an expert at break-ins. The bear in the kitchen was a different bear. He was older, had a rap sheet of break-ins, was very big and very skilled at getting in houses, which meant he was essentially on death row for bears here in Colorado. That year black bears and Aspen were living together in a sort of patient accommodation of respect as we were in the second year of a drought, which featured another late freeze, killing most of the buds on the service berries and oak acorns that the bears usually depend on. The big bruins were literally starving and doing exactly what they are designed to do: Find food in time for a long winter. Their sense of smell is about 100 times better than a dog and 1,000 times better than ours, and they can find a steak, pie or sweet drink from hundreds of feet away (in case of a smelly grill, miles away). And now many of these bears had two years of practice finding food any way they could in town.

I was trying to be quiet, figure out a plan and not scare the bear. Pretty quickly he sensed me, the dinner intruder, and I was not about to become overtly aggressive. Be patient. Be nonaggressive.

I stood in limbo with my senses on high alert, trying to calmly survey how this potentially mismatched negotiation with a large adult bear was going to play out. He was maybe 300 pound versus my 160 pounds. He could run faster, had quicker reflexes and more power in one swipe of his arm than my strongest day on skis with my legs. This bear was a seasoned veteran of numerous break-ins and nurtured on frequent restaurant dumpster smash-and-grabs. I was, at that moment, feeling the mismatch. The bear had quietly, almost respectfully opened the screen door, then the stout wooden door to gain entry to his dinner bounty. He seemed to know exactly where the freezer was. He was a pro.

As soon as the bear sensed me to be very close, he became visibly irritated and methodically turned, getting more and more agitated as if to say, “WTF, I’m about to sit down for my 3 a.m. dinner and then you show up!”

He walked to the end of the counter toward the kids’ room passage and my instincts took over. I slowly countered his trajectory, hoping he would turn and exit quietly back out through the entry he came in from. He didn’t quite understand nor did he comply in any helpful manner. He was irritated and interpreted this as a possible confrontation or worse, competition for his dinner. The head went down (not a good sign), the air began to rush out of his massive lungs in a labored repeated hyperventilation and the jaws began to clap loudly. When the jaws start clapping you need to pay attention to it. Head down means a charge is imminent. My heart was pounding. I was hearing him loud and clear at this point and I gently backed up a few feet to show respect for the mismatch. A good time to yield.

This was potentially a very consequential chess game of biology and animal behavior, and at that moment I was really trying to play it right. The jaw clapping is a response from a bear when they are super irritated and feel threatened. If you ever hear that, back off quickly and gently. I immediately yielded back a few feet. I did hold my ground further away as the front door was locked behind me and he would not be able to exit there and the kids’ room was to my left with the door open.

The bear continued to vent out of its lungs but the jaw ceased clapping at this point. This was a slight improvement in the negotiation. It turned and went into the entry area still agitated. He was processing what to do next, irritated, it clapped its jaws a few more times, blew massive amounts of air out (it sounded like a freight train) and finally exited out the back door where it had found an entry a few minutes before. The motion sensor light went on and I caught a glimpse of the bear bounding over the white picket fence. He was already onto easier foraging in the neighborhood.

I locked all the doors, checked the windows (twice) and did not sleep a wink the rest of the night. I felt lucky. If a bear is starving and feels you are competing with his food supply things can go horribly wrong very quickly. In this case the bear seemed to be satisfied with looking elsewhere, another house, another restaurant dumpster or alley in town. Whew, that was close enough!

It had been a busy bear summer all season that required vigilance riding home in the dark along the river. Twice that summer I had almost bumped into bears foraging. Frequently on mornings I would have to pick up the remnants of trash from the neighbors as there were few bear-proof container options because of Aspen’s lack of dumpster and trash management during those years. It’s a better scenario this summer (so far), but try to be aware and help them be more successful getting food from their natural zone versus human sources in town by removing all food from cars and locking all doors and windows at night or if you are gone for a while.

I think 13 bears were euthanized that year. Most unnecessarily had we had better trash control options and better resident knowledge during those summers.

The bears are out and hungry this year. Make sure bears have an opportunity to dine out often but only in the woods on the same food they have been eating the last 12,000 years. Their life pretty much depends on it.


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