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Keeping bears at bay

Matthew Renda
mrenda@tahoedailytribune.com
Matthew Renda / Tahoe Daily TribuneSunnyside resident John Cunningham prepares to switch on the electric wires that cover the windows and doors of his residence on Thursday afternoon. The wires are meant to deter bears from breaking into the house.
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SUNNYSIDE, Calif. – In 2009, a large bear broke three window panes in the home of John Cunningham, who owns a modest two-story cabin on Lake Tahoe’s West Shore.

After gaining entry, the bruin helped itself to a gallon of ice-cream and didn’t forget the chocolate sauce, said Cunningham, who is primarily a San Mateo, Calif., resident. It was polite enough to leave the empty ice-cream container on the kitchen table – but it destroyed the kitchen pantry.

This incident was one of four that took place in the past two years at the cabin, and Cunningham – fed up with lengthy clean-up operations and expensive repairs – began searching for a solution.

Cunningham has strung electrified wires – capable of emitting 9,500 volts of electricity – in front of the cabin’s many doors and windows, designed to give curious bruins a shock they’ll remember, while protecting Cunningham’s house during the sporadic periods of his lengthy absence.

“It’s such a wonderful option,” said Ann Bryant, executive director of the BEAR League, who said the wires represent a humane approach to a persistent problem. “It is a real solution from owners who are gone a lot, which makes it hard to defend their cabins or houses. Empty houses are so vulnerable.”

Most homeowners turn the electric wires on when they leave for extended periods, and then switch the device off when they return, said Doug McNair, owner of Highlander Homes – a West Shore-based general contracting outfit that specializes in installing the bear deterrent systems.

The wires are extremely effective, McNair said.

“I’ve installed 17 systems so far, and there has been 100 percent security,” McNair said. “We’ve had zero bear break-ins in houses with the wiring systems.”

The price of installing a bear deterrent system is between $400 and $600, depending on the extent of the work, McNair said.

Instilling a negative experience and a reluctance to visit urban areas is an important aspect of the electric-wire initiative, Bryant said.

Bears are attracted to lingering food smells in empty cabins, or lotions and lemon-scented cleaning products, Bryant said. If the bears manage to gain entry into empty houses and satisfy their hunger, they record this as a positive experience and continue to seek out other houses.

However, if in the quest for food, the bruins receive a substantial shock – in this case an electric one – it is unlikely they will return to the same house.

“The bears have a negative experience,” she said. “Now, it is likely they will associate that experience with that particular house. However, if enough people begin to use electric wires, the benefits accumulate, and the bears associate the negative experience with neighborhoods in general and are likely to stay out of urban areas.”

The wiring is off the ground, Bryant said, so birds and squirrels are safe from electrocution because the subject must have contact with the ground in order to receive a shock.

If children touch the wire, they will receive a terrible shock, but not enough to be dangerous or life-threatening, McNair said.

Caution signs are posted on the wires so law enforcement or firefighters are made aware of potential danger in the event they respond to an emergency at the home.

“Some people have expressed concerns with the aesthetics,” McNair said. “They don’t want it to seem from the road that there is barbed wire across the windows and doors. I try to hide the wires the best I can without making them ineffective.”

Cunningham, for one, is partly skeptical regarding the system’s capability, but remains hopeful.

“We won’t know if it works until a bear comes through the neighborhood,” he said. “Still, I feel pretty confident that this should work.”

Phone calls seeking comment from California Fish and Game and Nevada Department of Wildlife were unreturned.


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