The mild New England winter means that more bears are up and about, looking for food — and not just in the woods. They're also exploring urban backyards and residential streets. The small town of Northampton, Mass., has more than its share of furry visitors.
In Northampton, a call on a neighborhood email list for tales of recent bear encounters netted about about a dozen responses in an hour. Almost everyone, it seems, has a bear story.
"I was weeding by the side of our driveway, middle of a summer day, and a huge — must've been a male — literally walked by within a couple feet of me," one neighbor says.
"And I screamed at Joan, 'There's a bear!' really loud, but of course, she couldn't hear me because she's, you know, bopping away under the headphones," recounts another.
"I walked out on the porch, and there was a bear with two cubs," a third neighbor says.
How did Northampton get to this point? It's a college town full of restaurants, clothing stores and art galleries. Not exactly wilderness.
But it's flanked by rural, wooded and swampy areas that black bears love — and they don't have far to go for easy meals. They eat from the Dumpsters, the bird feeders and the compost bins.
"And the mother bear lifted this up and swung the door open, and knocked the trash can over. And I mean, we see them in the yard all the time," a resident explains.
Over the past three decades, wildlife trackers have counted more and more bears in Northampton. Jane Fleishman, who lives near a meadow, says it's not unusual for her to look up from cooking dinner and see a mama bear and her cubs lumbering down the cul-de-sac.
"When the bears are sighted in our neighborhood, you can literally track them on the Internet," Fleishman says. "People will post a photo, and then 10 minutes later they'll say, 'Oh, it's in my driveway,' 'Oh, it's in my backyard,' and you can literally follow them around. And so in some ways, I think there's a great fascination for them."
People don't seem to be scared. There are reports of bears breaking into cars or popping out kitchen screens, but no attacks on humans. Northampton writer Elissa Alford even tried to talk to a bear on her patio.
"I really just wanted to make eye contact," Alford says. "I wanted to have that moment where we were together and seeing each other. That contact with the wild."
But does it have to be quite so close?
"We love bears. We love wildlife. What we don't love is having them trample through our property on a daily basis," says resident Janel Jorda.
Jorda sees a darker side to the Northampton ursine story. Bears have destroyed her wooden trash enclosure and crushed her landscape lighting. Last month, a mother bear ripped down her chain link fence as Jorda gaped from the other side of a glass door.
"When the baby tried to follow the mother in, the baby got stuck," Jorda says. "The baby was huge, and got stuck inside the fence, and that's when I was like, 'Oh man, I'd better call the police.' Because I was alone with a huge mother and two babies."
Jorda doesn't blame the bears — she blames a neighbor who's apparently feeding them.
Wildlife officials are pushing for a city law to make feeding bears illegal, so they'd have little reason to leave their natural habitat. The problem is, mother bears have already taught their cubs that chomping on discarded pizza crusts is a lot easier than picking berries in the woods. For the next generation of bears, this may actually be their natural habitat.