First published in the Oct. 14 print issue of the Outlook Valley Sun.
Signs displaying the simple message “Do not feed the animals” are prominent in zoos, aquariums and national parks, and for good reason. First and foremost, feeding wildlife is against the law, and second, following such directions can help keep animals away from urban areas.
With an uptick in bear sightings and encounters in La Cañada Flintridge, city staff members welcomed Rebecca Barbosa — a wildlife biologist who has worked for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for 20 years — and hosted a virtual presentation Tuesday to inform residents about the furry visitors and how to minimize the chances of interacting with them.
“Our biggest recommendation is never feed the bears, either intentionally — no matter how cute they are — or unintentionally by allowing your garbage or other food items to be available to bears,” Barboza emphasized during the meeting via Zoom.
Black bears, the lone species of bear in Southern California, are usually 5 to 6 feet long and on average weigh 150-300 pounds, Barboza said, adding that their fur can be a “cinnamon blond.” They increase consumption of food in the late summer and fall in preparation for torpor — a state during which an animal decreases physiological activity, allowing it to survive periods of reduced food availability.
As opportunistic omnivores, bears are attracted to human food sources such as those found in garbage bins or backyard fruit trees. Young bears in particular develop big appetites and must eat an “extraordinary amount of food to sustain” their growth and body condition, “which is why the urban bear seems to do so well in the urban environment,” Barboza said.
“Bears go through a period of fattening in the fall which we call hyperphagia, which means that they’re eating much more than they normally would,” she added. “In general, they den in December or when the weather starts to cool, but Southern California is unique because we have mild winters and abundant food sources. So our bears go through what we call a seasonal torpor that’s not a true hibernation. Basically, what they do is that most bears will retreat from the urban areas. They’ll reduce their activity. They’re still awake, they’re just sleeping more often and you won’t see them as often.
Bears seem to be thriving amid urban settings. According to Barboza, it is believed that there are approximately 30,000-40,000 black bears statewide — a significant increase from their reported population of 10,000-15,000 in 1982.
Barboza assured residents that though bears eat everything, they are not inherently aggressive toward humans.
“As long as you keep your distance from the animal, there really is no reason for it to come after you,” she said. “They don’t prey on us; they don’t prey on our small children. It is important to teach your children how to react when they do see a bear.”
Should you come into close contact with a bear, the state biologist recommends that you back away slowly and talk in a low-pitched voice.
“As soon as you get distance between you and animal, it will back off,” Barboza said. “I’ve done it several times.”
If there is ample space between you and the animal and it has an obvious escape route, look at the bear and make yourself look bigger. Make loud noises and, if possible, throw objects at the bear to get the bear off the property. Should the bear not leave the property, find a safe place and call 911.
“You never want to turn and run,” Barboza said. “That can sometimes trigger a chase instinct in animals.”
Another important tip mentioned by Barboza was to fight back in the unlikely event that a bear attacks.
“You don’t play dead. That’s an old wives’ tale,” Barboza said.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife — formerly Fish and Game — highly recommends that residents have bear-resistant garbage bins, which can reduce visits by the mammals.
Christina Nguyen, LCF’s management analyst, said the city is in contact with local waste management companies such as Athens Services and NASA Services to consider offering customers such bins.
Residents who do not own bear-resistant garbage cans can reduce wildlife visits by placing trash bins in a sturdy structure such as a garage, freezing wet garbage and not taking it out until pickup, cleaning barbecue grills regularly and washing out garbage bins with bleach or ammonia, keeping pet food and water indoors and, finally, harvesting fruit regularly and picking up any fallen fruit.
“Remember: Bears and other wild animals are attracted to anything edible and smelly,” Barboza said.