While mama bear kept an edgy vigil in the driveway, her four cubs Saturday hit the jackpot, slinking into the open garage of Chris and Susan Hearn on Wimer Street and diving into big open tins of cat food — all this as the couple shot a soon-to-be-viral video.
No one was hurt, but as the Hearns stood atop their front stairs shooting video of mama bear, with Chris “bear whispering” reassuringly, the large, wooly ursine denizen of local forests made an unmistakable lunge at them with her front paws.
“Scared? Well, to be honest, it was mostly exciting,” says Susan Hearn, with a giggle. “But after she did her aggressive move, I said, ‘let’s get inside.’”
The video, shot at 2 in the morning, shows the entry of one cub into the garage, then another, then two more, setting the stage for things to get out of control. They climbed all over various machines and objects, got in the laundry room, ignored Chris’ commands to exit and looked with calm curiosity at the humans as they wolfed down the entire supply of pet food.
The bears, said Chris Hearn had no trouble figuring out how to pull the door from the garage into laundry room open by pulling it toward them. The Hearns had metal garbage cans for pet food because they foil raccoons, but bears figured them out immediately, he said.
“I was not nervous,” Chris said. “They seemed kind of cute, but I know they can be dangerous. The cubs were not scared, though the mama was a lot different. You hear so many stories about not getting between a mama and her cubs. It was a tight space.”
The door from the laundry room to the kitchen had also been left ajar, something not likely to happen again, she notes. The couple closed the laundry room door and dashed to the elevated front steps, only to find another dicey situation — the mama bear, waiting for her hungry cubs, who seemed about medium-grown, no longer small cubs.
“She was watching her cubs and talking to them. I could tell she was signaling them to get out of the garage,” she said. “Her body language looked a little threatened, then she did that aggressive movement, a sort of scare tactic. I thought she might charge.”
Chris Hearn can be heard on the video calling “mama bear” “sweetheart” and saying, “I know you’re protecting them. Don’t look at me like that …. She doesn’t like this. I’m hassling her … (the bear lunges) ‘It’s OK. They’re going to come out.’ She’s calling them out. ‘It’s OK, mama. You don’t have to be defensive.’”
The pair were alerted to garage noise by their two Icelandic sheep dogs. They shut the dogs in the bedroom to avoid further confrontation. They normally bark a lot, she says, but they didn’t bark at all during this situation.
“Thank God they’re sheepdogs and not terribly good watchdogs,” said Susan. “The cubs looked right at us from 6 feet away, tops, and they couldn’t care less about us. Mama bear at the entrance of the garage was more concerned about us and about protecting her cubs.”
The story on their Facebook pages got many shares, comments and expressions of gladness that no one got hurt. The video even made TV news that evening.
One commenter, Dennis Nadalin, posted, “Exciting footage!! I’ve filmed Polar, Grizzly, Brown, Black and Spirit Bears over the years. Believe me, I would have been very nervous in this situation. Mother bears are fiercely defensive of their cubs. Glad it turned out well!”
William Hearn wrote, “Chris: I love how you talk to her like you are old friends.”
Tori Lewis said, “More like ‘step away from my babies and nobody gets hurt!’ Way to handle the situation!”
The family has lived in the same house for 26 years, while raising children. He is a lawyer and was on the City Council. Bears have often been spotted in pine trees in their back yard and, of course, countless deer and the very rare cougar.
Susan summed it up, “Chris was great. He talked to the bears just like he talks to our dogs. He has that way of talking to animals.”
— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.