Zoo tips help people be bear aware

by: Frank Field Updated:

SEATTLE - A pair of adult grizzly bears at the Woodland Park Zoo made quick work of the mock campsite zookeepers set up in their enclosure, all in the name of making outdoors people and property owners near bear habitat more bear aware.  The 700-pound grizzlies folded a kayak like a soda can in search of food left in places people might leave it without thinking.

Zoo education specialist Janel Kempf said, “This is anything but delightful in the wild,” as the duo tore up the mock campsite.

Bear encounters have been anything but delightful for homeowners or bears as they emerged from hibernation in the past few weeks.  Last week a black bear rummaged through trash in Snoqualmie.  And last month, another black bear was relocated after roaming through Lakewood.

Bear ecologist Chris Morgan says bears aren’t targeting people, they’re simply big eating machines.

“When they come out of their den, they’ve lost half their body weight, and they want the easiest source of calories,” Morgan said.

Too often that means trash cans or campsites.  Zoo education specialist Janel Kempf says bear-proof containers and trash cans are a big help. 

As a grizzly got frustrated and flung a bear-proof canister, Kempf noted that failure is a powerful teaching tool for bears.

Failure, she said, “prevents bears from learning that campgrounds are places to look when they’re looking for food. So that helps protect not only you, but helps protect all the campers who come after you.”

The fewer times bears and people interact, the more likely bears will avoid becoming labeled as problem bears that need to be either relocated or killed. The saying in wildlife circles is “a fed bear is a dead bear.”

Bear experts say campers and hikers should store food in one of those bear-proof canisters. And people who live near bear habitat can simply wait until collection day before they set their trash out for pickup. And one more tip:  If you’re going into the woods, use unscented soap and deodorants. Kempf says sweet-smelling shampoos and soaps just make you smell more tasty to a bear, which has a sense of smell seven times better than a dog.