There’s an old saying... a fed bear is a dead bear. Saturday’s outcome reflects this. So how do we prevent this scenario from repeating?
Written by Tish Gailmard, Director of Wildlife
By now, most everyone has heard about the downtown Chattanooga bear. If not, here’s a quick synopsis: on Saturday, September 26, 2020, a black bear made his way into several areas of downtown Chattanooga including passing by an outdoor church service, walking across the lawn at the Bessie Smith Hall and areas near UTC campus. Needless to say, this caused a huge stir. People followed the bear to take pictures and videos, a procession of Chattanooga police cruisers followed the bear, large crowds of people gathered and Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) was called in. Tennessee’s black bear population is growing with Hamilton County listed in the seasonal/transient and infrequent sighting category. A bear in any city’s downtown area is not a good thing, and that’s what officers were facing on Saturday.
Ultimately, the most problematic issue was the huge crowd and the ability to ensure onlookers’ safety. TWRA advocates for animals as well as humans, and both were a factor in Saturday’s controversial and unpleasant decision to shoot the bear. I have contacted a local TWRA officer as well as TWRA’s Region III Information & Education Officer Mime Barnes, who stated, “This was and never is the desired outcome. This bear was previously tagged and relocated from Sevier County to Polk County. The bear was habituated to human food and trash. The bear was spotted in Bledsoe County and then Hamilton.”
Let’s stop and consider exactly what was happening. There was a black bear walking through downtown Chattanooga attracting a huge crowd as he made his way to different areas. People were videoing and trying to take selfies with the bear. Chattanooga police cruisers started following the bear, and then TWRA arrived. They noted that the bear was tagged, meaning he had been captured before. The bear was highly stressed by the unfamiliar situation and crowds and eventually took cover in a culvert. A huge crowd formed in the immediate area. The bear continued to show signs of stress and discomfort. Tranquilizing equipment was not on-site and would not take effect immediately because animals run once shot with a tranquilizing dart and must be pursued. Keeping the crowd of humans safe was the priority and the situation became less stable with the high potential for human injury.
That’s quite the scenario and one in which no one wants to find themselves. Assessing the entire situation, past, present, and future and taking into account multiple outcomes, making a decision that follows protocols and making it in the right amount of time to prevent anyone’s injury is not simple. It’s a wildlife chess game.
Barnes stated, “Bears that lose their fear of humans and associate humans and food can pose a threat to human safety. Tranquilizing and relocating bears aren’t the best solutions. Tranquilizers don’t have an immediate effect and therefore, this specific bear would have run towards people, regardless of its chosen route. So many had followed it.”
Officers had to make a very difficult decision in a short time frame.
Now imagine this alternate scenario: as the bear made his way through town, a small police presence remained at a distance, crowds did not gather, TWRA was able to capture the bear with minimal stress. But then what do you do with a bear that is habituated to humans? It is not right or safe to keep moving a habituated animal into new areas. Wildlife that loses its respect and fear of humans poses a potential threat. You simply cannot continue passing along the problem — it’s unethical and unsafe. As Barnes explained, this individual “had already been relocated and it would be unfair to move this bear to another community. Moving a problem and a safety concern isn’t right. We also must take humane measures. This animal was extremely stressed. Officers follow protocol, but their main goal is public safety.”
Many suggested locating the bear to a sanctuary. Wild animals that are habituated to humans do not always fare well in captivity and can pose a safety concern to the caregivers while living in an unnatural existence. Could you imagine a wild male bear that is used to roaming his home range of up to 300 square miles, that has no physical limitations preventing his success in the wild, but associates humans with food, being placed in captivity? What kind of quality of life would he have? What safety concerns would he present to his caregivers? It’s not a good solution.
The answer to Saturday’s scenario is unpleasant, appears uncaring, unthoughtful and goes against what most people think should have happened, but was the best solution to a horrible situation where there was no outcome that would be universally accepted. The best choice is what happened — shoot the bear — but a choice with which no one is happy, including wildlife officers. This event will weigh heavily on them.
We have to remember, we humans caused this situation however long ago when this bear was fed or given access to human food. That was his demise, and it’s our fault.
There’s an old saying... a fed bear is a dead bear. Saturday’s outcome reflects this. So how do we prevent this scenario from repeating? Get bear-wise. We have developed the land they inhabit. We live on the edge of their home ranges and in their forests. So, get smart — learn to live in bear territory. Bears have adapted to living near people, now it’s up to us to adapt to living near bears.
Number one rule: don’t feed bears or any wildlife, intentionally or unintentionally. Leaving pet food out; dirty, greasy grills; garbage; and recycling is an invitation for a free meal and creates an association of humans with food. I always tell everyone that bears have a tremendous sense of smell. Not only do they smell the can of beans in your campground or garbage, but they smell the person who packed the beans in that can at the factory.
Don’t ever approach bears. They look cute and cuddly and it’s tempting to get a picture — don’t do it. Bears are wild, strong, and will defend themselves if approached; and this is the way they should be.
If you’ve got active bears in your area, remove your bird feeders. Birdfeed and grains have lots of calories and are attractive to bears.
Alert your neighbors to any local bear activity. Not too long ago, there was a black bear on Signal Mountain. He was seen by many and videoed on several security cameras. Neighbors were alerted, but no one panicked, no one followed him, no one fed him and he went on his way without incident.
Bears are omnivores who eat meat, fruits, and veggies. Bearwise.org explains that "fall is power eating time for bears:"
Their appetites are biologically programmed to go into hyperdrive in the fall because they need to put on a thick layer of life-sustaining fat before they turn in for the winter. This annual power eating marathon is called hyperphagia.
Hyperphagia is in full swing now because many fruits and berries (soft mast) are still available, calorie-dense acorns and nuts (hard mast) are ripening, and bears’ body clocks are ticking louder and louder. During hyperphagia, bears are like Olympic athletes in training. They must consume ten times as many calories as they need during the spring and summer if they’re going to den up in tip-top shape. That means finding 20,000 calories a day or more. That’s a lot of nuts and berries.
Depending on the availability of natural foods, bears may need to travel long distances well outside of their normal ranges to find enough calories. They seldom sleep more than three or four hours a day. They are sleep-deprived, constantly on the prowl, and myopically focused on finding as much food as possible. So they can be more willing to take risks, like venturing near homes, campgrounds, and trails, and trying to cross busy highways.
For further bear education, I strongly urge you to check out bearwise.org. It's a well-done site with comprehensive and valuable information.
The bear event in downtown Chattanooga was a horrible situation with a horrible outcome. Do your part to prevent it from happening again. As bearwise.org states — our job is to give bears plenty of space to live and to find their own healthy, natural foods. Their safety and ours depend on how we behave in bear country.