Bruin on loose? Michigan, Indiana residents grin and bear it
Michigan City, Indiana
— Bears are supposed to be shy and elusive, but someone forgot to tell a stocky furball along the Michigan-Indiana border.
The black bear, who came from northern Michigan in June, has been more visible than a presidential candidate in Iowa.
The interloper was a big deal even before he was spotted 55 times in four months.
He’s the first bear in Indiana in 144 years, said the state Department of Natural Resources.
The Hoosier State has been all atwitter so, naturally, the bear has its own Twitter account.
Seemingly everyone has a story or photo or video about the visitor. They even gave him a name: Scruffy.
The brazen bruin has clambered onto porches, peeked into windows, pounded on doors, tried to open sliding glass doors and left muddy paw prints all over the place.
Far from unnerved, residents have been tickled by their close encounters of the furry kind.
“I think it’s pretty cool,” said Sierra Fleming, 20, whose New Buffalo family was visited by the bear after barbecuing ribs and chicken for a family reunion.
Wildlife experts warn residents about getting too chummy with Scruffy but, so far, there haven’t been any serious incidents.
More common is the Michigan City resident who went out to his bird feeder in July to find its metal pole bent to the ground with the bear lounging beneath it, happily munching on spilled seeds.
Such misdeeds has some residents viewing Scruffy as a certain cartoon character, they said. All he’s missing is Yogi Bear’s tie.
“You kind of want to go off and play with him,” said Tyler Long of Michigan City, who was awakened by the bear knocking over his garbage cans.
Experts aren’t sure which part of northern Michigan this mangler of lawn furniture hails from.
Northern Michigan has 15,000 to 19,000 black bears, with 90 percent in the Upper Peninsula, said state officials.
Scruffy was first spotted just north of Muskegon in late April, said the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. He gradually moved south, entering Indiana near South Bend in early June.
It’s not unusual for young males to leave home but Scruffy, for some reason, traveled farther than most, said the Indiana DNR.
“In other areas where they have black bears, people are accustomed to them,” said Phil Bloom, a DNR spokesman. “But it’s a brand-new thing to us.”
The bear is 6 feet tall and weighs between 200 and 250 pounds, said residents. He is 2 or 3 years old, said Indiana DNR officials.
He’s a foodie
Since reaching Indiana, Scruffy has rarely strayed far from the state line.
Whenever he drops out of sight for a while, wildlife experts believe he has finally returned to northern Michigan, only to have him pop up, yet again, in woodsy Michiana.
The reason he refuses to leave is food, said the flummoxed experts. Local towns have a bounty of bird feeders, outdoor grills and food-laden garbage cans.
“He hit the jackpot in Michigan City,” said Budd Veverka, a farmland game research biologist with the Indiana DNR. “The search for food dominates the life of a bear.”
Bears are omnivores, preferring nuts, berries and insects. But, in reality, they’ll eat pretty much anything, said Veverka. Scruffy ate a bug zapper in Michigan City, said a resident.
Scruffy’s constant forays into residential neighborhoods alarmed officials to the point where they tried to capture the bear and return him to northern Michigan.
Indiana wildlife officials, who had never dealt with a bear before, borrowed two traps from their counterparts in Michigan.
In July, they placed one of the metal, barrel-shaped traps at a Michigan City honey farm that had been visited by the animal.
During the earlier visit at Panos Farms, Scruffy knocked over six wooden boxes holding bee hives, dragged some of them inside woods 40 feet away, and ate eight pounds of honey.
Officials loaded the trap with bacon, sardines, honey and marshmallows. Sure enough, Scruffy returned to the farm, entered the trap and ate the delicacies, but the trap failed to close.
“He went in, came right back out and left a thank-you note,” said Pete Livas, 61, whose wife owns the honey farm.
Scruffy then lay atop a nearby 8-foot-high pile of woodchips, said Livas.
Subsequent attempts to capture the bear around the region have netted only raccoons and possums.
In all, the bear has visited Panos Farms four times, said Livas. But instead of being frustrated, he has developed a fondness for his frequent guest.
Scruffy has been good for business, said Livas. His repeated visits, reported by the media, created publicity that has spurred sales.
In front of the farm, a no-trespassing sign is now accompanied by a placard that says the business’ honey is “bear approved.”
Even with 10,000 bears living among them, residents of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula can go their entire lives without seeing one.
Scruffy, by comparison, was spotted five times during two hours in Michigan City in July.
He was so ubiquitous that the governors of Michigan and Indiana joshed each other about him.
“We’ll take your jobs but we’re sending @bearindiana back,” Indiana Gov. Mike Pence tweeted in July.
“@bearindiana is welcome back,” tweeted back Gov. Rick Snyder. “He knows Michigan leads the Midwest in job creation.”
Sam Troxell nearly ran over Scruffy.
In July, Troxell’s friend said he had seen the bear in a neighborhood east of Michigan City. The next morning, Troxell looked for the animal as he drove through the neighborhood on his way to work.
Lo and behold, Scruffy suddenly appeared jogging across the four-lane highway right in front of Troxell. The pickup screeched to a halt 10 feet from the bear.
Troxell jumped out and tried to take a photo but was so excited he forgot how to operate his phone camera.
Another driver also stopped, asking Troxell whether he had seen the bear.
“Yeah, I just about hit it,” he said.
Troxell, 38, said he lived in Wyoming for a year and often ventured to Yellowstone Park in hopes of seeing a bear. He never spotted one.
Then he moved to a state that hasn’t had a bear since 1871, only to come across one.
“Here I am in Michigan City and I see a bear,” he marveled. “It was a sight.”
Caught in the act
At first Max Luna’s friends didn’t believe he was visited by a bear in New Buffalo.
But they believe him now.
During the first visit, in the summer, Luna didn’t see Scruffy, only his aftermath, an oak table on his back porch that the animal broke when he climbed on it to yank the nozzle from a hummingbird feeder.
Then, in September, Luna had just finished eating dinner, put the plates in the sink and started running water over them.
He looked up and, on the other side of the bay window over the sink, a bear was staring at him.
“I was like, ‘Wow, I have a bear in my front window,” he said.
Scruffy then went around the house to the back porch, sniffing a grill where Luna had cooked pork tenderloin just 15 minutes earlier.
Luna chased him away several times but the bear kept returning. He called the police whose flashing lights chased the bear away.
But, 20 minutes after the police left, Scruffy was back again.
Luna finally got rid of his persistent visitor by splashing bleach all over his back porch.
But first he got proof of the visit for his friends, taking photos and a video of the intruder.
Don’t feed the bear
One problem with not seeing a bear for 144 years is people sometimes behave like they haven’t seen a bear for 144 years, said wildlife experts.
The No. 1 rule with bears is to never feed them, said the experts.
But that’s exactly what some residents are doing in Michiana.
When Don Green of Michigan City put out his garbage in June, he left watermelon rinds atop the trash cans, which were just 10 feet from their home, said his wife, Kelli.
He hoped to get a photo of the bear everyone was talking about, she said.
It was an unlikely gambit because the Greens have an airport on one side of them and Interstate 94 on another.
But, at 12:30 a.m., Don was awakened by the toppling of the cans.
“Dude, the bear’s outside,” he told Kelli.
They got their photo and Scruffy got his prize — a plastic bag of trash he dragged to a forest 50 feet away and happily rummaged through.