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Written by Jake MacDonald   
Tuesday, 30 June 2009 16:38

Round up the Usual Suspects.

Kenora, Ontario (pop. 15,000) calls itself a city but it’s more of a small town, a picturesque resort community with a business district of four or five square blocks. Until a few years ago, the Trans-Canada Highway ran right through the middle of town, and every car, motor home, and semi-trailer crossing the country had to negotiate the main drag. Every day, hundreds of big transport trucks came wheezing and lurching down Main Street, bouncing up onto the sidewalk as the drivers cursed and cranked their way through the hard turn at the pharmacy.

Kenora is set firmly in the rocky terrain of the Canadian Shield, and even in the downtown business district there’s a whiff of pine forest. From every street corner you can look down the hill to the Lake of the Woods, an immense body of water with over fourteen thousand islands that sprawls across two Canadian provinces and the northern state of Minnesota. People in Kenora tend to get around by boat almost as much as they do by cars, and float planes are as common as taxis. In front of the Royal Bank, bush planes swoop in at rooftop altitude every few minutes, startling visitors with their teetering wings and growling engines. Nature here is growing up between cracks in the sidewalk. Vacant land and roadsides are covered with willow and other quick growing species, and wooded shorelines provide travel corridors for skunks, foxes, coyotes and other wild animals that slip into town during the night. Black bears come and go, hitting dumpsters and garbage cans. “We even have bears living full time within the city limits,” says Kenora resident Sarah Fairfield. “They have their hideaways in patches of bush. The mothers teach their cubs how to survive in town and those lessons get passed on from generation to generation. Our urban bears know the good places to sleep, the places to avoid, and the safe places to grab a free meal. They’re like street people with fur coats.”

Fairfield, a single mother with three kids, works as a By-law Enforcement Officer for the City of Kenora, and her job is to ride herd on the local bears. In her uniform she presents a no-nonsense demeanour as she leaves her office in the Kenora Police station and walks out to her patrol truck. A stocky redhead prone to curt witticisms, she wants to make it clear that she doesn’t so much have bear problems as people problems. “People do stupid things and then they blame the bear. I had this one guy, for example, who claimed a bear tried to attack him. Well then I recovered a video showing him feeding it M&Ms, which he sort of forgot to mention. Bears are very straightforward. It’s the people who are hard to figure out.”

Like a cop who always has to deal with the same group of quarrelsome drunks, her demeanour vacillates between kindergarten-teacher patience and barely-contained anger. At an ice cream stand not far from her office she answers her first complaint of the day. The owner has called her to demand that she remove a bear that has been breaking into his outbuilding. Parents with small kids sit on nearby benches, licking soft-ice cream cones and watching the owner confront her. “It’s a big bear and it comes almost every night,” the business man tells her in a heated voice. “I keep calling the city but nobody does anything. I’d shoot it but it’s an urban area and the cops will give me a hard time. It’s very frustrating. As far as I’m concerned, it’s going to be your fault if this animal attacks one of my customers.” 

She nods evenly. The owner is a foot taller than her, and loud enough that you can hear him across the parking lot, but she stands with her thumbs hooked in her belt, looking unimpressed as he finishes his tirade. “Can we have a look at your outbuilding?” she says.

They walk across the parking lot to a storage shed on the edge of the woods. For the next five minutes she speaks to him quietly, pointing to various features of the doors, hinges and latch. He looks annoyed, but after a while he seems to nod in grudging agreement. Eventually she walks back to the truck and we head for the next call. “That’s a fairly typical situation,” she says. “The guy stores his garbage – in this case pails of sour ice cream – in a shitty ass little shed with flimsy plywood doors and he wonders why the bear keeps breaking into it. I told him, listen, I am not interested in setting bear traps next to a shed full of attractants. I will set a trap in this case but you have to fix your shed. Because it’ll only be a matter of days before another bear shows up.  Many people in these backwoods towns have no patience with wild animals. A bear shows up on their property, right away they want to shoot it. Myself, I want to see legislation that empowers officers to write a ticket if you’re mismanaging your garbage and attracting bears.”

A few blocks away, she slows down as we pass an elementary school. Rolling down the window she studies the crown of a tall poplar tree. “If you want to find bears in the daytime,” she says. “Look up. Bears like the coolness and the security of a tall tree. They’ll pull the branches together and make a bed for themselves. There’s often a sow bear sleeping in the top of that tree. It shows you how harmless these animals are. She’s been living in town for years and she never bothers anyone. She sleeps in a tree next to a schoolyard and nobody knows she’s there.”

She says there are many bears like that, street-smart animals that know the rules and seldom get in trouble. “They use the same bush corridors and traditional trails. Some people live next to a bear trail and they don’t realize it. There’s one lady who phones in a complaint almost every day because she sees bears crossing her property. Well madam, you bought a house on a bear trail. What do you expect? Over at Beaver Brae High School there’s a traditional bear trail through the bush right behind the school. The kids go out behind the school to roll joints and the bears walk by and they all get along fine. Kids nowadays are more respectful of Nature than their parents. We give out Bear Wise pamphlets to the kids in the hope they’ll read the materials and educate mom and dad.”

We pull into the driveway of a small home with a shady backyard. Under a big apple tree at the head of the driveway is a trailer with a large steel box mounted on it – a bear trap. “This guy has apple trees in his yard so the bears like to come through and clean up the fallen fruit. I think it’s a little silly having fruit trees around here unless you like having bears in your yard. But you can’t stop people from doing what they want on their own property. They call me up, ‘There’s a bear in my yard! You have to come and trap it!’ Well sir, it’s there because you attracted it.”

Hauling a sack of bait out of the back of the truck, she inspects the trap. She says marshmallows, dog food, fruit and doughnuts are good baits. So is molasses. She says you don’t want to use too much bait, just enough to get the bear’s interest, and the bait has to be freshened regularly. “Everybody thinks that bears like rotten fish and so on but they don’t. They are fussy eaters, and if you don’t change the bait every day or so they won’t touch it. They’re also very smart. I’ve worked with dogs all my life and bears are much more intelligent. A lot of bears won’t go in a trap. They’re suspicious. They’ll stand up and push at a trap with their front paws and if it’s unstable they won’t go inside. Once they get caught they’re a lot harder to catch the next time. After a bear has been in a trap you have to give the trap a good cleaning because the smell of fear remains and another bear won’t go inside.”

She says a lot of wildlife officers still use bear traps made from galvanized sections of culvert, with heavy gauge steel screening at the end, but she no longer uses them. “They’re inhumane pieces of crap. The bears bite at the screening and break their teeth. We get these box traps custom made at Cambrian College for about five grand each, and they work a lot better. We have nine traps, and during the peak of the season, in late summer and early fall, all the traps are working twenty-four hours a day. Last year we trapped and removed forty-two bears. The year before we caught eighty-two bears and relocated them.  Can you imagine that? A small town like this with eighty-two bears in it? And that’s just the ones we managed to catch. Sometimes if there’s an immediate need I’ll tranquilize a bear with the dart gun. But you have to be careful because you can overdose the bear. And I won’t dart a bear when it’s high up a tree because it’s liable to be injured by the fall.”

She’s not afraid to deal with bears in close-up situations. “They let you know if you’re doing something that makes them uncomfortable,” she says. “They look inexpressive but they have a body language you learn to read. A black bear will turn its head a certain way or make a chopping sound with its teeth. It might even take a little run at you. That’s a bluff charge, and it’s a bear’s way of saying, ‘you’re getting too close.’”

Six years ago she spotted an advertisement for this job in the local newspaper and applied for it even though, by her own admission, she knew “nothing whatsoever,” about bears. There were hundreds of applicants, but she was chosen because the Board was impressed by her self-confidence and her life-long experience with animals. “I have always taken care of animals. Right now I have two horses, four dogs and two cats at home. One of my cats was tortured and mutilated by someone who cut off its feet and tail.  I take some satisfaction knowing that animal will never be mistreated again. My parents founded the local Humane Society and if there was ever some problem with a starving dog or an injured deer or something the phone rang first in our house. I learned ethics from them at an early age, and I took part in some protests having to do with animal welfare. One time we protested the shooting of dogs. Another time a travelling huckster came through town with a wrestling bear. You’d pay a few dollars to manhandle this poor animal in the beer parlour. We stood outside the pub where this so-called entertainment was supposed to occur and I think we generated some support among the public. Even some of the local rednecks backed us up.”

Her busy season for bears goes from June to September, and the rest of the year she is busy fielding calls about barking dogs, mismanaged garbage, and nuisance animals like skunks and raccoons. “We even get an occasional wolf.” She rounds up stray or abandoned dogs and cats and keeps them in the local pound. If no one claims the animals or offers to adopt them she has them destroyed. “That’s a very hard part of this job,” she says. “It causes a high burnout rate. People just can’t take the cruelty of it. I’m taking care of all these lovely, affectionate animals and it just breaks my heart destroying them.” 

Her bear traps are situated in odd places. One trap sits in the parking lot of the city’s industrial garbage facility. As we approach the facility we can see hundreds of seagulls and ravens roiling above it like dirty smoke. Tractors and garbage trucks bumble in and out the entrance. Inside the compound there’s a mountain of garbage as high as a barn. Sometimes when the garbage trucks arrive there’s a bear sleeping on top of the mountain of refuse, lost in a sleepy reverie of hog heaven as it waits for another shipment of food to roll in. It’s hard to imagine a bear stupid enough to swap all that free food in exchange for a handful of molasses-soaked goodies inside the bear trap, but you never know. As Sarah says, “You won’t catch a bear if you don’t set a trap.”

Continuing on her rounds, she visits a trap at a service station next to a busy intersection – no luck – and another trap at a sports bar where a group of young men are sitting out on the sun deck drinking pitchers of draft beer. As she parks her truck, I tell her that a few days ago I was here, enjoying the afternoon sun and having a steak sandwich when I spotted a lump of black fur walking past the railings about four feet away. The bear walked to the highway, waited for the traffic to clear, then ran across the road and disappeared into someone’s backyard. As I watched the bear the guy at the next table told me he went grocery shopping a few weeks before and stopped here for a draft on his way home. It was a hot day so he parked his vehicle and left the front window open. When he came out there was a large furry rump protruding from the window of his vehicle. A bear had climbed into the front seat and was wolfing down green grapes, peanut butter, apple pies – a whole car full of groceries. He yelled and the bear gave him a mild look. He yelled again and the bear bailed out the window and waddled off.

Sarah Fairfield is not surprised.  “I’ve heard every bear story in the book.” She parks the truck next to the trap. A grandfatherly-looking fellow is peering into the interior of the trap, directing his wife in what sounds like Dutch to stand at the gaping entrance so he can photograph her. You can’t help wondering if the local tourist promoters might plant these bear traps all over town, as a way of proving to visitors they’re no longer in Europe.

The Dutch fellow smiles as Sarah examines the trap and refreshes the bait. “How lucky you are to have bears!” he remarks. She ignores him. It annoys her when people approach her traps. When triggered, the trap door falls with an explosive bang that can easily take off someone’s finger. She says if that ever happened they would blame it on her, not the person who ignored the warning signs all over the trap. As Sarah brusquely refreshes the trap she moves with a slight limp, the result of a riding accident she had a year ago. She was galloping on her horse, fell off and broke her legs. One of her feet was aimed the wrong way so she twisted it back into place and stood up. “I’m used to taking care of myself,” she says. “It didn’t take all that long before the legs were healed and I was back at work. The bear traps are heavy and even more so when you have a bear in them, so it’s a physically demanding job. But I like the activity. I can’t stand sitting around in an office.”

If she catches a bear she attaches the trailer to the back of the truck and hauls the bear about two hours north to a remote wilderness location. The bear has to be taken far enough that it might be discouraged from returning, which usually means a jaunt of at least fifty miles. “Some of them come back,” she says. “Bears are homebodies by nature. But it’s hard to tell which ones are returnees because they all look pretty similar. They tend to specialize in one particular way of earning a living and they don’t like to start all over again. A bear that specializes in freeloading at the Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet will cross hell and high water to get back. I had this one animal, Bear 240; I dropped him ninety kilometres away and saw him back at the Second Street bakery ten days later. Female bears are particularly committed to the specific territory they were raised in. The young males, well they’re like young males everywhere – they don’t seem to have the same attachment to home.”

Relocating bears is expensive. The entire procedure takes four and a half hours of her time, plus fuel and vehicle costs. She won’t relocate a bear in the heat of the day – it’s too hard on the animal – and she won’t take anyone along and won’t divulge where she releases them. “If I told anyone where I’m taking them, I guarantee there would be bear hunters there in camouflage outfits, waiting for me to let the bear out of the trap so they could shoot it and have it mounted with a snarl on its face.”

Some animal control officers are careful about releasing trapped bears. I talked to one game warden who told me he backs the trap halfway into a shallow lake so that the bear must swim out. Climbing atop the trap, he draws his pistol, raises the door, and scrambles back into the truck before the bear can swim up on shore and grab him. Sarah chuckles when I tell her this. “I park at the edge of the woods, get out of the truck and open the door of the trap. The bear walks out of the trap and gives me an inquisitive look. I say, “Go on, get out of here.’ The bear goes into the woods and that’s the end of it.”

She says that when people find out what she does for a living they want to know if she’s ever been attacked. “It’s a bit silly,” she says. “People have the wrong idea about bears. I carry no weapons, just a radio. I don’t even carry pepper spray because I don’t care to be sprayed in the face, which is a mandatory part of the training. I have removed literally hundreds of bears. I’m handling up to twenty complaints a day and I’ve never met an aggressive bear. People think bears are more dangerous than they really are. They’re not scary at all. If I only had to deal with bears all day my job would be a breeze.”