Since summer, a black bear known as Hank the Tank has made a 500-pound nuisance of himself in South Lake Tahoe, California, breaking into more than two dozen homes to rummage for food and leaving a trail of damage behind.
So far, nobody has been able to deter Hank, said Peter Tira, a spokesperson for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Department officials and local police have tried to “haze” the bear with paintballs, bean bags, sirens and Tasers, but he is too drawn to humans and their food to stay away for long.
“It’s easier to find leftover pizza than to go in the forest,” Tira said Sunday.
Residents have called police about Hank more than 100 times since July as he continues to rampage through Tahoe Keys, a gated community about 190 miles northeast of San Francisco.
Now authorities are trying to trap Hank and possibly euthanize him.
“This is a bear that has lost all fear of people,” Tira said. “It’s a potentially dangerous situation.”
Hank, so named by local residents, has used his size and strength to barge through garages, windows and doors. As of Thursday, Hank had broken into at least 28 homes.
At 500 pounds, Hank is “exceptionally large,” state wildlife authorities said. The average black bear in the western United States weighs 100 to 300 pounds, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
But Hank’s diet of human food and garbage has expanded his size, said Ann Bryant, executive director of the Bear League, a wildlife rescue service in Homewood, California.
“He didn’t get fat like that eating berries and grubs,” she said, adding that it was not clear how Hank developed a taste for human food.
Hank became one of the neighborhood’s least-wanted residents in July, which is around the time that bears enter hyperphagia, a period when they bulk up on calories before they hibernate for the winter, according to the National Park Service.
But Hank’s penchant for breaking into homes did not slow in the winter, leading the state wildlife authorities to believe that he never went into hibernation, Tira said. Sometimes bears do not hibernate if they have year-round access to food, he said.
Hank did not wander into a trap set for him this month, so authorities are brainstorming a new approach, with euthanasia being their “last option,” Tira said.
If officials move the bear to another area, that could simply relocate the problem, he said, adding that all the sanctuaries are too full to take Hank.
And that is the point of contention between the California wildlife authorities and the residents of Tahoe Keys. Many of the residents want to see Hank sent to a sanctuary and not euthanized, Bryant said.
Black bears have roamed the area for generations. They have coexisted with the residents, who have learned not to leave food out and to seal their trash in bear-proof containers. Still, bears have occasionally caused trouble in the area. In 2007, The New York Times described the animals as “home-wreckers.”
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The bear situation took a turn during the coronavirus pandemic, when some people moved to the area to work remotely. New residents were not all “as bear aware as they should be,” Tira said. And after people fled South Lake Tahoe during the Caldor fire in September, the bears assumed the place of humans, walking the streets and checking out homes, he said.
Even though neighbors do not want Hank to vandalize their homes, they want him to be treated with respect, Bryant said. State authorities took down a bear trap in the area after someone spray painted “Bear Killer” on it.
Residents are quick to point out that Hank is gentle and sweet. When he breaks into a home, he is far more interested in the food than any people who may be inside, Bryant said.
“He just sits there and eats,” she said. “He doesn’t attack them. He doesn’t growl. He doesn’t make rude faces.”
Although homeowners have reported that Hank has caused extensive property damage, he has not harmed any humans, authorities said.
“Why should this big dummy die?” Bryant said.
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