One of the great things about Humboldt County is living close to nature. It's always a thrill to see raccoons, deer, foxes, even an occasional bobcat around the neighborhood. In fact, I just looked out my window and a saw a black bear — jumping up and down on my trash can.
Bear with me while I start at the beginning. About six months ago, my neighbors and I discovered a mysterious marauder had tipped over our garbage bins during the night, strewing the contents far and wide. A few days later, it happened again. A calling card left in the street suggested a large omnivore, not that I looked very closely.
After grumbling my way through another cleanup, I did what any sensible person would do: I consulted Google. The top-ranked solution was to soak a rag in ammonia and hang it from the handle of the bin, the idea being that the strong odor was "unbearable" to ursas and they would give the can a wide berth. I put the plan into action without delay.
The following morning the cleanup was even worse than usual. So, I went with the second-ranked solution: a combination of lights and sound. I passed this wisdom on to my neighbors, whose dustpans were getting as much of a workout as mine. That night the tranquility of the evening was shattered by the shriek of an air horn and one of my neighbors shouting, "Get out of here, you #%@&# bear!" I peered through the window in time to see a large dark posterior disappear into the greenbelt. Success, however, was short-lived.
I like bears. They're curious, clever animals that struggle to survive in habitat that's constantly shrinking, not to mention drying up. They're fun to watch and I don't begrudge them visiting my yard. But since I don't have a garage where I can secure my trash, the cans are basically a buffet waiting to happen.
At my wits' end, I typed "bear-proof bin" into the search bar and a few links popped up. Most of the products were ridiculously expensive, manufactured and priced for city and state governments. But one caught my eye — a chunky steel-reinforced can with a locking lid, rated "grizzly-tested" by whatever agency tests these things. It wasn't cheap, but I could order it through my local hardware store and they'd deliver it for free right to my door.
When my new bin arrived, I dropped in a particularly odorous bag of trash and waited to see what would happen. Around 10 p.m. there was a crash, followed by thumping sounds. That's when I looked out to see the bear jumping on the bin. When that didn't work it clawed and chewed at the lid, then dragged the can halfway across the driveway. But the lock held, and the next morning there was no trash to clean up.
On day two, the bear visited again. In the morning I found the bin upside-down, resting on its lid. But it was still secure.
It's not a perfect solution, but according to Shawn Fresz, Senior Environmental Scientist Supervisor with the local California Fish and Wildlife Department, locking bins can be an effective measure, especially if there's no garage or shed where trash can be secured. Fresz said eliminating attractants — like garbage, pet food and bird seed — is the key to reducing negative interactions with curious black bears.
"People need to do the right thing by their property to keep people safe and wildlife wild," Fresz said.
With their keen sense of smell, bears can even be drawn to barbecues, Fresz said, so those should also be stored securely. Chicken coops and other livestock enclosures can be protected with electric fencing. The department has a designated wildlife conflict manager, as well as useful tips and links on their website under the heading "Living with Wildlife." The site describes black bears as intelligent, adaptable and an important part of the ecosystem.
So on my street we're doing what we can to make our properties less tempting to bears. The neighborhood is getting visited less often, though there are still a few mornings where my dog and I learn more about what our neighbors had for dinner than we really want to know (burritos appear to be a popular choice).
For the most part, the "bear-proof" bin is holding strong. A few days ago, though, it was tipped over and somehow the bag inside ended up outside. I suspect human error was to blame. But as I was sweeping up, I noticed the big yellow sticker on the lid with clear instructions on disengaging the lock.
I'm a little worried the bears have learned how to read.
Sarah Hobart (she/her) is a freelance writer based in Humboldt County.