Danger: In the Backyard

Once upon a time—at 2 a.m. last Sept. 7, to be specific—Tim Foster woke with a start. Strange noises—loud thudding and grunting noises—emanated from the front room of his house in suburban Deep Creek Lake, Md. Foster, 43, scrambled out of bed and found a 252-lb. black bear “grabbing each side of our freezer and trying to yank it out the door,” he says. Three bear cubs stood by, watching. Foster, who stands 6’8″ and weighs 260 lbs., yelled and managed to drive the burglars down his driveway—until Mama Bear turned the tables. “She charged me. I got chased right back into the house,” he says. The Fosters remained under siege in their own home until wildlife officials eventually sedated the intruder. “I enjoy looking at bears in the wild,” says Foster, no longer traumatized. “I just don’t want them on my back porch.”

And that, in a nutshell, is the riddle. A generation ago, bears and other wild animals were seldom seen in populated areas. Now, say experts, encounters between citizens and wildlife are as common on residential cul-de-sacs as in parks like Yellowstone. “Some wild animal populations have rebounded,” explains Michael Conover, director of the Berryman Institute at Utah State University, which studies the rising rate of human-animal conflict. “We have bears in Connecticut, alligators in Miami, cougars in Salt Lake City.”

The results haven’t exactly made for a peaceable kingdom. In New Jersey, where bears are now so common that a home-invading bruin took to showing up outside Tony’s fictional McMansion on The Sopranos, officials scheduled the first bear hunt in more than 30 years last December despite protests from animal rights activists. In Florida, where alligators bit humans only five times during the 1950s, about 18 people a year are attacked by the reptiles these days—including 12-year-old Malcolm Locke, who lost a chunk of his left ear on May 19 while swimming in a lake in the Orlando ‘burbs.

Across the West a spate of mountain lion attacks has joggers avoiding suburban parks, while in Beverly Hills, Ozzy Osbourne is only one of countless residents who have lost a dog to coyotes. “Coyotes are everywhere,” says Andrea Tramontana of Hull, Mass. “You can hear them howling.”

Even in the densest redoubts of American civilization, it seems, homeowners are fighting losing battles against growing populations of deer, beavers and Canada geese. According to John Hadidian, director of the urban wildlife protection program of the Humane Society of the United States in Washington, D.C., “Animals are adjusting to human habitats. They’re realizing it’s pretty good living in suburbia.”

Odocoileus virginianus—better known as the white-tailed deer—is a case in point. After disappearing from much of its habitat by the beginning of the 1900s, they are soaring in number because of a determined effort by conservationists. Nothing, says Michael Conover, has helped spike the population like suburban sprawl: “They like lawns. They like bushes. Now we have many more deer than the Puritans saw.”

With the deer have come more than 20,000 cases of Lyme disease per year (spread largely by ticks that live on deer) and an estimated 1.5 million car vs. deer collisions, claiming 200 human lives. Then there’s the damage deer do to the front lawn. “Tulips are like butter to them,” says Elizabeth Hirsch, a venture capitalist who has resigned herself to hosting a herd of a dozen deer on her lawn in Greenwich, Conn. “They won’t touch the dandelions.”

Canada geese have made a similar adjustment. After well-intentioned wildlife officials began releasing captive birds to increase native populations in the’80s, geese that once migrated now make their permanent home in towns along the eastern seaboard. “You could walk across our lake on their backs,” says Bill Caldwell, a retiree in Charlotte, N.C., whose subdivision was invaded by about 150 noisy and aggressive birds that can each eat six square feet of grass a day—and poop every seven minutes. In Fair Lawn, N. J., a flock of some 200 birds has fouled ponds and beaches and brought traffic to a halt while crossing streets. Starting on Memorial Day, the townspeople began a full-scale offensive, using a $30,000 arsenal of handheld laser pointers and horns, in an effort to rid the town of the honking gaggle. “They are so frustrated, they are taking it to extremes,” says Kirk La Pierre of Al Saver Wildlife and Bird Management, who runs the goose patrol.

While folks in Fair Lawn for the most part stand united, other animal infestations and violent attempts to avoid them have caused deep rifts. When beaver, another once-rare species, did thousands of dollars’ worth of unwanted landscaping in a Birmingham, Ala., neighborhood—”They took out about 20 or 30 trees in a weekend,” says Chuck Shannon, owner of one of the subdivision’s $750,000 lakeside homes—some residents hired exterminators. But animal-loving locals protested fiercely until unwelcome media attention caused the beaver killers to back down. “They had better not touch another beaver as long as I am here,” says home-maker Pam Begue.

And so the question arises: Who is to blame for all the close encounters—the humans or their new animal neighbors? As suburban housing encroaches ever further into what was once undeveloped wilds, experts say, bears and other creatures in our backyards are simply an inevitability. “A lot of times a bear will hibernate, and while he’s snoozing a whole subdivision will go in next to him,” says Bruce Richards, an officer for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “He wakes up and figures the bird feeders his new neighbors have put up are fair game. Who can blame him?”

Thus in Aspen, Colo., tennis legend Chris Evert walks into her multimillion-dollar vacation home and finds a bear in the kitchen. In Highlands, N.C., real estate agent Monica Calloway no longer takes her SUV to the car wash for a cherry-scented wax. “Every time, the bears would be all over my Expedition,” she says. “They’ve smashed the windows and ripped up the upholstery.” And back in Deep Creek Lake, Md., Tim Foster is no longer surprised by visitors in the night. In May he was again wakened in the wee hours. “Three cubs were climbing on our deck, one was sitting in a chair,” he says. Then he heard his wife, Tess, scream from the front room. “The [mother] bear was gone,” he says. “But you could see muddy paw prints on the freezer.”

J.D. Heyman. Jennifer Longley in Hull, Eric Francis in Fair Lawn, Victoria Brett in Portland, Maine, Michaele Ballard and Leigh Dyer in Charlotte, Mary Boone in Ravensdale, Wash., Lori Rozsa in Miami, Nancy Wilstach in Birmingham and Susan Mandel in Washington, D.C.

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