Time to learn to share

Published 10:41 pm Thursday, July 21, 2011

After almost becoming extinct in Virginia by the turn of the 20th century, black bears have made a remarkable comeback. And lately, the evidence of that comeback has shown itself all along Nansemond Parkway and other developed parts of Suffolk.

Throughout the spring and into the summer, Suffolk residents — especially those who live near the Great Dismal Swamp — have reported getting visits from bears, both grown ones and their cubs. Bears have been seen wandering along highways, climbing trees, sleeping in the branches and searching for food around the city’s homes, businesses and churches.

In a city with a growing number of people who have moved from urban settings into the country, it’s not all that surprising that such encounters often meet with alarm. Even folks whose country roots grow deep could be expected to experience a bit of apprehension upon arriving at home in the evening to find a 300-pound ball of fur, muscle, claws and teeth rummaging through the garbage can.


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Still, according to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries — and these folks should know what they’re talking about — there’s little reason to be afraid of bears. “Black bears have a natural fear of humans, are shy, and usually avoid people,” the VDGIF’s website confidently states. But the bears also enjoy the food they can find around humans’ homes. Therein lies the potential for conflict.

During the same period that bears were making their comeback in Virginia, the state’s human population also exploded, and all those people began clearing and moving into the areas where, formerly, bears had roamed freely. Today, especially in those areas adjacent to the Dismal Swamp, a great habitat for bears that lacks a wall to keep the wildlife inside, man and bear often live near one another without even realizing it.

And for the most part, it’s pretty easy to make sure this coexistence is uneventful. Don’t keep food outside, feed outdoor pets just enough for them to finish in one feeding, secure your garbage well and put it out for pickup on trash day instead of the night before, clean outdoor grills often and refrain from putting pungent foods in the compost heap. And if you see bear cubs in the yard or in a tree, leave them alone. Bothering them is a quick way to get a rise out of Mama Bear, and that probably won’t turn out well for you.

Bear sightings in Suffolk are no cause for panic. There’s no reason that people and bears cannot share this big city with all of its undeveloped space. In fact, the city’s wildlife is one of its great charms. So next time you see a bear, grab your camera and get a photo. The bear will be gone soon enough, and as long as you leave it alone, everyone will be safe.