The black bear affectionately known as Hank the Tank, whom authorities once thought responsible for 28 home invasions and 152 reports of conflict behavior in South Lake Tahoe, will be spared. DNA analysis of the scenes showed that at least two other bears had broken into some of the homes, and California wildlife officials will neither kill Hank nor place him in a sanctuary. Instead, they’re going to intensify hazing and mitigation efforts designed to keep Hank and the other bears out of people’s yards and homes, and importantly, out of harm’s way.
That’s good, because the Lake Tahoe region straddling Northern California and Nevada is bear country and bears deserve the chance to live safely and flourish there.
Many journalists have treated Hank’s story as a thing of whimsy, the story of an anti-hero, a maverick thumping his big paws at human society and breaking our rules while many of us root for him. But the best of the pieces I’ve seen lays out what is at stake for Hank and so many like him. If there is any hope for bears living in proximity to human beings, it rests with the strongest possible commitment of residents and communities to heightened bear-awareness, with all that implies about appropriate practices and behavior.
In this respect, Hank and the other bears are fortunate. California and Nevada communities in the Tahoe region have strong mitigation programs, and Tahoe area officials seem committed to instituting additional measures. They deserve some credit: In many communities, Hank and the other bears would already be dead.
The real challenge is not with the agencies or municipalities involved but with individual residents, homeowner associations and the thousands of temporary renters and visitors less acquainted with the necessity of proper storage and disposal of food and food waste. For example, the garages in which many residents store trash and keep food in freezers and refrigerators are an easy target for bears, with their keen sense of smell and great physical strength.
Once conditioned to food from human sources, bears lose their natural caution and fear around people and zero in on the food. Whatever else he is, Hank is a seriously food-conditioned bear, and the particular community he has chosen to frequent is a hotspot for human-bear interactions, not least because the homeowner association there has resisted some mitigation measures on aesthetic grounds.
Now, Tahoe authorities have renewed their pressure on the Tahoe Keys Property Owners Association to drop its opposition to mandatory installation of bear boxes and Kodiak cans, bear-proof containers that residents can roll out like normal trash cans for pickup by automated hydraulic trucks. There are thousands of bear boxes at properties in the Tahoe region, and their use has made a difference.
There is another reason why people will need to be more vigilant concerning bear attractants in food storage and waste disposal areas in the future. Climate change threatens to exacerbate the problems so evident in the Tahoe region. With a warming climate, bears are emerging from hibernation early (or not hibernating at all), at times when their typical foods may not be available. This may lead them to seek out human food more and more.
At the Humane Society, we are champions of compassionate coexistence, and we’re well aware that living in harmony with wildlife is not just a challenge in bear country. In every community—urban, suburban and rural—the potential for human-wildlife conflict exists, and forging humane solutions is the foundation of our Wild Neighbors program. To an ever-increasing degree, animals are adapting to the built environment, and because our homes and buildings are not designed with a mind toward keeping them out, they can easily get in, and into trouble. The program trains and educates community leaders and animal care agencies across the country as part of our effort to mitigate human-wildlife conflict and transform attitudes and approaches through animal-friendly planning, design and management.
There are many other examples of our commitment to the reduction of human-wildlife conflict in the United States and abroad, but the story of Hank and the other bears in Tahoe speaks directly to the kind of world we’re working to create—one in which we humans accept the full responsibility of living peacefully with wildlife and take every possible step to ensure the safety and well-being of all.