Sharman Horwood

Writer and Visual Artist

Creature Comforts

Wild animals have quickly learned how to take advantage of human habitats. Coyotes like to hunt rodents on golf courses where there are fewer places for them to hide. Raccoons and squirrels much prefer city attics than any nest they can build; houses provide lots of opportunity for cozy, warm spots. They don’t have to pay rent or heating costs, either; the space is there for the taking. There was one online video where a raccoon used a cat door to reach in and steal the indoor welcome mat to take home to its den. Much better than leaves and dead grass for warm insulation. And most recently, a raccoon in Florida has learned to rattle a rock against a woman’s window when the outdoor cat food has run out, literally knocking on the patio door of a cooperative human. Animals in the wild have to be opportunists to survive, and that translates into using us the best way they can.

Bears in particular use every available advantage they might possess. One of my favourite videos online is of a bear rather ingeniously making its way to a bird feeder. The feeder stands alone on a pole, well over its head and it can’t reach it. But it knows there’s food in it. Running nearby is a washing line, one end of which is attached to a tree. The bear climbs the tree, then levers itself out onto the line. It’s not the biggest of bears, but it is heavy, yet the line surprisingly holds the animal’s weight. It grasps the upper clothesline with two front paws, and places two hind feet on the bottom line. That bends precariously low but still holds the bear. It shuffles along, an inch at a time. Eventually—after a couple of anxious moments where it sways back and forth, back and forth, but miraculously doesn’t fall—it reaches the birdfeeder. It wraps one paw around it, for an anchor, pulls the feeder close and licks all the seeds out of it. Then the bear makes its way back to the tree the same way it came. For the bear a full tummy of high calorie seeds is well worth the risk of a fall. After all, it is going to need 30,000 calories a day to fatten up for hibernation. That kind of hunger is a huge motivation to take chances near humans.

Bears also like to be comfortable, and just for pleasure they’ll take the opportunity for a long, hot soak, particularly in a hot tub that’s sitting ready and waiting.

With cold winter just around the corner, a neighbour of mine thought a hot tub would really hit the spot. She could sit in it while the snow drifts down all around her and the trees rustle in the faint breeze. Her yard is thick with trees, and in chilly air, the warm water would be delightful. On Friday night the hot tub was delivered, set up and filled. It would take 48 hours for the water to heat to the right temperature: not too warm and not too cold. It would be just right. She was really looking forward to it. But on Saturday, she looked out the kitchen window and there was a big black bear firmly ensconced in the warming water. It had shoved the lid aside and climbed right in. It was quite happy with the less than perfect temperature; it was warm enough. I don’t think she even considered chasing the bear off. It was obviously enjoying itself too much and unlikely to be scared away. She waited, and eventually the bear got out of the tub on its own. It had thoroughly enjoyed its bath.

Which brings me to what may be a bit of local legend in this area. An uncle of a friend—many years ago—stumbled on a hot spring up the mountainside. He didn’t know it was there. And he didn’t stay long. The pool had a bear in it. In fact, the worn stone around the spring suggested that many bears had sat there time and again over the years, wearing away the surface with their ample rumps until the seat was just right. Uncle Richard quietly left, chuckling to himself. Bears know a comfortable spot when they find it. They, too, like to relax in warm water, perhaps when there’s an early snow drifting down around them, before they curl up and fall into the long sleep of winter in their dens.