Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Bears have become bandits and burglars in the Lake Tahoe region


Once upon a time, there were three bears who lived in the forest. They were big, hungry and often searched for snacks. And around southern Lake Tahoe, where they reportedly wander, snacks can be pretty good. However, the three bears and their friends don't wait to be served.

PATTI SHERWIN: Our neighbors - she had, like, a 2-gallon thing of ice cream in her refrigerator that she had out in the garage, and she got broken into.

SIMON: Patti Sherwin has lived in the Tahoe Keys neighborhood for more than 20 years. Wildlife authorities say that DNA evidence identified these three bears responsible for home break-ins to find food, including a bear locals like to call Hank the Tank. He's estimated to weigh 500 pounds. How did they get him on a scale? And reportedly, like many people, he doesn't bother much with vegetables, but goes straight to dessert.

SHERWIN: I know this bear. He's actually lived under my deck. We've had him - he hibernated across the street from my neighbor's house. I've really witnessed him grow up. He's a big guy, for sure, and he's gotten to be very good at breaking into garage doors.

SIMON: And that skill worries some locals and wildlife agencies. Peter Tira is an information officer at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

PETER TIRA: It's a bear that we call a severely food-habituated bear, and what that means in English is this is a bear that has lost all of its instinctual fear of people and instead looks to people as a source of food.

SIMON: There are apparently more than 500 bears in the Lake Tahoe region, and they usually feast on a mostly plant-based diet - how contemporary - berries, grass and insects. But being close to humans has altered their diets. Pizza, apple pie, ice cream - Patti Sherwin says they find such treats so beguiling they'll break into a garage to get it.

SHERWIN: They're very smart. They just pop out one of the - you know, the little panels and get through.

SIMON: The California Department of Fish and Wildlife is considering plans to capture the local bears. Once they're caught, they'll be tagged to identify them in the future and moved to a different location further away from humans.

Dr. Staci Baker is a veterinarian who also works with the BEAR League, a local nonprofit group. She says it is the nature of bears to search the landscape for food. Open garbage cans can entice them, like the music of BJ Leiderman, who writes our theme music. She says it's the responsibility of residents, the human ones, who order in pizza and throw out orange peels, to maintain what she calls a bear-safe community.

STACI BAKER: I can't stress it enough. You may be tired of hearing it. Securing garbage is huge. Bear-proof containers work. If everyone did not leave garbage, the bears would go somewhere else.

SIMON: I think I hear one of them knocking now. Patti Sherwin says she can't get too mad at her neighbors, even if they weigh 500 pounds and will break into a garage refrigerator for ice cream.

SHERWIN: I have a love for them. I have an appreciation for nature. I live here because of wildlife, not in spite of it.

SIMON: Lake Tahoe residents Patti Sherwin and Dr. Staci Baker and information officer Peter Tira.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.