Does panhandling kill black bears?

Mammal Image Gallery It may have been alright for Yogi, but this bear may have its lifespan cut in half by its panhandling tendencies. See more pictures of mammals.
Mammal Image Gallery It may have been alright for Yogi, but this bear may have its lifespan cut in half by its panhandling tendencies. See more pictures of mammals.
Altrendo Nature/Getty Images

People love their convenience foods. From microwaveable TV dinners that cook up in minutes to prepackaged peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with the crusts already cut off -- if it comes in an easy-to-open package, we're all over it. As it turns out, humans are not alone in their affinity for these accessible edibles. Bears, too, are fond of our readily available goodies. So much, in fact, that it's killing some of them.

Bears are naturally omnivorous and stick with foods like nuts, berries and other plants for up to 85 percent of their dietary needs [source: NPS]. They're also opportunists -- if they can find food without having to dig through dirt or climb trees, they're all for it. Bears have an incredibly keen sense of smell, they can smell an apple from more than half a mile (1 kilometer) away [source: Appalachian Bear Rescue]. So when they detect a waft of your tasty lunch, they'll head your way and politely beg for a bite.


Although instances of panhandling by black bears have increased as people encroach further into bear country, the behavior has existed in one form or another since at least the 1880s. In 1888, park rangers in Yellowstone National Park reported black bears gathering around garbage piles near hotels and visiting park dumps in their quest for food. By 1891, the behavior had become so disruptive that bears were removed from the park occasionally. In 1910, people reported the first cases of official black bear panhandling when the animals were seen begging for handouts along park roads [source: Kaeding].

Despite the fact that a black bear eating cookies out of your hand would make for a great photo op, the reality is that feeding bears is dangerous. Don't for a second think that if you treat a black bear to a slice of pie, he'll repay you with kindness. In fact, he might just repay you with a trip to the emergency room. The majority of bear attacks are a direct result of the animal trying to get food. Feeding a bear also creates problems for the animal itself -- panhandling bears have half the life expectancy as bears that fend for themselves [source: NPS].


Dangers of Bear Panhandling

This man is not only breaking the law, but he could be contributing to this cub's death.
This man is not only breaking the law, but he could be contributing to this cub's death.
Jonathan S. Blair/National Geographic/Getty Images

The dangers of bear panhandling don't come from leaving tuna sandwiches out in the sun. Bears that engage in panhandling are easy targets for poachers, are more likely to be hit by cars and are more aggressive. They may also eat plastic or other garbage that could create digestive problems.

When bears start to associate people with easy-to-get food, they lose their instinctive fear of humans. Bears that aren't afraid of people are more likely to initiate an attack and show other aggressive behaviors. Many bears will raid homes and campsites in search of food. One man was attacked in his camping tent after a bear got a whiff of some fried chicken remnants on his arm from a meal he had prepared earlier in the day [source: Appalachian Bear Rescue].


While such behavior is obviously a problem for people, it's also problematic for the animal since many aggressive or so-called "nuisance" bears must be euthanized. Alternatively, startled homeowners or campers have killed bears that have broken into their property in self-defense [source: Appalachian Bear Rescue].

Bears become easy targets for poachers because they lose their fear of humans. Panhandling bears are more visible during the daytime and are so intent on finding food, they don’t anticipate humans presenting any danger.

In addition to being more visible, bears looking for handouts are also frequent visitors to highly populated areas, which raises their chances of getting hit by a car [source: Appalachian Bear Rescue]. Needless to say, drivers don't anticipate hulking bears around every turn, and when a 350-pound (159-kilogram) mass of flesh and fur instantly appears straddling the yellow line, there's not much a person can do but hope the brakes kick in on time.

Finally, when bears rummage through the garbage for a tasty treat, it goes without saying that they swallow more than just food. Any plastic, aluminum foil or other packaging mixed in with the tempting morsels could get eaten as well. Rangers and researchers often find bits of plastic and aluminum in the feces of those bears caught digging through dumpsters. An otherwise healthy bear found dead by a dumpster near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was the likely victim of digestive problems caused by eating trash [source: Appalachian Bear Rescue].

Yogi Bear and Boo Boo may have been able to get away with it, but in real life, panhandling causes way more problems than just missing picnic baskets.



Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • "Black Bears." National Park Service. Jan. 3, 2008. (Aug. 15, 2008)
  • "Frequently Asked Questions." Appalachian Bear Rescue. 2007. (Aug. 15, 2008)
  • "Garbage Kills Bears." Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. March 15, 2005. (Aug. 15, 2008)
  • Kaeding, Beth. "The Bears of Yellowstone." National Park Service. July 1997. (Aug. 15, 2008)
  • Will, Perry and Randy Hampton. "Why Feeding Stations for Bears Won't Work." Colorado Division of Wildlife. Sept. 25, 2007. (Aug. 15, 2008)