Column By John Murray

Two years ago, a mama bear and her three cubs were photographed romping and playing near a gift shop right across a country road where I live in Morris, Connecticut. The cubs were tiny, less than ten pounds each, and I was electrified that bears were living in the woods around my house.

During the next week the mother and cubs were spotted several times within a one-mile radius of my home, and I invested several hours trying to find and photograph them. Every time I stepped outside my house, which sits on a two-acre lot surrounded by hundreds of acres of farmland and meadows, I scanned the landscape for black bears. I was filled with anticipation and hope of an impending bear encounter.

The bears at the Bella Luna Gift Shop in Morris, CT. Photo by Dave Roberts

Sadly, just a week after the mother bear and her cubs appeared in the neighborhood, I awoke to a Facebook post announcing that some yahoo a mile south of where I live had shot and killed a female bear with cubs.

It’s illegal to shoot a black bear in Connecticut and state environmental officers launched an investigation. With their mother gunned down, the cubs were in trouble. They were still too small to fend for themselves, so I reached out to the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection (DEEP) to see if there was a way to trap and deliver them to a rehabilitation center.

I wrote a long e-mail, which got no response. I then repeatedly called until I eventually spoke to someone who told me that DEEP wasn’t going to intervene because the cubs were old enough to take care of themselves. It was best to leave them alone and let nature do its thing.

Shocked that DEEP was okay letting the cubs starve to death, I reached out to a state legislator on the Environmental Committee at the Capitol who placed a call to DEEP. He was told that a number of people had already called in about the cubs, and that there was nothing DEEP could do.

I’m certain those cubs perished, and I’m still angry about DEEP’s pathetic response.

Apparently, what we should have done was hold a press conference and demand action, because a similar scenario played out in Newtown, Connecticut a few weeks ago, and DEEP was forced to act.

On May 12th an off-duty police officer in Newton shot and killed a female bear with two cubs, and members of the public cried out for immediate intervention. DEEP again shrugged its collective shoulders and said the cubs were best left alone.

Annie Hornish, Connecticut state director of the Humane Society of the United States told the CT Examiner that, “DEEP twice-told neighbors to let nature take its course. That’s jargon for, ‘Let them die.”

Hornish and members of the Connecticut Wildlife Rehabilitators Association went into the woods to try and find the cubs. On May 15th, three days after their mother had been killed, the cubs were found in a tree. DEEP was contacted and they showed up five hours later and said they would monitor the situation.

The two orphaned bear cubs in Newtown, CT.

The co-chair of the State Legislature’s Animal Advocacy Caucus, State Rep. David Michel of Stamford entered the woods. Michel contacted a TV station and held a press conference in the woods, and he contacted Governor Ned Lamont’s Office and reached out to the DEEP Commissioner.

Eventually DEEP blinked and captured the cubs. They are now in New Hampshire at the Kilham Bear Center, but DEEP denies public pressure forced them into action. Will Healy is the spokesman for DEEP and he told the CT Examiner that wildlife biologists never said “let nature take its course” with the orphaned cubs.

Odd, that’s the exact words they told me two years ago when I was trying to help save three cubs in my neighborhood.

What can we make of the situation? Number one, it’s illegal to kill black bears in Connecticut. Despite growing pressure in the state legislature to allow a lottery-controlled bear hunt each year, a majority of elected officials and the general public are not in favor of it.

I have had black bears in my yard three times in the past decade, most recently two weeks ago. The bear climbed over a stone wall in my back yard, looked at me from about 60 feet away, and turned and ran 400 yards across a meadow and plunged into the brush.

A recent encounter in my yard led to an immediate bear retreat.

My daughter, Chelsea, lives two towns north on the edge of a vast state forest and she routinely spots bear all around her neighborhood. A massive male bruin strolled through their yard a few years ago and it completely ignored the family cat and a barking dog from 10 feet away. The bear was just passing through (and almost gave my daughter a heart attack).

My son-in-law has also had several close encounters with black bears; he came face to face with a mama bear and her cubs eating rabbit food in the mouth of the garage, he was with their dog Tashi when she treed a bear 25 feet from their house, and Michael was standing in the garage a few weeks ago when a bear jammed its snout through a cat door in the garage.

A few weeks after Chelsea and Michael brought their daughter Zoe into the world, we were all sitting in the backyard enjoying life, and we looked up and a young black bear was standing on the edge of a thicket looking directly at us. We scooped up the baby and the dog (who was oblivious) and headed inside. The bear had no interest in us, he was after the ripe apples laying on the ground next to the house. After we went inside he walked over to the apples and gorged himself.

This visitor interrupted our family event in Torrington, CT in September 2020.

Afterwards, I purchased cans of bear spray for Chelsea and Michael to take with them on their hikes through the neighborhood, but they prefer to carry a whistle, which everyone in the neighborhood uses to shoo the bears away.

Bears have been reported in 153 of 169 cities and towns in Connecticut and the highest concentration is in the state’s northwest corner in Litchfield County. Bears are in around the city of Waterbury, and I spotted one in the Riverside Cemetery last year while touring the historic site with Marty Begnal. Black bears are in Bucks Hill, East Mountain, Bunker Hill, Brooklyn, the Overlook and the South End.

Bears have entered cars with food left inside and have entered home each year in search of food. So far, no one has been attacked in Connecticut, but small farm animals (pigs and goats) have been snatched and eaten.

Connecticut is now bear country, and the bears aren’t going to change their behavior. Instead of shooting the bears, or hunting them to control the population, the best strategy is to adjust our behavior to not attract the bears near us in the first place.

Bears are naturally frightened of humans and in most situations will avoid making contact. What brings them towards us is food. Each Spring as the bears emerge from hibernation they raid bird feeders and garbage cans. Secure those items and bar encounters will be greatly diminished.

This large male black bear cruised across Route 63 in Morris and came directly towards me in May 2020. As soon as it spotted me it veered away and ran back into the forest.

The state has published bear guidelines:

• Never feed bears.

• Remove bird feeders and store them by late March, or even earlier during mild weather. Store the feeders until late fall and clean up spilled seed from the ground. Place unused birdseed in a spot that is not accessible to bears, such as a closed garage. Do not store birdseed in screened porches or sheds where bears will tear screens or break windows to reach the seed.

• Place garbage in secure, airtight containers inside a garage. Adding ammonia to trash cans and bags will reduce odors that attract bears. Periodically clean garbage cans with ammonia to reduce odors. Garbage should be placed at the curbside on the morning of collection and not the previous night.

• Keep barbecue grills clean and then store the grills inside a garage or shed.

•Watch dogs at all times when outside. Keep dogs on a short leash when walking and hiking because a bear might perceive a roaming dog to be a threat to its cubs.

• Do not leave pet food outdoors or feed your pets outside.