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We here at Backpacker are no strangers to fat bears. We’ve covered more than our fair share of them: There’s been Otis, the back-to-back Fat Bear Week champion and one of the oldest brown bears in Katmai National Park, and 435 Holly, the hefty upstart who unseated him. But we’ve never seen a bear quite as rotund as Hank the Tank.
At an estimated 500 pounds, Hank, a black bear living near South Lake Tahoe, California, doesn’t have the raw weight of his Alaskan cousins. (For his species, though, he’s a certified chonk, with an average full-grown black bear weighing between 100 and 300 pounds.) But what he lacks in poundage, he makes up in roundage: In a widely circulated photo, Hank sits back on his haunches, looking more like a furry beach ball than a bear. Unfortunately, while his lovable portliness has the internet swooning, it could get him killed.
The problem isn’t exactly Hank’s paunch, but where it comes from. Since July, Hank has broken into more than 24 homes around Lake Tahoe and torn them apart in search of food. Speaking to the New York Times, Ann Bryant of the BEAR League, a nonprofit devoted to protecting bruins in the Lake Tahoe area, said that it wasn’t clear why Hank turned to human food, but that he has found such a consistent supply of it that he hasn’t even gone into hibernation this winter. So far, police have fielded more than 100 calls about the hefty bruin.
“Some of these people are not comfortable in bear country, they just moved up from the city, and they are freaking out,” said Bryant in an interview with Backpacker.
So far, Hank hasn’t behaved aggressively towards residents or hurt anyone. But, as the California Department of Fish and Wildlife told the Times, Hank also appears to have completely lost his fear of people—the most dangerous thing a bear can do. Attempts to haze him with paintballs, sirens, and even tasers have failed, and a baited trap didn’t nab him. With Hank’s burglaries continuing, wildlife officials are now talking about euthanizing the bear if they can catch him. Peter Tira, a spokesperson for CDFW, said that the agency was still looking for other approaches, and referred to euthanasia as its “last option.”
Many locals, however, oppose the idea of lethally removing Hank; by the time authorities removed their trap, someone had spray-painted the words “bear killer” on it. The BEAR League says at least some of the current bear trouble is due to out-of-towners who haven’t learned to coexist with the animals by securing their homes. In one Facebook post, the group said that one new arrival had ignored warnings that Hank would be able to easily break through their garage door. After he did, the “furious” homeowners called on authorities to capture the bear.
While the BEAR League agrees that Hank can’t be left to roam free, it still hopes to find a home for him in a wildlife sanctuary. Bryant said that the BEAR League had provided CDFW with the names of five organizations that would potentially be able to take in Hank, one of which, in Arizona, had a funder ready to pay for a new enclosure for the bear. As of Tuesday, Bryant said that to her knowledge, CDFW had not reached out to any of them.
“The BEAR League has offered to pay for everything—transport, veterinary care, everything,” Bryant said.
While Hank the Tank’s fate hangs in limbo, he has continued to plunder. On February 17, a security camera captured him sniffing around the door of a house in the Tahoe Keys, the gated community where he’s committed many of his B&Es. Local officials and residents haven’t stopped trying to find solutions; after its officers chased Hank out of a home on February 18, the South Lake Tahoe Police Department said in a social media post that the Tahoe Keys HOA would help homeowners install bear boxes. But with no intention of stopping, Hank’s future seems to hinge on the ability of a few wildlife lovers to find a safer place for him—and keep him in check until they do.
Can’t get enough bears? Bearpacker, Backpacker’s annual celebration of all things ursine, returns in April.