Bad news, bears: Home invasions lead to kill permit

Helen Hatzenbeler spied two visitors in her Redfields neighborhood in August.

Helen Hatzenbeler had the windows open and was standing on a ladder painting her living room in August when she looked down and saw two bear cubs looking at her. "What makes you scared is wondering, where's mama?" she says.

It wasn't the first time bears had visited her Redfields neighborhood– she'd found her bird feeder trashed in June. She snapped pictures of the cubs with her Blackberry and a few hours later, she was sitting in her family room when the mother bear walked onto her patio.

"I screamed," recounts Hatzenbeler. "When they're 10 feet away and glass is in between, you don't feel too safe. She's intimidating."

Hatzenbeler noticed one of the cubs was pulling the cover off her hot tub, and she opened her door to scare him away. "The mama took one, two, three steps toward me," says Hatzenbeler. "She puffed up like a cat does. Her head was huge and she was standing fully tall." Hatzenbeler quickly shut the door.

In Wintergreen, the bears were bolder. A bear that had learned how to operate a door latch entered John Claman's house one night in May. "We didn't hear a thing," he says. "The next morning, we found the freezer door open and food on the floor and in the driveway."

Marlene Condon tells how to build a bear-proof, bird-feeder pole in her book, The Nature-Friendly Garden.

That was one of about 30 home and car break-ins by a mother and two cubs whom Claman calls "nuisance bears."

"They came back the next day in broad daylight," he says. "I shooed them off." About a week later, they broke into his new Audi and did about $10,000 worth of damage. "There was no food or food wrappers in the car," he notes.

The feeding frenzy of the foragers resulted in a permit to shoot them out of season from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. "They started breaking into houses," says VDGIF spokeswoman Julia Dixon. "That's pretty brazen behavior."

Bears are "opportunistic eaters who never forget where they get a meal," she says. "They can do a lot of damage, plus it was a public safety issue if people were there."

The state game department didn't give Wintergreen carte blanche to fire on bears. "We wanted to make sure we had the nuisance bears," explains Dixon. "They could only be killed if they were in a home or car."

Nature writer Marlene Condon objects to killing bears to control their behavior, and she puts the blame squarely on the humans living in bear territory. "Were they cooking food and had the windows open?" she asks. "Typically you're not going to have bears unless you cook with the windows open." And don't leave food wrappers in the car, she adds.

"People have got to learn how to coexist with wildlife," says Condon, a White Hall resident and author of The Nature-Friendly Garden. "I've lived here for almost 23 years and I don't have these problems."

Condon has spotted a mother and two cubs in her yard, trying to get to her bird feeder that's deterred bears for 10 years. "The cubs were trying to get to the feeder, but the mother was scavenging for seed on the ground, which told me she'd been there before," she says.

Humans need to clean up their acts so that it isn't necessary to hunt bears out of season, believes Condon. "It's very sad," she says. "The human population is out of control. If bears are not in yards, where are they going to be?"

The game department worked closely with Wintergreen, where dumpsters are kept closed and homeowners are cautioned not to leave garbage cans or dog food outside, and to be aware that the scent of bird feeders and outdoor grills can draw the giant mammals looking for tasty snacks.

"We've asked property owners not to put out bird feeders between May and October," says Claman. According to the game department, bird feeders could be considered "baiting," which is illegal.

Considered big game in Virginia, hunters can "harvest one a year," says the VDGIF's Dixon. Regular bear firearms-hunting season begins November 24 and runs through January 3 in Albemarle and surrounding counties. Last year, 78 bears ran into accurate hunters in Albemarle, and 59 were killed in Nelson.

Wintergreen has another permit for out-of-season hunting, this one for deer. "We've been trying to minimize the herd size here the past five-six years," says Russell Otis, executive director of the property owners association. One thousand have been hunted and 15,000 pounds of deer meat donated to Hunters for the Hungry, he says.

"I think a sustainable density is 20 per square mile," says Otis. "Stoney Creek has 100 per square mile. In that area, there are more than when we started."

Condon agrees that there are too many deer. "That is what happens when we don't coexist with predators. We used to have cougars and wolves. Both of those controlled deer population."

Virginia is in the top 10 states where it's most likely deer and auto will collide. State Farm Insurance estimates that 54,000 drivers in the state hit deer the last half of 2007 and first half of 2008.

Besides the dangers of people in their cars hitting deer, the ravenous herds impact the habitat for other animals, says Condon. "You really do have to have hunters to control the population."

The experts' advice for November: Watch out for deer and don't feed the bears.


Its unfortunate that these animals are forced out of their natural habitat and yet they are called "nuisance" because they don't understand the greed and diregard of humans. Poor bears.

I live out here past White Hall and I saw about 5-6 bears this summer, up close and personal. They didn't want to mess with me anymore than I wanted to mess with them. They were here first people, and there's no reason to kill them out of fear. I also have small kids that like to hike - but the hunters bait here (illegal) on my property - get off my property with your guns!

There's nothing more ridiculous than the moral outrage some people exhibit when animals come in their yard. "Oh my gawd, the bear touched my hot tub!!!" Like the critters are personally targeting them or something. Get a clue, city slickers.

I don't know. them Bears are getting smarter every year. one of my friends up in PA said a black bear brandished a fire arm when he went out to scare it off his property, If i recall correctly he said the large omnivore was carrying a USG 5.7MMx28MM w/Tactical Rail.

But thanks to Obama, we won't be having these issues in the future, what with the animals aqcuiring weapons with armor piercing capabilities...

In all seriousness though, if a bear shows up on my property and tries to get MY FOOD, i'm blasting shots. Never had bear meat before...

Armchair QB, your tongue in cheek is a little off color (no pun intended) With that gun ho attitude just make sure that it's a real black bear your shooting.

Give the Blue Ridge back to the bears. They were there first and would maintain it better.

It's so unfair to blame bears for mankind's obvious mistakes. Just because the bears come into your home, which is in their backyard, doesn't give you the right to "arm" yourself and kill them.
These animals have as much right to live here as we do. To kill a bear guilty of causing a little damage isn't right. As long as no one is injured or killed, the bears should be left alone.
When in the situation of them coming into your home, just stay calm and use the common sense of getting to a secure place where the bear can't hurt you. Come on people, if you live out in the mountains or the wilderness you have to think about the natural wildlife that was there first!
And I totally agree with Incredulous; the bears aren't "targeting" your expensive homes and cars because they look "damageable", they get to your things for the thought of them getting food.

78 Bears killed by hunters in one county seems like an awful lot. Does anyone know how many bears are estimated to live in Albemarle County?

Did anyone consider relocating the Mama bear and 2 cubs? I would love to be able to observe these animals in the wild. You only need a gun for protection of your life. Leave the animals alone. They will be extinct soon enough anyway the way humans are going.

A good way to keep bears away is to throw out a handful of black cat firecrackers without them kowing it was human doing it. They will associate it with the house and never come back.

As far as all of the bear huggers out there if we were talking about an invasion of copperheads I'll bet the conversation would be different. The deer population in Virginia is 50% higher than 200 years ago. Growth actually protects them from predators because they can come close to development where wolves and cougars cannot.

Yogi, I think everyone seems to agree that the deer population is excessive due to lack of predation. I haven't seen the same argument about bears.

Miss G,

I think you took my comment a little too serious. I was making fun the whole "bear vs. man" situation.

I'm a bit puzzled to why you would call defending my home against a dangerous animal 3 times bigger then me that thinks it's ok to walk in my house and take MY FOOD - gun ho. I think the proper term would be "sane".

thanks in advance ; )

Armchair, I agree why would the hunters, who you call "animals", need armor piercing bullets? The cubs in the pic didnt seem to have anything but fur on. And the last time I saw Bambi she was buck naked.

The hippies have struck again. Sounds like it is time to eat more bear.

I am more interested in the train article than the problems associated with people who want to live in the country but their romantic ideas censure the reality of living in the country. if you like denial then move to egypt. there are bears in the woods. get over it and move back to NJ. and let us alone.

Old Crow,

I was still talking about bears when I said, "But thanks to Obama, we won’t be having these issues in the future, what with the animals aqcuiring weapons with armor piercing capabilities". It was all an exagguration of the situation.

And don't get me wrong, I love bears as much as the next bloke and would respect them if I ran into one in the wild or at a friends house drinking a beer, but all bets are off when they threaten my food and family. I'll go all "gun ho" on them as Miss G stated before. I would eat their livers with a can of fava beans and a bottle of chianti.