Gov. Peter Shumlin was naked, ready for bed, when he heard a fuss in his backyard one night earlier this week. He looked out to see four bears looting his bird feeders.
His Department of Fish and Wildlife has issued cautions about leaving bird feeders up this time of year, because they can attract bears, and the state also cautions from time to time that bears are dangerous. But the governor is territorial: Shoo! he yelled in his “strongest Vermonter,” as he put it, rushing into the yard and yelling for the interlopers to bug off.
The bears were not amused.
Waiting outside, Shumlin recalled, were two cubs and two adult bears (though Fish and Wildlife officials think there might have been three cubs and a mother).
The governor was not exactly dressed for the encounter.
“Real Vermont boys don’t wear pajamas,” he said — meaning he was naked. He told WDEV radio host Mark Johnson he was wearing as much as the bears were.
The bears had given the hollering, naked governor a bit of deference, enough so that Shumlin went outside to retrieve the bird feeders, he said, so the bears wouldn’t return for the food. But as the governor started to carry two of the feeders inside, the bears came back.
Shumlin again used his strongest Vermonter to scare the animals off; they ran to the edge of the yard.
He went back outside to get the other two feeders. The bears appeared unhappy to have their food source taken away. This was especially true of the largest bear, Shumlin said. “He just booked it for the porch,” Shumlin recalled.
The governor took the two feeders and made a beeline for his door, with what Shumlin called the papa bear in hot pursuit.
“When I opened the door, he was on the porch and five feet from the door,” Shumlin said. “I screamed through that door. I didn’t know if the bear was coming through.”
Vermont Fish and Wildlife Chief Warden Col. David LeCours said the four bears Shumlin saw might have actually been three cubs and a sow, with no papa bear involved. The sow might have been aggressive because it perceived the governor as a threat to her cubs.
He said if the governor or anyone else is confronted by a bear, the person should back away slowly and make a lot of noise.
“Don’t turn and run,” LeCours advised. “We have a lot of animals that view that as their advantage.”
Shumlin is an avid runner, he said, so he was able to move pretty quickly away from the bears — though bears easily can outrun humans.
On social media, comparisons surfaced between Shumlin’s bear experience and the exploits of Newark, New Jersey mayor Cory Booker, who rescued a woman from a burning building Thursday night.
“Vt. Gov. Peter Shumlin, being chased by bears, dials Corey Booker for help. Gov. now has 4 new bear skin rugs,” wrote a Twitter user identified as Sam Gibbs.
Shumlin said he is aware of Department of Fish and Wildlife suggestions to bring bird feeders inside to discourage bears, but he figured the animals would pose no problem in a suburban neighborhood within walking distance of downtown Montpelier.
“There is a lesson in all this: Don’t forget to bring in your birdfeeders,” Shumlin said.
LeCours said bears can turn up almost anywhere in Vermont, including the middle of towns, and become attracted to food in bird feeders. “We’ve had bears literally get on second story decks to try to retrieve bird feeders,” he said.
Birdseed is the kind of high-energy food bears love. Once they discover a bird feeder, chances are they’ll be back, LeCours said. “We don’t want bears to associate bird feeders with food,” he said.
As for the birds, don’t worry about them, LeCours said. There’s plenty of food in the wild this time of year for any Vermont songbird to enjoy. They’ll get along just fine without bird feeders.
Shumlin said Friday he still puts the feeders out in the morning for the birds, but vowed to always take the feeders indoors in the evening.
LeCours said that’s unlikely to be enough. During the day, birds accidentally kick and drop food to the ground, which could attract bears even if the feeders had been taken inside. LeCours said he hasn’t spoken to the governor since the incident, but Shumlin might have talked with someone else in Fish and Wildlife about the bears.
Even if Shumlin made a mistake by leaving bird feeders outside, LeCours said the governor did do a public service by calling attention to the danger of inadvertently luring bears toward houses.
“With somebody as high-profile as the governor, it brings to light that it’s not just us crying wolf,” LeCourd said. “It does happen.”