A bear takes a stroll in Pinecrest, N.J.
A bear takes a stroll in Pinecrest, N.J. | Flickr

When Animals Attack, The Law Is Often On Their Side

Robert Ehling’s nightmare began when his wife, Helen, screamed in terror.

A 300-pound black bear leaned menacingly against the glass on the backporch door of his Sparta, New Jersey home. Only a few pounds of pressure would be needed for the beast to break through the sliding glass door.

Ehling, then 78 years old, knew he was no match for a bear. He found his shotgun, slipped through a side door, and tried to scare the bear away making noise. Instead, the bear rose on its powerful hind legs. It was a fighting stance. Ehling pulled the trigger and the bear dropped.

As the shot’s echo faded, Ehling heard scrabbling below and, peering over the deck’s edge, he saw another bear climbing toward him. He shot it, too.

A shaken Ehling struggled to regain his composure when a third bear emerged, lumbering across the back yard toward the deck. He reloaded and killed it.

For defending his wife and home, Ehling was arrested on three counts of killing a bear out of season and a fourth of having a loaded firearm within 450 feet of an occupied building. He was convicted in a state district court trial in January 2016.

"New Jersey is a pretty red state," said John Wrobleski, membership director for the New Jersey State Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs. "Anything with animal rights is a pretty touchy subject and tends to blow up."

Sussex County, where both Ehling and Wrobleski reside, has the highest bear population density in the Garden State and the Federation has pushed for an earlier start for bear season. In most cases, the best course of action is to retreat inside a building and phone a game warden, Wrobleski said. "But there are just way too many variables to say things like this won't happen," he said. "Unless you've lived it, you can't know."

Ehling is one of an increasing number of Americans caught between hunting and firearms laws and the necessity of defending themselves against dangerous animals on their own land.

As suburbs spread, encounters between man and beast are on the rise. So, too, are the numbers of threatening animals as settled areas provide sustainable habitats for coyotes, who roam neighborhoods from Chicago to Los Angeles, and mountain lions, who descend from hills into subdivisions from Buffalo to Bakersfield. And, from sea to shining sea, bears hunt for food in cul-de-sacs and side streets.

Bear attacks may seem like a relic from frontier days but they still happen. Wild black bears killed at least 63 Americans between 1900 and 2009, according to the Wildlife Society. Nor are bears the only danger on four legs. Dogs killed 279 people between 1979 and 1994, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The risk of rabies transmission through bites by raccoons, bats, skunks and foxes remains high, according to a recent CDC report.

Yet Americans who take arms against wild beasts are increasingly facing rough treatment from local and state governments as well as outraged members of the public.

William O’Donnell of Incline Village, Nevada, is battling both the predators that damaged his home and local Bear League activists who are committed to “bear safety,” he told American Media Institute. Nestled between Lake Tahoe and the wilderness around it, O'Donnell's neighborhood has plenty of close encounters between black bears and humans. Garbage cans present a constant lure, and the trash in O'Donnell's neighborhood is collected only once per week.

O’Donnell contacted the Nevada Department of Wildlife about his problem. In response, officials set up an animal-friendly culvert trap in his yard. Roughly 100 such traps are laid in Nevada each year, according to the department, with varying success -- in part because activists sometimes spring the trap before the bear arrives or spray the setup with Lysol, apparently a bear deterrent.

O’Donnell unsuccessfully sought a protective order against local activists who interfered with his trap. And local reports support his contention, as shown by an Associated Press story from May 2015 headlined, "Wildlife officials say harassment by bear advocates is hurting their efforts to reduce human-bear conflict in Tahoe.”

The situation became so heated that two people (not Bear League members) became the first prosecuted in Nevada for “interfering with the capture of troublesome bears at Lake Tahoe.”

O’Donnell lashed out at activists who have tried to make him a villain, suggesting they do more harm to the bears than people who protect their own property.

“I’m not some guy sitting around wishing I could have a bear rug laid out in front of the fireplace,” he said. “But what happens is these (animal activists) do more harm than good. The bear gets to a point where it’s accustomed to human interaction and then it has to be euthanized rather than trapped and removed.”

The bear-human interaction issue has become so acute in Nevada that state wildlife officials are using Karelian Bear Dogs. Once employed by Russian and Finnish peasants to keep the tundra’s predators at bay, these formidable canines are now patrolling wilderness in several states from Nevada to Washington.

Chris Healy of the Nevada Department of Wildlife acknowledged the situation has become “very contentious,” and said O’Donnell has a point in accusing the Bear League of hurting the bears more than helping them.

Bear activists said their efforts are being mischaracterized.

“People are confusing these bears with grizzlies,” said Ann Bryant, president of the Bear League. “There’s a difference between perceived threats and serious threats. And if, after everyone was educated and all the proper steps were taken, there is a serious problem with a bear, I will kill it for you.”

But that is not the response Dan Williams of Evergreen, Colorado, got after he encountered a bear family at his home. Williams, 51, made the U.S. ski team as a teenager, raised a family, and built a respected tree surgery business in the Denver suburbs.

Then, around 5 a.m. one day in September 2015, a bear began rummaging in his driveway.

During several previous encounters with wild bears, Williams had done what Colorado authorities urge homeowners to do: he went outside and banged a pot. This time the bear ignored the noise. Williams reached for his shotgun, which was loaded with rubber shot that is issued to homeowners by the state to disperse bears. On earlier occasions, the rubber bullets had worked, bringing a good night’s sleep for Williams, a sore butt for the animal, the praise of Colorado wildlife officials, and more state-provided ammo.

But this time the bear simply continued its nocturnal feasting. Then Williams’ dog, a chocolate Labrador the Williams family got to replace one that died in the jaws of a mountain lion, tried to interrupt the bear. With a swat of its paw, the bear sent the 80-pound canine hurtling into a tree. Desperate, Williams aimed at the bear’s posterior with #4 birdshot pellets that are strong enough to scare but not kill an adult bear.

The BBs sprayed into Williams’ carport, one of them ricocheting off the driveway and cracking a neighbor’s window. It was at that point that Williams noticed the bear was not alone. It was a mother. She had two cubs with her. And the cubs were hit, wounded to the point that when authorities arrived hours later they put the bear cubs down.

“The bear was charging, snarling at my dog, and I made a mistake, I guess,” Williams told the American Media Institute. “You’re doing the right thing, the things they told me they want you to do. I didn’t intentionally kill anything.”

As the mother bear scampered up a nearby tree, Williams ran inside and called 911. After his initial interviews, Williams said the police told him they saw zero indication of any malicious intent.

But by 6:30 a.m., Williams said his street crawled with television news vans and reporters who all described Williams as “distraught” in their on-scene reports. By early afternoon, more than 100 protestors lined Bear Creek Road with signs calling Williams a “baby killer.” By late afternoon, when friendly deputies told Williams they were concerned about a swelling “lynch mob mentality,” he snuck out of his house in the tarp-covered bed of an employee’s pickup truck and took temporary residence in a hotel.

Things have only gotten worse, with Williams transformed into a kind of poster bad guy for animal lovers. His kids, who now live with their mother, have gotten threats at school, and his business has suffered. And in November, a jury anxious to avoid a Veterans’ Day sequestration, found him guilty of illegally discharging a weapon into an occupied house or dwelling, a felony initially designed to combat drive-by shootings. While the jury found him not guilty of aggravated cruelty to animals, he was convicted of cruelty to animals and, at sentencing in January, could get hit with up to 4 years in prison.

It seems absurd a man never convicted of anything would do hard time, but then Williams said the whole situation seems Kafkaesque. “I didn’t think I’d be convicted of a felony in all this so who knows,” he said.

“They make it out like I hate bears, but I’ve spent 18 years in this community and I’m not some big game hunter,” Williams said, fighting back tears. “My life has been ruined by this.”

Ehling, the New Jersey man who shot three bears, fared somewhat better after his initial convictions. On appeal, a New Jersey Superior Court judge tossed his conviction for killing the adult bear. While the convictions stemming from the two other bears stood, the appeals court waived all $3,000 in fines.

Ehling said he has his gun back and is satisfied with the resolution. Though he called the episode "political correctness getting out of hand," Ehling hoped his case would help others threatened by nature's intruders.

“The precedent has been set at least in this jurisdiction that if you see a bear trying to get into your house, you don’t have to run and hide,” Ehling told American Media Institute. Yet he remains incensed at the notion that he had no right to defend his wife and himself when confronted on his own property by bears.

Encounters like these are exposing tension between the settled principles of self-defense and the state’s interest in conservation, said Clark Neily, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm based in Alexandria, Virginia.

“In a sane world, you’d imagine this would be dealt with through a warning and a fine,” Neily said of Williams' incident in Colorado.

“On the one hand, it seems pretty preposterous to have a right to defense against humans but not animals that present an imminent threat,” Neily said, noting that the lack of settled case law complicates the matter. “One way or another, the judiciary is going to be dragged into this.”