Hank the Tank, a 500-pound black bear who lives in South Lake Tahoe, California, is a wanted individual. Residents of this idyllic ski town have reportedly called the police about Hank more than 150 times, and he’s been caught in the act of property damage at least 38 times in the pursuit of human food. According to the New York Times, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is edging towards euthanasia as the solution for Hank’s disruptive presence, while bear advocates frantically try to arrange a spot for him at a wildlife sanctuary
Hank has become a national media story, because of his sheer bigness, but coverage that describes him as nothing but a destructive and dangerous force misses the mark. He doesn’t know about laws, and, as a bear, there’s no way he’ll ever find out about them! He is, above all else, innocent. Hank deserves protection from state violence.
Having a bear inside your house is scary and dangerous— I don’t want to minimize that—but even the South Lake Tahoe residents who are most threatened by the prospect of hulking, furry home invaders don’t want Hank dead. Ann Bryant, president of a local black bear advocacy organization called the BEAR League, told CBS13 Sacremento that people in the community “do not want the bear to pay the price for human ignorance,” adding that “when a bear is set to die in their community, people take a stand.” In an interview with a blog called AnimalRightsChannel, Bryant said that, pre-COVID, South Lake Tahoe residents had happily adapted to the presence of bears in their community and that pushback against Hank’s presence was driven by newcomers. “[The bears] go swimming at the beach with us,” she said. “They have names.”
Hank might be special (I mean, look at him), but he isn’t one-of-a-kind, and neither are the problems he’s caused for the South Lake Tahoe community. Once animals like Hank have been pushed out of their natural habitat by the development of towns and roadways, it’s common for them to take advantage of the presence of human beings by feeding off of the food we leave out in the open—in unsecured garbage cans, bird feeders, caked onto barbeque grills, or inside unlocked houses. After they get used to eating what we eat, bears either can’t or don’t want to go back to old food sources, which is where local authorities get involved.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has an extensive black bear policy that classifies bears into different threat categories—a bear such as Hank, who loves eating garbage but has never been physically aggressive to a human, is a “habituated bear.” One of its key directives in dealing with animals like Hank is “to alleviate economic losses or public health and safety problems caused by wildlife.” According to these policies, Hank has been “hazed” with non-lethal methods like paintballs, Tasers, bean bag rounds, and sirens by both DFW members and local police, who gave Hank the Tank his nickname. These deterrents, however, haven’t been enough to keep Hank for coming back for more of that delicious trash.
While California doesn’t list the number of animals it is forced to kill or rehome annually, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services division, which exists to “provide Federal leadership and expertise to resolve wildlife conflicts,” does. According to the latest data listed, the USDA’s Wildlife Services “killed or euthanized” 449 black bears in at least 18 states in 2020. That same year, only one person in the U.S. was killed by a black bear in the entire country—and the remains of that 43-year-old man, Patrick Madura, were found at a remote campsite in Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee, not a backyard in a gated community.
The pushback against habituated bears by local authorities and mainstream news outlets reminds me of the vendetta against sharks sparked by both the 1974 novel and 1975 film Jaws—which Peter Benchley, author of the former, dedicated the last years of his life to correcting through shark conservation work. “Knowing what I know now, I could never write that book today,” Benchley told the Daily Express in 2006, just days before he died. “Sharks don't target human beings, and they certainly don't hold grudges.”
Place fear aside and examine the actual data, and in both cases you’ll find that humans are far more likely to kill than be killed by either animal. So why does the fact that we feel threatened by these animals outweigh the counsel of experts who say we’re the ones drawing them closer to us?
Or, better put in tweet form:
To borrow a legal argument, a bear who’s broken into 28 houses is a bear that’s been near people 28 times without hurting anybody. Give everyone a way to secure their garbage cans and leave Hank the Tank alone.
UPDATE: The hunt for Hank has officially been called off, thanks to—I swear to God—DNA evidence that proved three different bears were responsible for the property destruction previously blamed on Hank alone. Wild!
Follow Katie Way on Twitter.