I live in Sierra Madre, a town of 10,000 people and a suburb of Los Angeles. The Angeles National Forest, a wild and mountainous area, borders the town on the north, and the sprawling metropolis of greater Los Angeles surrounds the rest of town. Sierra Madre is mostly a residential community; most people who live there are either retired or they work elsewhere in Los Angeles, and residents often spend time downtown as well in other suburbs of L.A.. However, on weekends, in the early mornings, and after school during the week, the people of Sierra Madre can be found traversing the hiking trails above their houses and walking, biking, and skateboarding throughout town.
Wildlife seems to have spilled and spread from the forest and mountains above Sierra Madre, and residents encounter wild animals on a daily basis, whether they are on a hike, walking about town, or in their own backyards. Personally, I have watched coyotes roam the streets in the evenings and early mornings and I can hear them howling and yapping at night. Raccoons and opossums frequent my backyard, and a family of skunks has even taken up residence there, sleeping in a hole my rabbits dug. I often hear owls calling to each other, and I can find them fluttering between the trees surrounding my house. On morning walks I sometimes meet deer trotting down streets and along sidewalks. On hikes I can spot tiny wild rabbits and the occasional snake. A few bears can even be found roaming around the streets in the early mornings and late evenings.
There is the occasional overturned trash can as a result of a bear’s early morning expedition into town, coyotes have preyed on a few neighborhood cats, and several pet rabbits have died at the paws of a local bobcat. However, for the most part, residents of Sierra Madre take pride in the town’s wildlife, and they enthusiastically watch from a distance as the animals go about their lives.
Hikers gesture and whisper to each other conspiratorially about rabbits they have spotted on the trail just ahead. People proudly show each other the owl who lives at the base of a hiking trail above my house. The townspeople have affectionately named an especially large bear “Tiny.” In passing, walkers tell each other about nearby deer spotted grazing in someone’s yard or trotting along a sidewalk.
Many people in town were especially enthusiastic about a mother bear and her young cub. People spotted the baby bear following her mother about the Canyon, playing in people’s backyards, climbing in trees, and napping around the neighborhood. Videos of the cub and her mother abound on websites like Next-door Sierra Madre and Facebook. Townspeople excitedly watched, photographed, and spoke about the pair of furry Sierra Madre residents. That is, until this summer, when the baby bear met an untimely demise.
It all started one evening when a juvenile bear attacked a 19-year-old woman in the backyard of her Sierra Madre home. The young woman had fallen asleep in her backyard with her laptop on her lap. She woke up and saw the young bear coming toward her. The bear sniffed her leg, scratched her arm and leg with his paws, and began to bite her leg, at which point she hit the bear with her laptop until the bear was detached from her leg, giving her time to run inside her house.
While bear sightings are common in Sierra Madre, bear attacks are very rare and bears and people tend to avoid each other. However, when a bear does attack a person, or even a person’s dog, the bear is often deemed a dangerous threat and local officials from the Department of Fish and Wildlife attempt to locate and euthanize the bear.
There have been a few exceptions to this rule. For instance, in another incident a dog attacked a bear cub in Sierra Madre and the mother bear intervened to protect her cub. The dog’s owner then kicked the mother bear to protect his dog, which prompted her to scratch and bite him before escaping with her cub. After officials from the Department of Fish and Wildlife tracked and tranquilized the bears, they determined that the mother bear was acting in self defense as well as defending her cub rather than arbitrarily attacking the man and his dog, and both bears were released.
However, in this case, the bear who attacked the woman sitting in her backyard was not acting in self defense, so officials set out to locate and kill the bear. The practice of locating and euthanizing “violent” bears has significantly evolved over time. In the past, when a bear attacked a person, a bear would be killed, and since there was no way to properly identify or track the bears, the bear who was killed was not necessarily the bear who attacked someone. Officials now trap and sedate bears to collect their DNA and compare it with DNA evidence from attacks to identify whether the trapped bear is the assailant.
Using this method of trapping and sedation, officials soon caught two bears in Sierra Madre, but after collecting the bears’ DNA, officials determined that neither of these bears attacked the 19-year-old woman. These two bears were in fact the much loved mother bear and her cub who many townspeople had followed so closely, and the baby bear died immediately as a result of the sedative. The mother bear was released and is perhaps wandering around Sierra Madre this very moment, possibly mourning or searching for her cub. Upon hearing the news of the cub’s death, residents of Sierra Madre were angry and heartbroken. They did everything from posting complaints about the Department of Fish and Wildlife on social media to designing and planting signs in their yards in memorial of the cub. While officials from the Department of Fish and Wildlife did not purposely kill the baby bear, a fatal reaction to the tranquilizing sedative has rendered the cub a casualty in this bear hunt, and the bear who attacked the young woman has yet to be found.
So these questions remain: Is the town of Sierra Madre overtaking the wilderness above it and interfering with the lives of these wild animals or is the wildlife venturing where they do not belong; which party is overstepping and what should be done about it? Should we just let bears be bears? Should we continue to euthanize bears for the safety of people? Should we develop a better method of tracking and sedating the bears? Should we put trackers on the bears so that we can identify who has been where and done what? Can people and wild animals safely coexist in close proximity to one another?