Let’s get straight to the point: The in-town human problem is escalating. Once a refuge of unguarded opportunity cans and old ladies handing out cat food, Asheville is quickly becoming a haven for humans on Segways, locked dumpsters and other inconveniences for bears.
In areas like North Asheville, humans have displayed increasingly erratic and aggressive behavior toward their furry neighbors, openly deriding them in local media outlets. (See “Letter: Sounding the alarm about town bears,” Aug. 6, 2018, Xpress)
As the growing human population continues to expand into nearby bear habitats, it’s important to understand the bear necessities of coexisting with this strange breed of land monkey.
Xpress reached out to the nonprofit, HumanSmart, for some insight into the issue from an Ursidae perspective. Human studies expert Dr. BrenDa Bears was kind enough to share some tips on how to be smarter than the average hominid.
(Editor’s note: This conversation has been translated from Bear-wegian to English for publication purposes.)
Xpress: Do we really have a human population issue in Asheville, or is that a lot of bluster?
BrenDa Bears: I don’t know that I’d call it an issue, but it’s certainly a topic of conversation around the beehive. A big part of the problem is public perception: Popular depictions of human-bear interactions — such as Goldilocks, Yogi and The Revenant — perpetuate negative stereotypes.
Many of the bears moving to Asheville these days have never really lived around humans before and may not know how to react properly to avoid violent confrontations.
While our side-eared neighbors may seem amusing, thinking of them as cute, furless pets that can’t regulate their body temperature in cold weather, rather than the wild animals they are, encourages improper behavior. When humans lose their fear of bears, they create a nuisance for other bears in the neighborhood.
Can you give an example of some of these “bad” behaviors?
Well, taking food from humans is a big one. Humans learn to beg for attention quite quickly, and bears who indulge them are encouraging that behavior. Soon enough, you have humans chasing resident bears around with those goofy squares of plastic they’re always staring at or trying to lure our cubs into their homes.
Opportunity cans and seed dispensers are another source of tension. Human wastefulness of perfectly good garbage is well-documented, but they’re inexplicably protective over the things they throw away, going so far as to devise “bear-proof trash cans.” While that might seem like a cute, pointless endeavor to us bears, it’s another unsettling sign that the human population is stressed and agitated.
As for the dispensers, I’ve noticed a clear pro-bird, anti-bear sentiment in the animals humans are willing to give their seeds to. We’re currently working with the National Association for the Advancement of Gray Squirrels to formulate a response to such unconscious bias and systemic favoritism.
Until Doggie Baggers offers a vege-bearian option (see “Birds of a Feather”), garbage day will continue to be a popular source of affordable foodstuffs. But we strongly advise that bears use discretion around human refuse, lest they be on the receiving end of a cold blast from a garden hose.
What is the danger in increased bear-human interactions? Can’t we all just get along?
While humans themselves don’t normally pose a threat, their habits and habitats can be hazardous to inexperienced bears.
Humans are increasingly speeding through densely populated forests in cars, maiming and killing pedestrians, yet we bears aren’t permitted to drive outside of a circus setting. Medical experts have seen growing numbers of cases of indigestion, honey-lovers disease, and “soap mouth” related to the consumption of “human things that smell like food,” according to BEAR (Bear Emergency Action Retinue).
Worst of all is the human fondness for house-wolves. As more people move to the outskirts of the city, we’re dealing with more canine-related incidents. Besides being loud and annoying, house-wolves can cause serious injury.
What advice do you have for bears who encounter a human?
The most important thing is not to panic. Remember that most humans are just as scared of you as you are of them. Ninety percent of the time, they’ll run away. Try to resist the urge to chase them.
Use caution when approaching opportunity cans or seed dispensers. Choose times in the late evening or early morning, when you’re least likely to encounter a human. Don’t frequent the same cans too often and don’t leave your food scattered about after a meal.
If you do come across a human, be a Gentle Ben: speak softly and play small. Humans like to pretend that they’re bigger and scarier than they actually are. Indulging them in this illusion seems to ameliorate them and can help avoid a confrontation. But if a human has a murder stick, run. Fast.
What can Asheville bears do in the long term to limit harmful human interactions and protect bear and human populations?
There are a variety of ways to get involved: We’re always looking for volunteers to help with human rehabilitation, educational programs for cubs and our network of “people watchers,” who help us collect data to better understand our human neighbors.
On a policy level, you can attend local planning board meetings to advocate for smarter development practices that protect bears and humans. If 50 bears showed up to voice their concerns, I bet the board members would listen.
Should bears be afraid of humans?
On an individual level, no. As a species….well, let’s just say Planet of the Apes can offer our species some fine ideas.
For more information on Asheville’s human population, visit mountainx.com.