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Updated: Monday, December 2 2013, 01:08 PM EST
Black Bears are at the top of the food chain in North Carolina. But this year their main food supply of acorns was wiped out due to heavy rains and they've begun wandering into towns looking for scraps. Wildlife officials say feeding bears can be very dangerous, even though it's not against the law. Reporter Mike Mason found one woman who lives to feed these huge animals.
Right now many Black Bears are nearly starving. They've recently killed people's pets but one woman who's nearly 90 years old doesn't seem bothered by that. She says she has a special connection with bears and her favorite thing is hanging out with them on her back patio.
Brandon Bryson is an officer with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. He admits, "They're hungrier this year." In fact, bears have been heading to town searching for food and running into people along the way.
Officer Bryson tells us, "We can expect more encounters this year until hibernation begins." But some bears may hold off on hibernation and head straight to their favorite home in Haw Creek. This may just be the best bear buffet in town. It’s where 87 year old Barbara Bernard has been feeding the bears for years. Bernard says, "They come 2 to 3 times a day, maybe. They're part of my life, a big part of my life."
Just like pets, her favorite bears each have a name. Bernard has them all memorized, "Mama Bear, Spunkie, Charger, Nimrod, Slate, Winkin, Lincoln, Nod, Perky and Peanut."
Barbara's obviously not afraid, snapping hundreds of photos while feeding bears right on her back deck. She often keeps her sliding glass door wide open saying, "I'm honored that they trust me." Reporter Mike Mason asked, "Do you think you have a special connection with them?" She replied, "Certainly, of course I do. I didn't expect that to happen but it happened. I wouldn't give it up for anything."
Officer Bryson has a warning for Bernard, "Common sense is going to say you don't feed a wild animal that's as large as a bear and try to keep it near your home." Karen Paradise, who was directly affected by Black Bears, echoes those concerns, "They're hungry and they're going after anything right now."
Paradise witnessed a darker side of these bears less than 2 weeks ago. At her home in Weaverville, she watched as a one bear viciously attacked and killed her two pet goats; Daisy and Huey. She remembers how the bear, "Just snapped the neck and ripped the neck open." Paradise feels Bernard is making a big mistake because when bears rely on people for food they can lose their fear of humans and may attack when that food is gone. Paradise warns, "If she ever happens to run out of food and they get aggressive, they can get aggressive whether she's feeding them or not, so I just do not recommend it."
Bernard doesn’t seem affected by the advice saying, "I would say mind your own business. These are my bears and this is my property and if I want to feed them I will feed them."
Officer Bryson says what Barbara's doing is not against the law, “That in itself is not illegal in North Carolina." However, it is illegal to feed bears junk food, or anything that's processed or "non-organic". Mason asked Bryson, "So no Twinkies for the bears?" and Bryson answered, "No."
Reporter Mike Mason recently saw three bears eating trash near Downtown Asheville. He rolled down his car window to record the bears knocking over a trash bin. That's when one suddenly charged his vehicle and he soon got the message and left. But some fear Bernard won't and one day her generous nature will come back to bite her. Bryson has one last warning for her, "I would tell Barbara please don't feed the bear. You're kind of creating the perfect storm for a potential conflict."
To this Bernard simply maintains, "I wouldn't give it up for anything." Bernard says her special connection with the bears began soon after her husband died. They were married for 57 years. Bear sightings in the area should slow down soon, as hibernation typically begins in mid to late December. However, bears in Western North Carolina still wander out of their dens every now and then and officials say some male bears don’t hibernate at all. They may go into a semi-hibernation state and can be slow and drowsy but if they’re hungry enough they may hunt for food in the middle of Winter.
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