I‘m a paranoid person. Always prepared for worst-case scenarios. Drive into a lake? Roll the windows down and swim! Zombie attack? Go for the brains! Need to open a bear trap? Throw a bandana over your face and slide the door straight up! Right? Well, things don’t always work out exactly as planned…but they do work out.
I lived in Bear Country for 15 years. Three days before I moved to the city, I learned that a bear cub was caught in one of the Division of Fish & Wildlife's bear traps at Great Gorge, a condo community in the heart of bear habitat.
The DFW was out to get the cub’s mother. She and her cubs were attracted to scraps of food from some of the many open and unlocked dumpsters throughout Great Gorge. For years, the DFW knew the dumpsters were not bear-proof, and they did nothing about it.
The DFW turns a blind eye to the garbage law, issuing just a handful of summonses in the past 5 years for garbage violations. Naturally, this leads to unwanted bear encounters—which are then used by the state to justify the trophy hunt. On top of it all, the DFW kills those bears they deem to be “nuisances” for eating garbage.
And it was only a matter of time before this pro-hunt agency made Mama Bear their next statistic.
My mind replayed the times my friends told me how to open a bear trap. Now all I could think of was how much trouble I’d be in, because I’d been arrested before. But we also knew that if DFW got this cub, they could kill him…or use him to bait his mother, or even shoot her on sight. Or, I could free the cub…and then probably go to jail. I started to feel a little sick.
It was dark and raining and Mark and Kim Nagelhout were at the trap when I got there. Bear Group activists for over 10 years, tonight they acted as watchdogs, documenting the scene.
A few onlookers milled about. The mother bear, along with her 2nd cub, waited in the nearby woods for her trapped child. A security truck was there, and the police had just arrived.
The cop began to ask questions like who were we, were we going to touch the trap. We gave him a pretty weak ‘no.’ It was hard to focus on what he was saying, because someone was talking over him. Loudly.
That someone was the trapped cub. Some people think bears growl…or roar even. But they don’t. They bawl. And his bawling rumbled across the parking lot and bounced off the building. If you didn’t know about bears, you may have thought it was scary. But it wasn’t. This was the sound of something wild. And it would have been a wonderful sound…had it only not been so sad. It wasn’t the sound that went through us. It was the sadness.
After what seemed like forever, the cop left. I started to do a Facebook Live, and the three of us walked down the steep driveway toward the trap.
But first we had to pass security. We got closer, and the security guy rolled down his window. I braced myself but all he said was, “Hey, be careful. There are bears over there”. And Kim, just replied coolly, “Yeah, we know. We’re good.” And we didn’t miss a beat and we kept walking.
Was the security guy really afraid to get out of the truck? The cub was crying and the temptation to open the trap was growing. I continued the Facebook Live, bashing DFW for not enforcing the garbage law, and for trapping and killing “nuisance” bears – all to promote trophy hunting. The whole thing is so infuriating I was trying not to cry. And I felt disgusted knowing that the DFW was probably on their way.
I’ll be honest with you. It’s not that I’m never afraid of authority. Since we are children, it’s drilled into us to behave, “or it will go on your permanent record.” It affected me. But sometimes you reach a tipping point when you’re more angry than afraid. Then, you can pretty much do anything.
And it hit me. The cop wasn’t coming back. I stopped the Facebook Live, because I realized, this is just too easy.
And it was clear that this bear was asking for help. He was literally saying “MOM! HELP ME! LET ME OUT!”
And there are some things, you just can’t say no to. No matter what. And this was definitely one of those things.
So I said to Mark and Kim, “OK, you guys. I’m going to let him out.”
I called upon my bear-trap-opening-knowledge, and yelled over, “Get out of the way!” I pulled on the door…and nothing happened! All my experience talking about how to open a bear trap did not prepare me…that there was some kind of lock on the door.
And then I noticed the headlights at the top of the parking lot. I remember thinking how lame it would be if the cops stopped us before I could open the trap. By some miracle, I realized it wasn’t a lock but a pin. So I pulled the pin out, and grabbed the door and pulled and…
Nothing happened! Again! (@#$%&!) I couldn’t get a good grip on the door because it was raining and slippery.
I called out, “Guys, I need help!” Mark handed Kim the camera, and ran over.
The headlights were now coming down the hill. It seemed the one thing the security guy did all night was to call the police and tell them to come back.
The patrol car came to a stop in front of us. Mark had one side of the trap door and I had the other. We rocked the door from side to side to unstick it, and pulled it up in a see-saw motion.
I was afraid the cub would be too scared to come out. I started kicking the side of the trap, and I called over to Kim to kick the back of the trap.
Instead, Kim said the magic words I’ll never forget, “He’s out! He just scooted right out!”
I never saw the cub.
The cop got out of the car. “You SAID you weren’t going to touch the trap. Now go stand over there,” he said, gesturing toward the car. And we went and stood next to the patrol car and we got arrested. And yes, it’s on our permanent record. And the bear family walked back into the woods, together. And it was all OK.
We spent the evening at the station, waiting for the DFW cop to arrive. Three hours later, he stomped in and disappeared into the next room. He emerged an hour later, and without even looking in our direction, he stomped out. And we were free to go.
In court, Mark got a huge fine. I got a fine and 15 days in jail, which we later appealed. With my jail sentence came much media attention. But I couldn’t have opened the trap in time, surely not with the police there, without Mark and Kim both.
Public support for a frightened bear cub crying for his mother was overwhelming. Everyone I spoke with said they would have released the cub, too.
People were also shocked that I was going to jail. To our stunned surprise, Senator Robert Torricelli heroically swooped in, paid our fines, AND asked Governor Murphy to pardon us. (which Murphy never did). And over 200,000 people signed a petition asking for me not to go to jail.
In the end, thanks to Bear Group attorney, Doris Lin, the judge threw out my jail time and greatly reduced our fines.
The courtroom cheered. Someone shouted out “I LOVE YOU!” to the judge. But most importantly, we knew the cub was with his mother.
I CAN’T TELL ANYONE TO BREAK A LAW. But I can tell you…if you see someone or something who needs help…if you can, help him. It will work out right in the end. It always does.
*CAUTION: What we did that night, we did as a GROUP…and with a black bear. Black bears are flight animals. They usually run when afraid, and they don’t aggressively defend their cubs the way other bear species do. Do not do things like this alone. And always treat ALL wild animals – including black bears – with respect and at a distance. Never approach or try to feed a bear.