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Dave Kaplan's problems began in the winter of 1989. One night as he was sleeping, his wife, Lorraine, nudged him. "There's something out there making a lot of noise under the deck," she said.
"I heard bumping," says Kaplan, "but I'm from New York City. I know from muggers. So I told Lorraine it was probably a raccoon. Next day I finally looked under the deck, and the lattice had a hole in it. Three or four slats were broken out, so I had to call a carpenter to fix it.
"Six repairs later the carpenter comes up and tells me, 'Hey, you got a sleeping bear under your deck.' The same day, Dr. Gary Alt [a Pennsylvania Game Commission biologist] called me. ' Mr. Kaplan,' he said, 'we've radio-tracked Penta, one of our study bears, and she's denned under your deck.' "
Alt told the Kaplans not to worry: "She'll sleep for three months or until her cubs are born. When spring arrives and there's food available, the family will leave."
Because black bears rarely return to the same den in consecutive years—a habit that helps to protect them from watchful predators, such as humans—Alt told the Kaplans that they would see no more of the bears. "You'll die of old age before Penta dens here again," Alt assured them.
Two years later Penta—all 340 pounds of her—showed up again, pregnant.
The Kaplans, who live in Hemlock Farms, a private residential community in the foothills of the Pocono Mountains in eastern Pennsylvania, are among a growing number of humans who are learning to live with something new: metro bears.
Ordinarily, black bears frequent deep forest. But as housing developments move into bear country, the adaptable animals have found ways to cope. "Their backyard is now our backyard," says Rob Calvert, a wildlife biologist in New Hampshire. And the bears' new neighbors aren't all that upset about it. According to a paper published in 1992 by Stephen R. Kellert, a professor at Yale's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Americans think of bears as being similar to people, and we are more tolerant of ursids than biologists had once thought.
"Forget about going to Alaska," says Alt. "Places like the Hemlock Farms development are the new frontier. Four-and-a-half thousand acres, 2,500 homes, at least 20 bears—all coexisting in relative harmony. Once the residents know that black bears are docile, shy and retreating animals, they reach for the blue pages [government agency listings] and call me instead of reaching for a gun."
Judging by bear weights and the numbers of cubs being born, 'civilization agrees with metro bears. "These are the good old days for them," says Alt. "In Hemlock Farms, 20 percent of the females produce four cubs every other year. We have one female, Vanessa, who has produced 29 cubs in 10 years. Compare that with Alaska, where females don't start a family until the age of seven and then produce only a cub or so every three or four years."