Hank Was Framed

Hank the Tank, the beloved 500-pound black bear that stood accused of breaking into thirty Lake Tahoe homes, has been acquitted, at least partly.

While the mainstream media demonized Hank, using words like “terrorized,” “rampage,” and “thief,” the California Department of Fish and Wildlife was conducting DNA evidence on the break ins.

Turns out, the thirty break ins were the work of at least three different bears. The last break in, which incited international media attention, was the work of a female bear, definitely not Hank.

Long-time residents of Lake Tahoe know how to live side by side with their black bears, like Hank the Tank. But new residents who bought into Lake Tahoe when they learned they could work at home are calling the police and endangering the community’s beloved bears, according to Ann Bryant, executive director of the BEAR League.

Hank garnered media attention for the work of multiple bears who were breaking into houses and scarfing homeowner’s food. These three or more bears harmed no one during the recent break ins, although residents of bear territory have been injured by bears in previous years. Hank, who was blamed for all the break ins, was in danger of being euthanized. Hank was a convenient scapegoat for general bear damage because he is easily recognizable to people who know what traits to look for. In addition to his size, he has distinct facial characteristics.

Several wildlife sanctuaries offered Hank a permanent home where he can roam free without running amok of millennial techies’ potato chips. But bear relocation is complicated and potentially dangerous to those bears who have little experience foraging in the true wild.

The mainstream media grossly exaggerated Hank’s size, adding to the fear mongering. Today.com claims that Hank is “twice the size” of a normal bear. That’s nonsense, Bryant notes. Hank is big, she concedes, but it is perfectly normal for a male black bear to be 400 pounds. There have been much bigger bears. She remembers one named “Brownie” who was 960 pounds.

Hank gained weight through the winter because he did not hibernate. Bryant explains that bears don’t hibernate because it’s cold or because they are tired. They hibernate to save themselves from starvation during the winter. Hunger triggers the hibernation. But there’s no lack of food in Lake Tahoe where affluent people often don’t sequester their garbage well enough, Bryant complains. So Hank is among the twenty percent of Lake Tahoe bears that do NOT hibernate. Instead, they stay awake, snack, and pack on the happy fat.

Bryant says it’s not that difficult to live in harmony with bears. Until the latest influx of new residents, she and her neighbors lived with bears in peace. “They go swimming at the beach with us, they have names,” she says.

What Tahoe Keys can do to save bears

Tahoe Keys does have a human-created bear problem, but the solution lies with humans, not bears. For the time being, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has promised not to euthanize any problem bears, but the community’s bears are still in danger. Residents can obtain a permit to shoot bears on their property. Homeowners who wish to save bears need to do their part, including:

  • Community-wide use of bear-proof garbage containers. The homeowners association should mandate these.
  • Educate all homeowners, especially new ones, about living in harmony with bears.
  • Owners of short-term rentals need to lay down very firm guest guidelines about how to interact with bears. (Don’t feed the bear, don’t leave food on the patio, don’t leave food in your car. Don’t feed birds)
  • For the love of god, don’t feed bears directly, no matter how cute they are.
  • Bears who lose their fear of humans are always in danger of being killed. Though it seems counter-intuitive, bear lovers need to discourage bears who come on their property. If you are at a safe distance from the bear, have your dog bark at the bear. Use a paintball gun to shoot the bear on its flanks or backside. This applies, in particular, to bear cubs who must learn to fear humans and human communities at a young age before they develop unbreakable habits.
Black Bear. Photo courtesy of photographer Thomas Fuhrmann, SnowmanStudios.