The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion ‘Hank the Tank’ may sound like a joke, but he’s being set up for tragedy

A black bear near South Lake Tahoe, Calif., in 2007. (Chad Lundquist/Nevada Appeal/AP)

Julie Brown is a freelance journalist based in Reno, Nev. She grew up in the Lake Tahoe Basin in California and reports on the Tahoe region for SFGate.

A 500-pound outlaw bear goes on a spree, breaking into at least 28 homes in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., since September. On the national news, he’s nicknamed “Hank the Tank,” a lovable giant, helping himself to pizza and trash.

It sounds like a joke. But I know I’ll soon feel the same way I did when a tourist shot a bear at point-blank range in a vacation rental in Tahoe last summer, and when another Tahoe bear went viral on the Internet because it discovered how to walk into a Safeway and then, having been relocated far away, starved in the wilderness. I’ll feel rage, hopelessness, grief — and guilt, for the human role in these sad stories.

I grew up on the shores of Lake Tahoe, in a neighborhood that dead-ends on national forest land in the rugged Sierra Nevada. My parents still live there, in my childhood home. Black bears have always been our neighbors. I see them often while I’m hiking, or I see them darting away when I’m walking my dog. Each sighting is a small thrill, especially when a mother and her cubs lumber through the backyard. The wildness in a place like Tahoe is fragile and fast disappearing. I desperately want to hold on to what we have left, to believe that humans and bears can coexist peacefully.

Living around Lake Tahoe means living in bear country, except the bears no longer follow nature’s path. Generations of cubs have learned from their mothers to find food not in the wild, but in people’s houses and cars, in trash cans and dumpsters. Experts say bears here are “opportunistic.” They eat food where they find it, and usually, the easiest place is where humans are.

John Paul Brammer: ‘Hank the Tank’ offers a vision of a better life

The Lake Tahoe Basin is home to about 40,000 people who live here full time, according to pre-pandemic numbers. Some 15 million people visit every year. Tahoe typically sees at least three times as many visitors as Yosemite National Park, where park rangers require all edible items, even toothpaste, to be stored in bear-proof containers. Vacationers to Tahoe might not realize the vigilance necessary to keep bears outside and human food inside. But bear-proofing homes, and communities, is our responsibility if we choose to live and spend time in the mountains.

In the past two years, as waves of people have descended on Lake Tahoe to escape the pandemic, I’ve come to realize that my wish for coexistence is mere fantasy. For the bears, this tale is too often tragic.

The windows inside my parents’ house were dark the night in 2019 when the bear broke in. My parents had locked the door before leaving for the weekend, but that hardly mattered. The bear shattered the windowpanes on the back door and hopped inside. It followed its nose down the hall, past the bathroom and the bedrooms, up the stairs, straight to the kitchen.

When I came to clean up the next morning, after a neighbor alerted us, the evidence of the invasion was all over the kitchen. Mostly, I remember the ripped bag of flour and the layer of white everywhere, the mounds of food pulled off the pantry shelves. The refrigerator door was still wide open. Muddy streaks were left behind.

When a bear finds a food source, it will come back again. The week after the bear broke in, my parents installed electrified wires across the thresholds of their doors and ground-floor windows. Bear-proofing wires are something of a new trend in mountain home design here, an invention to keep bears safe — from us.

Wildlife officials estimate that Tank weighs 500 pounds. That’s big even by Tahoe standards. Because access to human food is so easy to come by, Tahoe bears far outweigh the average black bear, and some aren’t going into hibernation, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife said.

Once a bear is known for breaking into homes, wildlife officials have to intervene. The options for Hank, once trapped, are few and grim. He could be relocated, far away from Tahoe, where he’d be given a second chance to survive in the wild. But that is difficult for bears that have been dependent on human food. Bears that become a problem can also be placed in an accredited care facility, but captivity is stressful for wild animals. The last option is the least appealing: euthanasia.

No matter what fate awaits Hank the Tank, he’s going to pay a steep price. And for what? Being born in the mountains, where generations of bears before him learned to adapt and survive after humans moved in? While Hank’s story has gone viral, several other bears are breaking into Tahoe homes. The best hope for these bears is that they relearn how to live as nature intended — but that’s ultimately up to us. So far, our track record isn’t great.