Bears in the ‘hood: Abbotsford vet says bears a nuisance not a threat

Abbotsford veterinarian Dr. Ken Macquisten believes the recent bear shooting was an 'over-reaction.'

Black bears have been sighted in both Abbotsford and Mission.

Black bears have been sighted in both Abbotsford and Mission.

A local bear expert says it was unnecessary for Abbotsford Police to have shot a black bear on June 24.

Dr. Ken Macquisten is an Abbotsford veterinarian with an interest in wildlife. He was the founder of the Grouse Mountain Refuge for Endangered Wildlife, and the Kicking Horse Grizzly Bear Refuge. He does the veterinary work for the Critter Care Wildlife Society in Langley, which saves injured and orphaned wild animals, including bears.

“The shooting of it is a total over-reaction. I would be more worried about the bullets flying around than the bear,” he said. “We should be educating everyone to chill out.”

Police officers watched the black bear for more than two and a half hours, with up to 10 officers tracking it through backyards. They said it showed no fear of humans, and was only mildly irritated by pepper spray. It was getting onto decks searching for food, and even scratching at windows.

Abbotsford Police officers waited for a conservation officer, and when he did not respond, they shot the bruin numerous times with a patrol rifle, which they acknowledged was not of a calibre heavy enough to cleanly kill a bear.

Macquisten said people in communities frequented by black bears, such as North Vancouver and Whistler, would be looking at the Abbotsford story and questioning the course of action.

“Where is the proportionate reaction to this thing?” he asked, noting he observed a similar situation in 2008 that resulted in the death of a small, young female black bear.

“Each time there has been a bear in Abbotsford, the response seems to be, ‘There’s a serial killer on the loose.’ ”

Macquisten said the real problem is urban Abbotsford residents are unprepared for the close contact with bears that occurred in June, which saw one bear tranquilized and relocated, another trapped and relocated, and one killed.

People leave garbage accessible and bird feeders have been left up, despite appeals from conservation officers and wildlife advocates.

The police force cannot afford to leave itself open to criticism of being unresponsive, Macquisten said.

“The response is more based on a worry of liability if there is no response.

“Every single time a  bear is killed, the mantra is public safety.”

The truth is, black bears are inherently shy animals, and attacks on humans are extremely rare, Macquisten maintains, quoting a B.C. and Alberta study that cites 19 black bear incidents resulting in serious injury or fatality over a 37-year period. None of those incidents involved a female bear.

Macquisten wants to dispel some myths about black bears. While grizzly sows will aggressively defend their cubs, the same cannot be said for female black bears, which almost never attack. Unfortunately, the aggressive traits of grizzly bears are often generalized to black bears.

Also, black bears do not have a chase instinct, and will not automatically run after a fleeing person. A cougar will, he warns.

Macquisten said serious attacks are almost always in remote areas where bears have little contact with people. The least dangerous bears are those that live in close proximity to people.

“It’s just not going to happen that that bear is going to come after you,” he said. “They would much rather avoid confrontation.”

Grizzly bears are more aggressive, but they were wiped out in the Fraser Valley by early settlers, and generally are no closer than Squamish and the Fraser Canyon.

Macquisten is a member of the North Shore Black Bear Network, a group of citizens who became concerned when 39 bears were killed in their community in one year.

“People were really bothered by that,” he said, and they formed a group to educate the public in 1999.

Christine Miller handles public education for the group, and said its activities include driving neighbourhoods looking for homes where garbage has been put out the night before pickup. They will then send these residents education material about attractants, and how they could face fines for leaving them out.

They have sent information to 1,450 homes in the past 12 months.

“It has had a huge impact, but it’s labour intensive,” she said. Last year, only 12 bears were shot on the North Shore.

Public education is the key, and she believes the Abbotsford Mission Bear Aware program will eventually be effective.

Because bird feeders are a problem in Abbotsford, she advises people to get rid of the long feeding tubes. Replace them with bird baths, and “just put a few spoonfuls of high quality feed out, when they’re there to watch the birds.”

She said bird feeders will also bring rats, and therefore coyotes, leading to more wildlife conflicts.

Miller blames bear conflicts on humans, rather than the young bears that typically find themselves in trouble.

“They’re just finding their way, and following their noses.”

Macquisten hopes the increase in bear visits to urban backyards in future causes less fear.

“Think of bears as more of a nuisance than a threat,” he advises. “That’s the realization the people of North Vancouver have come to.”

Abbotsford Police Const. Ian MacDonald said bear sightings continue to be common. Officers responded to six such reports over the long weekend and were able to scare off the bear in each case.

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