Sep 9, 2009 5:03 PM by Associated Press
It's nearly 2 a.m. and authorities have found the suspect in a string of break-ins into multimillion-dollar homes. His nose led him right to their trap — a cage filled with barbecue-scented cantaloupe and peaches.
It's a 550-pound black bear and it nearly fills the entire cage wildlife officers set for him in the driveway of one of the homes. The bear starts huffing — a warning to give it some space. Within a few hours the bear will be dead, because officers believe he has become too bold and too dangerous.
The bear is one of nine killed by wildlife officers in Aspen and surrounding Pitkin County so far this summer as some bears have gotten more aggressive in looking for food to prepare for hibernation. One recently broke into a home through locked French doors and clawed a woman. Last week, a bear bit or scratched a woman as she slept on her deck.
Aspen police responded to about 200 bear sightings and run-ins with people around town in August, up from 16 last August, chief Richard Pryor said.
Wildlife officials say plentiful rainfall this year has damaged some of bears' main natural food source - berries - sending them scavenging for food in this wealthy ski town. But bears are also finding that they don't need to go foraging in the woods because they are becoming so adept at simply opening locked trash bins or prying open windows and raiding the fridge.
Not all of them are breaking into houses, though. In nearby Snowmass Village, a bear got caught at the bottom of a skate park and climbed out after workers lowered a ladder. A bear wandered around a fur shop in Aspen and one was spotted climbing the stairs leading to the ski gondola.
$27.5 million home ransacked
Some spend hours in crab apple trees eating fruit after nightfall before wandering off without incident. One broke into a $27.5 million home in an exclusive neighborhood and set off burglar alarms as it pulled a fridge from the wall and rummaged through drawers and cabinets containing cheese, yogurt, honey and jams.
Others, apparently still afraid of humans, climb up tall pine trees to escape pedestrians only to attract a large group of people who want to take photos of a rare glimpse of a wild animal. Such a fuss kept one bear in a tree for about 14 hours recently near a pedestrian mall. The bear came down three times before officers were able to get it out of the area.
Officials are worried that the problem will get worse because there's still another two months before bears bed down for winter, said Randy Hampton, spokesman for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. As the nights grow colder, they'll start to eat even more food to prepare for hibernation.
Trash in an unlocked container, a grill on a deck and even a backyard birdfeeder can first attract bears to homes. Opened doors and windows can lead a bear inside and, if it has success, it may advance to breaking into homes if it thinks there's a chance they'll find food inside.
The bears have also become a burden to police.
On a recent night, Officer Leon Murray found the trapped 550-pound bear, responded to an attempted bear break-in at an apartment complex and found several bears feasting on trash from Dumpsters - including one behind police headquarters. The first call sounded like it could be a regular crime - a report of shots fired - but it turned out to be a homeowner who shot at the ground to scare off a bear.
Image: Bear scours for food in Dumpster
David Zalubowski / AP file
A black bear forages for food from a Dumpster that it had just tipped over in Aspen, Colo., on Aug. 26.
Police have also been urging people to lock their windows and doors, but even that isn't enough sometimes.
That was the case when a bear broke into Maureen Hirsch's home last month. She had been working in her home office one evening when her dog started growling and sniffing at the air. Thinking it was probably because of the cat they were watching, she walked out from the lighted room into the foyer and was startled to see a bear's head appearing to float in the darkness. She screamed and tried to open the front door to give it a way out. Instead, it swatted her shoulder and chest, ripping her shirt. She ran up the stairs and waited with her husband, Tom, while police responded.
The bear remained inside until police arrived and the Hirsches could hear it shuffling around the kitchen. It didn't sound like a ransacking; they said it was more like listening to a ballerina, with very large and muddy feet, walking around downstairs. The bear passed over jars of honey and instead opened a box of toffee and candy belonging to their 15-year-old son. It left as police pulled up.
Though some bears seem to have lost their fear of humans, some residents think authorities are overreacting and don't want to see bears killed.
Nina Hawn Zale said the city isn't doing enough to cite people who leave trash outside, and bears are paying the price. She said a bear that is attacking someone should be shot but she doesn't think a bear should automatically be considered aggressive just because it breaks into a home looking for food.
"I don't know what the solution is. I just don't want to see any more bears killed," she said.
Hampton hopes people's anger will motivate them to do more to keep bears out of trash. He also said all the photo taking has become "selfish" and bears need to be scared off when they get too close to people.
"Ultimately, if you want to save bears, you have to treat them like wild animals," he said.
More trash tickets written
Pryor said the city has been writing more tickets for not securing trash this summer and thinks the city could tighten its laws. While trash bins behind shops and restaurants have to have a steel bar or a metal cable to keep bears out, household garbage left outside on trash day doesn't have to be in special container. He said the city could also spray its crab apple trees to prevent them from growing fruit to keep bears away.
Image: Bear eating crab apples in a tree
David Zalubowski / AP
A bear forages for crab apples in a tree north of Main Street in Aspen, Colo., on Aug. 25.
Pryor thinks the problem may be more than one city can solve on its own and the state may have to do something about the number of bears. Voters outlawed spring hunting in 1992 to prevent cubs from being orphaned, but Hampton said one option on the table is allowing hunters to kill more bears the rest of the year.
The Hirsches say wildlife officials had no choice but to kill the bear that broke into their home because it had lost its fear of humans.
Still, Maureen Hirsch sat on her steps and cried the night the bear was killed.
"I love seeing bears and I think it's very possible to live in harmony with them," she said.