Breaking, entering and eating — what happens when bears break the law? As development expands into forested areas, local wildlife pushes back. Author Mary Roach shares what happens when human lives intersect with one devious wild neighbor: bears.

Breaking, entering and eating — what happens when bears break the law?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And on the show today, Crimes in the Wild, which brings us to our next case - a burglary in Aspen, Colo.

MARY ROACH: We're up in the hills above the town - prime real estate, nice houses. This was a house that kind of spilled down the hillside three stories. And from a couple of days' observations, it appeared that it was an empty house. Now, each story had a deck. So the bottom deck was right off of a bedroom, and there's a big window. And when we arrived, the screen was still lying on the floor. It was bent as though hit with some force - lying on the carpeting, wall-to-wall carpeting, white carpeting, no mud on the carpeting. Nothing in the bedroom is disturbed or stolen. And then we get to the kitchen, and it is chaos. All over the floor, the contents of the refrigerator and the freezer - we have ice cream cartons. We have cottage cheese. We have a broken bottle of honey. We have eggs - everything on the floor - definitely knew what he was going for.

ZOMORODI: Oh, that definitely blew his cover.

ROACH: Yes. Unless it was a ravenously hungry burglar, all signs indicated it was a bear.

ZOMORODI: A bear who got away with the crime. And there, surveying the detritus was author Mary Roach.

ROACH: I write nonfiction books, and the latest one is called, "Fuzz: When Nature Breaks The Law."

ZOMORODI: This latest book is about animals who commit crimes. And bears feature heavily because they're just so darn hungry.

ROACH: They're omnivores in the truest sense of the word.


JIM CUMMINGS: (As Winnie the Pooh, singing) Everything is honey everywhere I see.

ZOMORODI: Do they really go for the honey?

ROACH: They go after honey. They go after beer. They like craft beer. They do not like the cheap stuff.


PHIL HARRIS: (As Baloo, singing) Look for the bare necessities, the simple bare necessities.

ROACH: They don't eat crappy ice cream. There's a brand called Western Family that bears will eschew in favor of Ben & Jerry's or Haagen-Dazs. Kurtis Tesch, the wildlife officer who had come with me to the site of this break-in - he said that a bear had unwrapped the foil on a Hershey's Kiss and eaten the Kiss. This is...

ZOMORODI: Wait - with his bare claws.

ROACH: Oh, yeah. Maybe he did it in his mouth, kind of like the way people with very dexterous tongues can tie a cherry stem. Who knows?

ZOMORODI: These bears are good at getting what they want.

ROACH: Yeah. There's a - there have been instances, also, where a family will be sitting down to dinner, the food is on the table, the bear comes through either the window or the door, grabs something off the table and leaves.

ZOMORODI: Don't want to stay for dinner? OK. Bye.

ROACH: Can you imagine? You know, you're sitting down to a meal with your family, and a bear's, like, I'll take that chicken. Thank you.

ZOMORODI: And then just takes it to go.

ROACH: And just takes it to go.

ZOMORODI: So, Mary, bear-human conflict - I mean, this is not exactly new. We have been asking animals to abide by our rules for a very long time.

ROACH: That's right. The 1800s, Manifest Destiny, this sense that the land belongs to us; it is ours to take and is ours to use - and the wild animals were perceived either as varmints, or they were something that you could profit off of. And there was really a cultural consensus - use them, or just kill them. There were bounties on all of the large carnivores - bears, wolves, coyotes, mountain lions. You would show up with a pair of ears or a scalp at the local wildlife agency and collect your pay. And that knocked back the numbers tremendously. And that persisted through - you know, that stayed around the middle of the 1900s. There were two forces for conservation. Earlier on, it was hunters setting aside land for parks and preserves so there would always be wild lands to hunt in and then, moving forward, the animal welfare and the environmental movement, which really caused a shift in how we perceive these animals and how we feel they should be treated.

ZOMORODI: And you write that that shift - I mean, essentially it worked. Conservation efforts worked. Wild animals like bears are back.

ROACH: Yeah. These animals, these large mammals, made a terrific comeback since, you know, the middle of the last century through now to the extent that now they're so - the populations are thriving. And now we're starting to have a lot of conflict. We - and we are moving into their territory. You know, suburbs and exurbs keep expanding. So you're getting more and more human-wildlife conflict. And then people's tolerance starts to erode, and their attitudes start to shift back a bit, and they start to see these animals as either a threat to their pets or to their comfort. So things are, you know, kind of moving back the other way a bit.

ZOMORODI: So let's go back to Aspen, then. How is that playing out in this one city in particular?

ROACH: Right. Aspen is a well-to-do city with a lot of very good restaurants in a dense area downtown. And I was traveling with Stewart Breck, who works for the National Wildlife Research Center. And I said, Stewart, can we both set our alarms for 3 a.m.? And let's see what's going on in the alleys behind the restaurants. We get in his truck. We drive down. We just look down the first alleyway. And there's a large, white, hefty sack split open with all of this food coming - pretty good-looking food, too - spilled out. And I was like, oh, we just missed him. And he said, just - let's just stand over here. And within three minutes, here comes one bear. He's kind of - (vocalizing) - going down the alley, heading back to the bag - and then five minutes later, a second bear. So we had just shown up. It wasn't like we spent the whole night waiting and hiding like, oh, we might catch a glimpse of a bear. It's like, he just turned down an alley. The first one we turned down...

ZOMORODI: It's a bear party - late-night party scene in Aspen.

ROACH: Late-night party scene, absolutely, absolutely, yeah. And it was so surreal because it's a very upscale town. This one bear - when they were kind of done with what they were doing, we sort of followed along. And this last glimpse of this bear was in front of the Louis Vuitton window.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

ROACH: It's just the weirdest, most surreal sight - this little bear, who had a little bit of burrata on his snout, just kind of standing in front of the - as though window shopping at Louis Vuitton.

ZOMORODI: Celebrity bear. Bears - they're just like us.

ROACH: The bears - they're just like us.


ZOMORODI: All right. So, Mary, we would love to have you read a particularly wild section from your book.

ROACH: Sure.

ZOMORODI: You have the book right there, right?

ROACH: Yeah, absolutely. (Reading) The lighter-colored bear is working a crab leg while its colleague noses through cabbage leaves. What have these bears just learned, Stewart Breck is saying. I can eat garbage with people standing and watching me, and nothing bad happens. We've just given these two a little less reason to worry about humans. As a result, they may start coming into the alley earlier or standing their ground longer. Odds are they'll end up like the bear that dined out at the dumpster behind Steakhouse No. 316. One night not long ago, the restaurant's manager, Roy, came out to roust the animal. Because the dumpster was set in an alcove, the bear's escape was blocked on three sides. On the fourth side was Roy. With only one way out, the bear lunged and, quoting Charlie, "bit Roy in the ass."

According to University of Calgary Professor Emeritus and bear attack researcher Stephen Herero, 90% of black bears that injure humans are bears that have habituated to them - that is, accustomed to their presence and lost their fear and developed a taste for their foods. Based on the description of the bear that Roy provided, the animal was found, trapped and - because it had injured someone - put down. What the description said beyond dark hair and heavyset I can't imagine. However, DNA from saliva on Roy's pants was a match with the bear's. Roy and his staff could have been more careful about keeping the dumpster locked, and that, too, bit him in the ass. Townspeople picketed the steakhouse following the bear's death. People don't want bears destroyed because of other people's neglect. If anything, they want them hazed or relocated, the two nonlethal approaches you hear about most with conflict bears. There's also electric fencing, but the prison camp look doesn't play well in residential areas.

ZOMORODI: You mention that if they hurt a human, the bear is put down. But what about these other problem bears?

ROACH: In most cases, the bear is put down, as they say. You can translocate a bear. Sometimes that's done, particularly in cases where there's a lot of media attention.

ZOMORODI: Yeah. I can't imagine that moving a bear tens of miles away is an easy thing to do.

ROACH: Well, it's not so much that it's difficult. It's that it doesn't - often it doesn't solve the problem. Bears have made their way home - I think the record is something like 140 miles. They're very good at finding their way back to where they've been hanging out. The other thing - a bear that's used to eating human-sourced food will make its way to the closest human community and start doing the same thing. Depending on the study, between 40 and almost 70% of bears will be involved in a, quote-unquote, "nuisance event" within two years. So there - it's a lot of recidivism.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter) There is another - a third thing that we humans tried to do to keep bears away, right? And it sounds kind of funny to me. You use the word hazing.


ZOMORODI: Talk to me about what they're trying to do.

ROACH: Sure. Hazing is just to create an unpleasant but not harmful situation. Hopefully, they'll run off and won't come back. They'll associate that behavior and that place with negative consequences. So it may be rubber bullets. It may be pepper spray. It may be - there's a certain kind of dog called a bear dog. And they do work to scare the animal away. But there was a study in Nevada. Sixty-two bears were hazed with rubber bullets and pepper spray, and all but five out of 62 came back. So there's too much gain for the bear in a place like an alley in Aspen, where people are routinely leaving bags of restaurant food scraps in an unsecured dumpster. You know, that bear is going to go, you know, those rubber bullets - they kind of smart. But the food is so good, I don't care.


ZOMORODI: I mean, it seems like a lot of us wouldn't have enough experience in the wilderness or dealing with wild animals to even know to follow the rules. Like, the bears that I know best are, like, Yogi and Pooh and I guess Baloo, you know? Like, the entertainment industry has really changed our perception of wildlife. And for a lot of people who live in dense areas, wildlife are the mice that they find in their kitchen or the roaches.

ROACH: Yes, I think that's really true. And a large part of preventing human-wildlife conflict situations is education - also making people aware that there are resources, places that they can turn to to get helpful information about what to do without just calling an exterminator.


ROACH: But yeah, I mean there's Yogi Bear. But the other side of that is any time there's a person that's killed by a bear, it's major headline news in the sense that - and the word attack is always used, even if it's a defensive scenario. That has created this sense of bears as these monstrous kind of killers. So people have a - you know, some people are scared to death of them. Other people think they're kind of bumbling and cute, and they'll walk up and take a selfie. So we...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

ROACH: And in both cases, this is like, no. No, no, no, no, no - not - somewhere in between is where you want to land, folks.

ZOMORODI: All right, so where is that in between, Mary? Give us the bear basics.

ROACH: Oh, people - the best thing that could happen with bears in America is for people to understand that - as cute as they are and as much as you want to get close to them, do not feed them. Do not leave out birdseed or dog food. Just do not encourage them, in any way, to come into your yard and your home because that's a situation that's going to progress to the point where somebody is going to get hurt. And usually, it's the bear.


ZOMORODI: That's author Mary Roach. Her book is "Fuzz: When Nature Breaks The Law." You can watch Mary's talk about her previous book, "Bonk," at


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