Farmington resident Olivia Germano enjoys looking out the window into her backyard to see the activity on her family's trampoline. But it’s never her own kids that are playing, rather a family of black bears that make an appearance every year.
The Farmington Valley is a hot spot for black bears, but bear families have taken a special liking to the neighborhood surrounding Blueberry Lane, where they always return to nonchalantly lounge on porches and meander through yards.
“Some people have chipmunks in their backyards. We have bears,” said resident Don Perrault.
For the past few decades, residents in northwestern Connecticut have been experiencing the recolonization of bears in the state, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection wrote in a statement to CT Insider. And this growing bear population has to expand its range somewhere, and will gravitate toward areas where they can find the best food source, like neighborhoods.
While videos of bears hanging out and even playing in Connecticut neighborhoods may be entertaining, DEEP has warned that "human-bear conflicts are increasing - both in frequency and severity," adding that residents should avoid contact and not feed them. In 2022, there were two humans attacked by bears and they entered homes a record 67 times.
Farmington has currently logged 234 bear sightings this year, according to DEEP's database. But residents in the neighborhood say the bears are so commonplace now, they don't even bother to report it when they see one.
That's why Brian Lux, who also lives in the area, thinks that the true number is completely underreported. "We don't call. You're just so used to it,” he said. “Almost anybody here has seen ‘em.”
For Germano, seeing bears in the backyard is a daily occurrence, including the cubs that especially love to play on her trampoline come spring, she said. “At this point my kids no longer use it, the bears do,” Germano said.
And some residents have actually gotten to know one of the bears that has made itself at home in the area, even coining her name, "Yellow Tags."
Perrault has seen the same mother bear in his front yard for years, and has watched her take her cubs up into his tree, he said.
And Catherine Skaperda, who lives down the street, has developed a unique relationship with this bear. She said for the past seven years, the same double-tagged, female bear would rest at her front porch. Skaperda’s grown to love the bear and has watched her come back with different litters, she said.
“I’ve known her since she was a cub,” she said. “She’s so kind..."
Even when "Yellow Tags" is on her porch, Skaperda said she would still come right out the door and walk past the bear, so close they're almost touching, but she's never been afraid. In fact, Skaperda's more afraid of other people than bears, she said.
“I look at her as a guard dog,” Skaperda said.
All bears have a home range, and this bear returns to that neighborhood because it is within part of her home range, according to DEEP's statement. Due to the presence of human-related food in areas such as neighborhoods, these home ranges can be even smaller in size due to the calorie-dense food available, so bears don’t have to travel as far or work as hard to meet their caloric needs, which can result in an even greater amount of time spent in one specific area.
Germano has also grown accustomed to closely being around the bears. She recalled a time when she was sitting by her fire pit with family when black bears waltzed right into the backyard, just yards away. "We have visitors," she had announced, and while her other family members, who aren't from the area, were very startled, Germano barely bat an eye.
“It's such a common occurrence that I don't even get scared anymore,” she said.
And residents didn't seem to think that the black bears, animals naturally fearful of humans, felt any need to keep their distance either.
While perceived as cute and often shared on social media, the type of behavior in which bears frequent yards, porches and trampolines is learned behavior, and matches bear habituation, in which bears lose their fear of people, according to DEEP's statement.
“We’ve had a couple of close encounters,” Perrault said.
One day he came around the corner outside his garage and was face to face with a large male bear, he said, “He looked at me, I looked at him.” And while Perrault immediately bee-lined for the other direction, the bear was unfazed, and just moseyed along to the backyard.
“They’re everywhere,” Germano said. “And they're not afraid of humans at all.”
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Germano said she loved seeing the bears and having them around, but given attacks and entries into home, it raises the question whether bears have grown too comfortable. Variations of a bear hunt has been proposed on several occasions in Connecticut, but never adopted. Under new laws, residents are able to kill a bear, however, if they feel threatened.
As for involvement from DEEP, the agency said it may humanely trap and perform aversive conditioning to give the bear a negative association with a location. It’s a tool used to help restore fear into bears.
And the current level of comfort isn't safe for bears or people.
Increased comfort around homes can lead to more conflicts with people and property, according to DEEP. Bears that are food conditioned will break into houses and approach people looking for food, whether it is from the person feeding them or not. They then become a public safety threat and are often involved in human-bear conflicts.
Unfortunately, this bad behavior can then be taught to cubs as well, thus creating another generation of bears that are not fearful of humans and that think homes and neighborhoods are the ideal place to look for food, according to the statement.
Additionally, DEEP officials have seen a tendency for people to remain quiet while they see a bear, even if it is behaving unfavorably, due to their desire to get a picture or video of the encounter. But people should be putting their efforts into scaring the bear so the animal understands this is not good practice. "We should never put our gratification from that picture or video ahead of what is best for the bear."
Bears are still animals with wild instincts, and while it is not necessary to be fearful, exercising caution is always a good thing, DEEP officials said. "A healthy respect vs. fear is an important part of coexistence."
Residents agreed that an appropriate level of caution was necessary to live in harmony with the animals.
“You gotta respect them because they are wild animals,” Perrault said. And even when you get close enough to pet them, you have to remember that they're going to pet you back, but it's going to be like petting a running chainsaw, he said.
And the implications of food-conditioned bears aren’t only adverse towards the animals and humans, but the environment itself.
“Bears are ecologically important as seed dispensers, and of the role they play in forest ecosystem health by their foraging methods such as tearing apart logs for insects,” according to DEEP.
Therefore, intentional and unintentional feeding of bears additionally reduces bears' natural foraging and can affect other species and environmental processes.
Perrault said he felt bad for the bears. “We’re trampling on their territory,” he said, gesturing to the houses in the forested neighborhood.
The best option for both people and the animals is for residents to limit attracting bears in the first place by making sure they do not have access to human-sourced food, including trash, birdseed and dogfood, according to DEEP.
"Limiting attractants will limit bear sightings and therefore limit human-bear conflicts," the statement reads. "This is not something that can be accomplished by one person though, it's a community effort."