Emily Humphrey looked to see what was causing the banging noise in her Barkhamsted house. What she felt next, she said, was “just terror.”
A bear was bursting through her dining room’s French doors — 15 feet from her baby.
Shrieking, Humphrey scooped up her 6-month-old and rushed out the front door with the family’s three dogs. She drove to a neighbor’s house and asked for help.
The bear break-in was one of 22 in Connecticut this year, the highest number ever recorded in a year, said Paul Rego, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. The average annual number of so-called “home entries” over the previous 15 years was 5.8.
The number of break-ins has been climbing along with the number of bears. The state’s black bear population is about 800 now and has been growing at a rate of 10-15 percent a year, said Chris Collibee, a DEEP spokesman. Bears began moving back into the state decades ago as farmland turned to forest.
And they’re hungry. A bear’s sense of smell is seven times better than a bloodhound’s and can easily be measured in miles, experts say. They’re drawn to birdfeeders, garbage pails and even food inside a house.
In his 30 years with DEEP, Rego said, he can’t recall anyone being injured when a bear came into a home. But there surely were heart-stopping moments.
Perhaps the most alarming encounter this year happened on Aug. 6, when an 82-year-old Canton woman woke to find a bear in her bedroom. After the bear left the room and headed for the kitchen, the woman closed the bedroom door and called police.
A sergeant arrived to find the bear in the kitchen on its hind legs, going through the cabinets. Police eventually scared it out of the house; once it was outside, they fired bean bags at the animal, which returned to the woods, Canton Sgt. Derek Messier said.
The next morning, a bear — possibly the same one — crushed the door to the screened sunroom of the woman’s neighbor, Harvey Jassem, like an accordion, Jassem said. The bear apparently was attracted to a bag of birdseed.
If a bear comes into your house while you are home, Rego said, the best move is to head to a safe room, close the door and call police.
Eugene Alicona, of Colonial Drive in Simsbury, is losing his tolerance for the foraging mammals after finding damage to the latticework under his screened-in sunroom on Aug. 24, apparently from a bear.
“As much as I want to sympathize with the animals, and what we’re doing to their environment, once they get into my house, all bets are off,” Alicona said.
Incidents in which bears wander into breezeways or break into sheds or even screened-in sunrooms like those of Alicona and Jassem don’t count as home entries, Rego said.
Neither do store intrusions, like the one at Crazy Bruce’s Liquors in Bristol on Aug. 13, when a bear wandered into a busy shopping plaza and then the store’s lobby. Or car break-ins, like the one that happened May 18 on Andrew Drive in Canton. In that case, a bear opened a car door looking for food and trashed the inside of a 2015 Subaru Outback.
Luckily for Emily Humphrey, the bear at her Center Hill Road house in Barkhamsted on June 26 wasn’t interested in the car that helped her get away.
Earlier that day, as Humphrey was going back and forth from the kitchen to her baby, Mara — who was lying on her back on the family room floor — she heard banging. The noise was getting louder, and when Humphrey went to see what was going on, she saw a midsized bear slamming against her double French doors, she said.
“It was standing in the sunroom, banging so hard that the door was swinging open, hit the wall and slammed shut,” Humphrey said. “And I was almost frozen, to the point where I was thinking, ‘It’s not going to come in, it’s not going to come in’.”
It did, stepping into the dining room while Humphrey began to make her escape. The bear ignored her, Mara and the three dogs. (“None of them made a peep,” she said.) It went right to the kitchen, and that’s where a state trooper later found it, on its rear legs, going through the refrigerator, she said. The bear had already torn through the cabinets.
The trooper got the bear out of the house by making “crazy noises” and it eventually got scared away, Humphrey said.
“He left the house the same way he came in, and they lost him,” she said.
Humphrey said she isn’t happy about the way bear break-ins are handled.
“If they don’t do open hunting season, someone is going to get hurt,” she said. “And I love bears. But I just think the protocol should be, they should be killed. There should have been more done, because, clearly, that bear was a threat.”
Under DEEP guidelines, environmental police or wildlife staff “euthanize” a bear that has been in a house. But once it returns to the woods, it’s harder for wildlife staff to figure out if it is the same bear that had gone into a home. If a bear has been tagged, it’s possible to identify it by the tag number, Rego said.
State Sen. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, a co-chairman of the General Assembly’s environment committee, said he can’t go anywhere in his western Connecticut district without someone making a comment about interactions with bears. Most bears are in the western part of the state, although more are spotted farther east every year.
When people ask when the state will do something, Miner asks them “what that ‘something’ should be,” he said. “Some say euthanize them. Others say trap and move them.”
He twice proposed bear hunts, he said, and both efforts failed. He remains in favor of “management tools that will manage the population in such a way that we can co-exist with limited conflict and risk of harm to the public. One of those is a closely regulated hunt.”
In the meantime, people should remember not to leave things outside that attract bears, such as birdseed and garbage cans, Miner said.
“Birds don’t need to be fed in June and July and August, with the exception of hummingbirds,” he said.
Melissa McWeeny of Bloomfield changed her habits after she started seeing bears in her neighborhood years ago. When a large bear feasted on her family’s garbage in the driveway, she decided to secure her family’s trash in the garage.
But it wasn’t enough. On July 30, a bear burst through the screen on her slider, and McWeeny now keeps all of her glass sliders closed.
Her 14-year-old daughter, Cailynn Danneman, was the first to encounter the bear in the family’s Bloomfield living room as she returned with her mom from a trip to the doctor’s office.
Cailynn stepped inside their Wadhams Road home and saw a bear which, on all fours, stood more than four feet tall. The animal was less than 20 feet away and was looking toward the now-ripped screen door it had earlier plunged through.
For a moment, Cailynn said she considered taking its picture — “I thought, ‘This might get some attention’” — but when the bear looked up at her, she screamed, turned around and ran back to the car.
McWeeny went in to see what was wrong, she said, and “I saw his butt go out the door.”
After bursting through the screen, the bear had squeezed its substantial body through a 10-inch opening between the door frame and the glass slider and stepped over a toy box. It then raided the pantry, knocking over a vase and spilling containers of oats, bread crumbs and cereal.
When McWeeny realized everything was OK — the family’s Husky mix, Kenzie, apparently slept through the bear’s visit — she went back to the car to talk to Cailynn and laughed.
“I think it heard us coming,” McWeeny said. “He was not aggressive.”
Still, Cailynn is haunted by the episode.
“I see it every time I look in that spot,” she said.
Courant Visual Journalist Sabrina Herrera contributed to this story.