September 20th, 2018


A mother had a black bear killed to keep her family safe. Now, she's receiving death threats

Peter Holley

By Peter Holley The Washington Post

Published August 10, 2016

A mother had a black bear killed to keep her family safe. Now, she's receiving death threats

When a black bear broke into her kitchen and attacked the family dog, Julie Faith Strauja decided she had run out of options.

The 400-pound male bear had already broken into her garage to get to her trash, prompting Strauja to move the waste inside.

Now the bear was going a step further, entering the California mountain home Strauja's family moved into last month, according to the San Bernardino Sun.

Instead of trying another tactic to keep the animal at bay, Strauja obtained a depredation permit from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, allowing her to kill the bear, or to have somebody kill it on her behalf.

When the animal attempted to enter her property a third day in a row, according to wildlife officials, Strauja's friend shot and killed the bear July 31.

Strauja told the Sun she hasn't regretted her decision. But others in Forest Falls, Calif. - a community of about 1,100 people in the San Bernardino Mountains, 70 miles east of Los Angeles - certainly do.

"I've had death threats and my address posted all over social media," Strauja told the Sun.

She showed the newspaper an image of a Facebook post published Wednesday - but later taken down - that included Strauja's address.

"Contact me if you want to legally make their life a living hell," the Facebook post said.

The Los Angeles Times reported that some locals referred to Strauja as a "flatlander" with "no business living on the hill," referring to the tightknit community more than a mile above sea level.

Strauja told the Sun that she's an animal lover who has fostered 15 dogs in the past year. Before the bear was killed, she tried mace on the animal, sprayed it with a hose and attempted to scare it away, she said. A deputy had even used a bean bag round to push the bear back into the wilderness, but it kept returning, she said.

She told the Times that when she came home July 29 with her three kids - ages 5, 6 and 9 - she found the bear inside her kitchen and called 911.

Andrew Hughan, a spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, told the paper that a game warden visited the property and documented damage to the home and fur on the windows, where the animal managed to crawl inside.

By the time Strauja requested the depredation permit, she felt that she had no other options - especially as a parent, she told ABC affiliate KABC.

"I have three little kids and it was pretty terrifying to come home to a bear in the kitchen," Strauja told the station.

"I got the depredation permit because I needed to protect my family," she added.

She told the Times that the bear's death was a tragedy, but the fury its death unleashed has been shocking.

"There kind of was a mob mentality," Strauja told the newspaper. "People walking by my house yelling 'bear killer' and obscenities."

Locals told KABC that the animal's death was crushing.

"People get attached to their bears up here," Frank Sexton noted.

The bear's killing was especially hurtful for Alycia Wheeler, who moved to Forest Falls three years ago from Utah. One of her favorite things about living in the mountain town was seeing bears in her yard, including the animal that recently died.

She had named that bear "Big Red" because of its light-colored fur.

The "gentle giant" might amble past her back door or show up in her backyard after dark, Wheeler told The Washington Post.

One morning, she recalled, as her husband was leaving the house for work Big Red was standing beside the family's car. It didn't take more than her husband saying "Hey bear, hey bear!" for the animal to slowly walk away, she recalled.

Big Red was in Wheeler's yard the night before he was killed, she said.

"He wasn't this mean, aggressive bear that they've made him out to be," she told The Post. "These bears were hungry and they look for food, and if it's not properly stored they'll find it."

She added: "Unfortunately, somebody who is new to the area took it upon themselves to have the bear shot and killed. I just really hope that in the future, they reach out to the community. Many of us have taken measures to keep the bears safe in the past. When in doubt, ask your neighbors."

Wheeler said she has faced her own backlash for speaking up for the dead animal.

The bear's death, she said, has "divided the community."

"All of this could've been avoided," she said. "By educating people, it doesn't have to happen again."

Forest Falls is on the edge of the San Bernardino National Forest - "home to a large black bear population," according to the U.S. Forest Service. A quarterly publication produced in Forest Falls by a community nonprofit is known as Bear Facts.

California's black bear population has approximately doubled in the past 35 years, according to estimates from California's wildlife agency, which notes that "the statewide black bear population is conservatively estimated to be between 25,000 and 30,000."

Bears, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife notes, "react to the environment around them."

And sometimes, that leads to encounters between bears and humans.

"Many new mountain residents or visitors are surprised when they first discover a black bear rummaging through their garbage or walking across their deck in the early morning," the agency says. "Bears, distributed throughout most mountainous regions of the state, are always looking for their next meal, and if the food is simple to obtain, all the better.

"In these situations, bears quickly learn to expect to find food at these locations. Initially these encounters with bears are enjoyed or acceptable to the landowners or residents. However, as the encounters turn into a major nuisance or significant property damage begins to occur, residents view the bears as unwanted pests or even public safety threats."

Black bears - "a valued member of California's fauna" - are designated as game mammals in California, according to the state, and hunting is restricted to a specific season. But, the state wildlife agency says, "in the case of a problem bear, the law provides for the issuance of a depredation permit to landowners or tenants who experience property damage from bears. The permit allows the permittee or designee to kill the offending bear regardless of the time of year.

"But a depredation permit is the last step in a series of steps taken to eliminate the problem."

Twenty-six depredation permits were issued in San Bernardino County from 2006 through 2014, according to state figures; six bears were "taken" through such permits during that period.

"I have lived here for seven years and never had a problem with a bear going in [my] house," Pennie Justin, a Forest Falls resident, told the Sun, adding that she considers bears "majestic creatures."

"Go to a neighbor," Justin added. "Get in a car. They don't hurt you as long as you leave them alone," Justin said. "My son walks home at 2 o'clock in morning. No problem."

Hughan, the California Fish and Wildlife spokesman, told the Sun he understands the local frustration.

"We don't want to destroy animals unless we have to," he said. "The fact is this bear was inside the residence and had been inside the house several times."

David Garshelis, a bear specialist who works for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, told the The Post that in some communities, bears present a formidable challenge. Noting that they have noses sensitive enough to smell food inside people's homes, Garshelis called bears "intelligent, strong and persistent."

"Although black bears rarely attack and generally avoid people, they are powerful animals and are capable of injuring or killing people," according to the U.S. Forest Service. "A bear can be very dangerous if provoked or conditioned to people. 'Conditioned' means the bear is used to be being around humans. A conditioned bear may associate people with food sources. This may turn a bear into a 'problem animal' and will have to be dealt with aggressively; sometimes at the expense of its life."

Once a bear has gone as far as repeatedly breaking into a home, Garshelis told The Post, a resident is left with two options: Moving the animal or killing it.

"If the animal enters your home, what prevents it from entering again?" he asked. "You're always on edge and have to lock yourself in at all times. Even if you're not attacked, the bear could trample a child. It's an unpredictable situation."

In addition to being expensive, Garshelis said government agencies might be reluctant to move a bear to another location 50 miles away and risk the bear repeating the behavior at another home and injuring someone.

"It seems like a good intention to save the bear, but if someone else gets hurt, the agency has to worry about being sued," he told The Post. "I think people don't want to be responsible for those kinds of decisions."

He noted that some communities have ordinances that ban feeding pets outside or leaving a dirty grill on a desk or having a bird feeder - all of which attract bears.

Others, he said, have invested in break-proof dumpsters and specially designed garbage cans.

Some residents of Forest Falls are pushing to do exactly that. A GoFundMe page created by Wheeler aims to raise money for purchasing bear-proof trash cans and educational signs was launched July 31. So far, though, the effort has raised $295 of its $10,000 goal.

Community members also have scheduled a meeting to discuss how residents can live safely with local wildlife, KABC reported.

"I know this community, and when tragedies happen they usually pull together," Strauja told the Sun. "I hope this will happen here."