When Dr. Gary Alt's answered his telephone at his California home not long ago, a woman shrieked "He's going to kill me, I know he's going to kill me!" Thinking this call had gotten mixed up with one that should have been directed to 911, he tried to calm the obviously elderly, frightened woman. Eventually Alt got the whole story.
She'd been tending to her supper on the stove when the doorbell rang. Before she could get to the door, the bell rang again.
Quickly she pulled the door open and came face to face with a standing black bear. It turns out that the vent on her kitchen stove was above the door and this bear, as all bears always are, are attracted to tempting smells so every time it stood up to get a whiff of the wonderful aromas wafting from the vent, its paw would hit the doorbell.
Photo for the Mirror by Gary Alt
Pennsylvania motorists are often confronted with a scene like this one, a mother bear leading her cubs over a road.
Alt, who 30 years ago was in charge of the black bear restoration program for Pennsylvania while working for the Game Commission told this amusing story while being interviewed on The NPR Program out of Boston with Robin Young as host. Young asked Alt what was the strangest thing that happened while he was a bear biologist. Alt wears many hats now; one is that he is principle scientist for the environmental consulting firm Normandeau Associates in Southeastern Pennsylvania.
Alt related on the program things that most outdoor Pennsylvanians already knew, things that folks not acquainted with black bears do not know and are astounded to hear. The fact most fascinating is that bears are very adaptable to people and civilization and human environments. They often den for the winter and have cubs under people's porches or houses and most of the time, the residents are not even aware of it.
While people in Pennsylvania are accustomed to bears in the fringes of "their" territory, people who have never lived around bears are becoming frightened as bears expand their ranges and begin to move into areas where they never have lived before. Such is happening in many areas, and the Boston area is one of them.
"Black bears are a more defensive animal than an aggressive one," Alt told Robin Young. "They always try to avoid trouble if they can. In the United States, About three people are killed by bears each year. Two of those fatalities are from Grizzlies and one from a Black.
"In 1974, when I began a bear research study in Pennsylvania there were about 300 bears in the whole state. Today there are more than 20,000. The problem with having black bears is really a social dilemma more than a management problem. The big question really is not how many bears can live in our forests but rather how many bears will we allow to live in our environs," Alt explained.
As we know, through the decades bear populations have been regulated by hunting seasons. Lately it seems the regulations change every year however.
Alt cautioned the listeners to understand that a bear's mission every day is to pack in as many calories as he can get. He is drawn quickly to any source of food he stumbles across.
"If you are having a problem with bears," Alt said, "think of it from their point of view. You can't let bird feeders, Fido's dish, or an outdoor grill fragrant from last night's steak dinner in the backyard overnight and think a bear won't find it. He doesn't know it doesn't belong to him. So take everything inside at night and if you live in a rural area, don't keep the screen door open because he will walk right through it."
July and August are the prime breeding months for bears so they are more active than usual. When a sow bear is ready to breed again, and she has cubs that are 18 to 30 months old, she will mercilessly chase them away. They are no longer welcome so they have to go off and search for another place to establish their territory. These are the bears that inadvertently wander into town and walk down Main Street.
They are not looking for anyone to devour or any trouble to get into; they are desperately trying to find somewhere to call home. But as soon as someone spots a bear, the alarm goes out and people gather quickly and the frightened bear does what his mother taught him - he races up a tree where his enemies cannot reach him.
If folks would just let him go his way and not foster a lot of commotion, the bear would soon head off to the woods. But these encounters usually end with wildlife professionals having to come and tranquilize the poor beast while anywhere from 100 to 400 people are watching and TV crews shoot footage for the 11 p.m. news and transport him to some safer environment in the woods.
Or maybe that's just a lazy bear's easy way to find a new home.
Next week, what happened to Gary Alt when he thought he'd track down a bear?