By Johnny Dodd
August 27, 2007 12:00 PM

They raid the kitchen, trash the house, lounge in the backyard. No, not college kids on summer break—black bears, weighing as much as 700 lbs., that have staged a wave of food-seeking home invasions this summer in communities around California and Nevada’s Lake Tahoe. Making forays from the woods, they batter down doors, punch through walls and shatter windows to get in, then make off with whatever food they can get their giant paws on. Roughly 170 homes have been hit since January, and while no one so far has been injured—black bears seldom attack people—the furry thieves have caused an estimated $85,000 in property damage. Not to mention the toll it’s taken on frayed nerves. “It’s the perfect storm for bears,” says Jason Holley of California’s fish and game department. Long a nuisance thanks to careless tourists and locals who don’t lock away garbage, bears have been especially bold this season because of an 18-month drought that has wreaked havoc with their food and water supply. Ann Bryant, director of Tahoe’s BEAR League—which teaches homeowners to scare off bears by yelling and pounding on doors—offers some calming advice. “People need to understand they’re not coming to kill us,” she says. “They’re coming to eat our Hershey’s chocolate.” Here, some tales from the front.

“Once, I had a bear in my kitchen; he ran out when he saw me in the hallway, naked as a jaybird, on my way to weigh myself. I [also] chased a bear out of my living room. He’d been eating chocolate Kisses. I found 15 wrappers on the floor—just wrappers, no chocolate mess. He was much neater than my own kids ever were.”

—Gloria Bourke, 70, homeowner

“We got back from vacation and found the front window smashed in. When my husband opened the front door, he saw a little bear in the entry-way, sitting with a beach ball. We later figured a mother and two cubs had been living there for most of the week. It took seven people with shovels five hours to clean out the mess.”

—Catherine Hyde, 47, homeowner

“They went into my sister’s room and pooped on her bed. But they didn’t touch her Hannah Montana poster.”

—Danielle Hyde, 7

“I was in Indonesia when I got a call: A bear had gotten inside my house and set off the alarm. He battered down two doors; after that he was a perfect gentlemen. All he took was a tub of java chip Starbucks ice cream and a five-gallon tin of popcorn.”

—Tower Snow Jr., 59, homeowner

“My daughter won first place in a gingerbread-house contest at the resort where I work. The next morning, I walked into the [resort’s] kitchen and found whipped-cream paw prints. I opened the refrigerator and saw that a bear had eaten her house—all that remained were two walls. My daughter was pretty upset. It took her five hours to make that house.”

—Helen Beltran, 38, resort employee

“Last Sunday, around 12:30 a.m., I [heard] something drop on the kitchen floor. I thought, ‘Oh, God, [my husband] is eating a snack again.’ Then I realized he was sound asleep beside me. I walked downstairs and, before I knew it, I was staring at this bear. He was standing by the refrigerator, holding an orange-juice container. A pickle jar was at his feet. I thought, ‘Am I dreaming?’ Then I started screaming and ran back upstairs to tell my husband. Two of our dogs, a Jack Russell and a Yorkshire Terrier, chased him outside. He dropped the orange juice on our deck, but came back a couple minutes later and got it. He sure wanted that orange juice. Maybe he had a cold?”

—Shinil Quilty, 43, homeowner