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Black bear shot in Anchorage fell victim to its addiction to humans' easy food

Craig Medred
A black bear cub and its mother play in the water at the Goose Lake swimming beach in Anchorage on Thursday, July 17, 2014. The other cub was on the shore. The bears had been living in the area since spring. Bearproof garbage cans have been installed at the park.
Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News
Two black bear cubs play on the bike trail as their mother walks along the trail near Goose Lake in Anchorage on Thursday, July 17, 2014. The bears had been living in the area since spring.
Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News
One of two spring black bear cubs looks into a parked car at Goose Lake in Anchorage on Thursday, July 17, 2014. The bears had been living in the area since spring. Bearproof garbage cans have been installed at the park.
Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News
A black bear sow and one of her two spring cubs walk along the bike trail near Goose Lake in Anchorage on Thursday, July 17, 2014. The bears had been living in the area since spring.
Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News
As a black bear and her two cubs walk along the shore of Anchorage's Goose Lake, one of the cubs chases a mallard duck on Thursday, July 17, 2014. The bears had been living in the area since spring.
Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News
A mother black bear and her two spring cubs play in the water at the Goose Lake swimming beach in Anchorage, AK on Thursday, July 17, 2014. The bears have been living in the area since spring. Bear proof garbage cans have been installed at the park.
Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News
A mother black bear crosses Northern Lights Blvd. in Anchorage, AK on Thursday, July 17, 2014 as traffic comes to a halt. The bears have been living in the area since spring.
Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News
A mother black bear and her two spring cubs play in the water at the Goose Lake swimming beach as ducks float past in Anchorage, AK on Thursday, July 17, 2014. The bears have been living in the area since spring. Bear proof garbage cans have been installed at the park.
Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News
A mother black bear and her two spring cubs walk along the shore at the Goose Lake swimming beach in Anchorage, AK on Thursday, July 17, 2014. The bears have been living in the area since spring. Bear proof garbage cans have been installed at the park.
Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News
One of a pair of black bear cubs climbs a tree at e Goose Lake in Anchorage, AK on Thursday, July 17, 2014. The bears have been living in the area since spring. Bear proof garbage cans have been installed at the park.
Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News
A mother black bear and her two spring cubs walk along the shore at the Goose Lake swimming beach in Anchorage, AK on Thursday, July 17, 2014. The bears have been living in the area since spring. Bear proof garbage cans have been installed at the park.
Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News
A mother black bear climbs up a fallen tree at Goose Lake in Anchorage, AK on Thursday, July 17, 2014. The bears have been living in the area since spring. Bear proof garbage cans have been installed at the park.
Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News
Two black bear cubs inspect the lifeguard stand at the Goose Lake swimming beach while their mother walks along the beach in Anchorage on Thursday, July 17, 2014. The bears had been living in the area since spring. Bearproof garbage cans have been installed at the park.
Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News

The bears of Anchorage are not our friends. Neither are they our enemies. They are more like sometimes entertaining, sometimes difficult neighbors.

One of the bears was shot and killed in the U-Med District last week. That she died -- and sadly, it was a sow with two cubs -- brought predictable reactions.

"How is is that we live in Alaska and Fish and Game can't find a place to relocate the entire family?'' asked Josiah Jones in the comments of the Alaska Dispatch News story on the shooting.

"How is it we live in Alaska, the hunting capital of the world, and people whine and snivel when a dangerous predator is removed from a population center?" Richard Corbell promptly answered.

This pretty well framed the debate for dozens who felt compelled to comment on the story. In between, there was a lot of finger pointing at people who let animals get into their garbage, government officials who don't care enough to care for wildlife, and the lack of appreciation for big wildlife in the city of the Big Wild Life.

A lot of people seem to think living with bears is easy. It's not.

Bears are as curious as small children, and equally prone to stick their paws where they don't belong. At the same time, bears are dangerous. They have big teeth and sharp claws.

But mainly the problem is bears easily become addicts, and thus become as problematic as any other addicts. The bears' addiction is to easily obtained human food. Once addicted, they're nearly impossible to cure.

The solution is to keep them from becoming addicted in the first place, but in the confines of Anchorage, this is a lot easier to say than do.

The sow in question here was doomed the day she approached a children's day camp at Alaska Pacific University and everyone fled. A friend that day sent photos of the bear and her two cute little cubs dining on the kids' lunches amid over-turned coolers and a litter of bags. The sow has her front legs up on the picnic table. The cubs are not far away playing in garbage. What appear to be day-camp supervisors are watching from the background.

The bear should never have been allowed to join lunch, but who was going stop her?

Everyone is afraid of bears with cubs because so many Alaska bear attacks have involved sows with cubs.

This was a black bear. Black bear sows sometimes act aggressively, but as Canadian Stephen Herrero, one of the world's foremost authorities on bear attacks, told The Globe and Mail after completing a study of bear attack three years ago: "Almost never do they follow through and contact the person. If they do, they don't take it to the point of trying to kill and eat the person."

Alaska is full of people who've chased off black bear sows and cubs with a broom or a stick. There is little doubt that a gang of day-care supervisors could have intimidated the sow at APU and kept it out of the lunches, which would have been a good thing for everyone.

But who is to ask them to do that? Let alone expect them to do that?

Not me. Most people don't have enough experience around bears to deal with these sorts of situations. Most people, in a situation like that at APU, are simply afraid. So they do what most people do. They back away from the bear, as most people are told to do, and the bear enjoys lunch. And once the bear enjoys lunch, she's on the path to addiction, because bears aren't stupid.

It doesn't take them but a couple human meals to figure out that scavenging human food is a whole lot easier than working to gather it in the woods. Unfortunately, that's about where the bear smarts end. They aren't quite smart enough to realize that a life of thievery usually ends badly.

Let alone to recognize that the penalty for bear thievery in the human world is death by execution.

So what are we to do about Anchorage's bears? Ban food and picnics in the city's parks? Require people to repel any bears that enter there, recognizing, of course, that grizzly bears show up in town from time to time and are decidedly different animals than black bears? So far this year, two area women and a man have been seriously mauled by grizzly sows with cubs.

No, you really don't want people confronting grizzly bears, accidentally or otherwise.

All of which leaves what option, other than getting upset at area wildlife biologist Jessy Coltrane for shooting this sow?

Granted, the bear hadn't harmed anyone.

Granted, there was no guarantee the bear was ever going to harm anyone.

Drunk drivers sometimes manage to make it home without running into anyone or anything. But we try to keep them off the road because of the danger they create, because they can do serious harm. This bear was on the verge of doing serious harm. Her addiction was eating away her fear of humans. She was getting used to taking things from people.

Black bear sows with cubs might not be inherently problematic, but any bear that decides humans are powerless against its desires is a problem, a very big problem.

Forty-four-year-old Floridian Terry Frana got a nasty taste of this in April when she confronted bears raiding her garage, the Orlando Sentinel reported. Bitten on the head, arm and legs, her wounds required 30 staples and 10 stitches to close.

"We've always been concerned about it and we're cautious,'' her husband, Frank, told the Sentinel. "Usually we don't leave the garage door open. But on a Saturday, with the kids in and out riding bikes, we left it open.

"When that happens, three times out of 10 a bear will come inside and pull the trash out. But as soon as they hear us, they usually run away. This time they didn't."

And there's the problem. Sometimes the bears don't run away. Sometimes we train them, subtly or otherwise, that they can take charge. That always ends badly.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. Contact Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com.