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from The Boston Globe


A wild encounter

Worcester episode brings into focus bears' move east

By Beth Daley, Globe Staff, 6/18/2002

The bear was scared. Worcester police were, too. Only hours before, the 250-pound creature had confronted an officer before scampering up a nearby maple tree Saturday night.

So by 3 a.m. Sunday - after fruitlessly trying to find someone to tranquilize the animal nicknamed ''Yogi'' by onlookers - officers felt they had no choice. They shot the black bear to death.

''It's great when a fire department goes up and rescues a cat, everyone's a hero, but it's a bit different when you have a bear,'' said Roger Arduini, inland chief of the Division of Law Enforcement for Massachusetts Environmental Police. ''It's not easy.''

No animal rights groups have so far faulted the decision to kill the animal, but the creature's death highlights the uneasy relationship between community officials and the state's easterly expanding black bear population. There are more than 2,000 bears in the Bay State now, and their numbers increase 8 to 10 percent each year, bringing more of them into urbanized areas. Last Thursday, a driver reported a bear crossing busy Route 290 near Worcester. A few days earlier, Northampton residents saw a female bear walking down Main Street with her cubs. And last Saturday night, a black bear had to be shot after a car slammed into him near Westfield.

Massachusetts Environmental police are getting 10 to 20 calls a week about nuisance bears, compared to three calls a year in the 1970s, according to the Massachusetts Environmental Police and records. In response, the state and the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals now hold forums to teach residents how to better live with bears. The MSPCA has two scheduled for later this month.

''There are more and more conflicts like this all the time,'' said Stephanie Hagopian, director of the Living with Wildlife program at MSPCA. ''There are ways to reduce them.''

Once plentiful in New England woods, the number of black bears spiraled downward to lows at the beginning of the 20th century. Farmers saw them as pests to kill and hunters wanted their meat and fur. Meanwhile, the animals' habitat disappeared as farmers cut forests to make farmland. In 1952, the state limited bear hunting and, slowly, the bears' numbers began to recover. Suburban expansion began at the same time, and now bears and people are meeting more than ever.

Still, the Worcester sighting on Mendon Street was far from a ''normal'' bear sighting in suburbs or western cities. The street doesn't look like bear country: Near downtown, it has few trees and a chorus of children's voices tends to scare most wildlife away.

''It's a busy street, we get a lot of traffic,'' said Susan Adams, who watched the events unfold soon after a neighbor spotted the bear in a tree around 11 p.m. on Saturday. She, along with more than a dozen other neighbors, crowded into an apartment that was eye level with the bear. ''It was just beautiful. We were very disappointed they shot it, but we know they had no choice.''

Worcester police said they called the Environmental Police and others to come and tranquilize the bear. However, no one was around. ''Apparently, [the bear] had gone through a couple of neighborhoods and confronted people,'' said Worcester Deputy Chief Harold McRae. The bear also confronted an officer before running up the tree. ''Officers feel very badly having to shoot it. ... We explored every option we could.''

Although there are some instances of black bears attacking humans, the animals are fairly docile unless cubs are threatened. However, the animals can have a nasty habit of charging at humans if provoked. They often stop dead in their tracks a few seconds later, but that doesn't make the people they are charging feel any safer.

No one is sure why the bear was in Worcester, although it might have been a young male scouting new territory. Arduini of the Environmental Police said even if his agency was able to respond, shooting a bear with a tranquilizer dart is hard to do at night. The chemical can take 20 minutes to take effect, giving the bear time to run off in the dark.

Experts say the bears act just like skunks, foraging for food in trash cans, compost bins, and even bird feeders. They are also known to like leftovers on barbecue grills. ''People may have a notion bears need big tracts of land, but it's not true,'' said Todd Fuller, a professor of wildlife ecology at University of Massachusetts at Amherst. ''In Pennsylvania, bears den under people's porches. They can coexist.''

In Worcester, residents doubt the bear was as friendly as its namesake, but they'll never forget their brief encounter. As a memorial Sunday, Susan Adams carved ''Yogi'' and the date into the maple tree the bear huddled in.

''We won't forget him,'' Adams said.

© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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