The Bears Who Came to Town and Would Not Go Away

Illustration: Brian Cronin

This is the story of a place at the edge of the world, where a black bear ventured into a Russian hamlet and attacked a human. One bear became two, two became dozens, and before long no one would leave their home, and no one had any idea what to do.

The first bear appeared in town one morning in late August. It was a little after eight, and Nikolai, an elderly pensioner, had just come out to walk his cat.

He joined a neighbor on a wooden bench outside their building, which the residents of Luchegorsk, a town in far eastern Russia, call the Great Wall of China because of its expansive length. The Great Wall stands on the shore of a large man-made lake where water from the town’s thermal power plant flows. In the summer, it’s hard to see much of the lake for the tall green reeds that line the banks. It was from this verdant thicket that the Asian black bear ambled out, loping slowly, as if heading into town for nothing more than a leisurely stroll.

Nikolai and his neighbor stood up and gawked. The bear, seeing them, also stopped and stared. It turned around, walked back, and vanished into the reeds. That’s when the dogs started barking. There are plenty of dogs in Luchegorsk, but Nikolai had never heard them make such a racket. The men turned toward the sound and noticed the bear running down the sidewalk along the side of the building.

“How did he get there? He was just in the reeds!” Nikolai exclaimed. That’s when he realized: “Oh God, it’s a second bear!”

The two men scurried back into the Great Wall just as Viktor Dubitsky was leaving through another entrance to take his dog out. Dubitsky had gone only two steps when he felt that something was amiss. He turned and saw the bear in midleap. Dubitsky was knocked to the ground. The bear swiped at his throat. Dubitsky put his arm in front of his face. The bear bit into him. He heard people shouting and felt a claw rip into his groin. He passed out. A taxi driver pulled up to the building and honked, startling the bear. It jumped off Dubitsky and ran. Passersby rushed to his aid. Neighbors threw first aid from their balconies, bottles of rubbing alcohol and bundles of gauze that ribboned to the bloody ground. Nikolai and his neighbor came back outside, surveyed the scene, and decided that they needed a drink.

An ambulance arrived around the same time as the local game warden, Anatoly Tarasenko. Luchegorsk is a few miles from Russia’s taiga, a boreal forest that is home to tigers, Amur leopards, and bears, as well as some of the most valuable illegally trafficked timber in the world—primarily hardwoods like Mongolian oak and Manchurian linden. Demand is so high that vast stretches of forest have been destroyed, stressing the land and the wildlife that depends on it for survival. Tarasenko’s job is primarily to stop poachers and manage hunting licenses, but he also deals with the wild animals that come into the villages that are under his jurisdiction, though they do not often frequent the relatively large settlement of Luchegorsk, population 21,000.

The bespectacled 60-year-old, with a rugged build and tidy gray beard, organized a police cordon in front of the Great Wall. He figured that the bears were in the reeds, but the vegetation was so dense that it was impossible to see inside. He called his 28-year-old deputy, Yaroslav Shishkin, and members of the local hunting association and asked them to bring hounds to sniff the bears out. The men were in the process of dividing the reeds, so the dogs could do a methodical search, when they got the next call: A man had gone into the bushes to pee across from the town’s bus station, a few blocks away, and walked straight into a bear. It lunged at him, too, but he managed to get away. When Tarasenko arrived, no one could tell him where the bear went, except that it had run across the street.

Word traveled that, earlier that morning, lifeguards on the lake’s beach had seen a bear swimming across the water with a cub on its back, and Tarasenko reasoned that this was the mother. A concerned mother tiger or bear is the most dangerous animal in the taiga; she will annihilate anything that stands between her and her cub. Maybe the noise of the town startled them and they’d split up. Maybe they needed to cross a road and the cub was scared off by the cars. Maybe the cub had hidden somewhere and the mother was looking for it when she stumbled across Dubitsky. Whatever the explanation, they assumed she’d be back, searching for her cub, growing more panicked and ever more dangerous. The next day, Tarasenko received official permission from the regional government in Vladivostok: they could shoot to kill.

That was August 21. Soon there were bear spottings all around Luchegorsk—in the village itself, by the nearby coal mine, at the power plant, around summer homes on the outskirts of town, and eating from dumpsters, vegetable gardens, and the many apiaries located in the surrounding taiga. First there were a few, then a dozen, then many more—the bears were showing up around Luchegorsk at a rate of up to ten per day. They moved in elongated convoys, following each other down the same paths through open fields, like they had all locked onto the same GPS route and the coordinates led straight to Luchegorsk. Bears swam across the lake toward town and beached at the reeds in front of the Great Wall. Residents stood on their balconies to watch tiny heads bobbing in the waves. People found them in basements and gardens and saw them walking down the street.

By the end of the month, the town was besieged.

“They are everywhere,” Tarasenko told one of the men who’d volunteered to help contain the animals. “What on earth are we supposed to do with them?”

  Illustration: Brian Cronin

​Luchegorsk is about 20 miles from the Chinese border, in Primorsky, a Russian region that borders the People’s Republic on one side and the Sea of Japan on the other. The town was built on swampland and suffers through sultry, mosquito-laden summers and dark, frozen winters. Luchegorsk owes its existence to the nearby coal mine, which supplies the massive thermal plant, which in turn feeds power to the entire region. Three huge chimneys tower above pastel-colored apartment blocks, belching clots of smoke the size of storm clouds into the sky at all hours. Two main roads divide the town into four neighborhoods. Where the streets intersect, there are two parks kitty-corner from one another, referred to by residents as Old Park and New Park.

The area is home to two bear species—the Asian black bear, similar to the North American black bear, and the Eurasian brown bear. The brown bears, which number approximately 3,500 in the region, can grow to more than 800 pounds and have a preference for berries, plants, and newborn animals. Asian bears are smaller, with a local population of about 4,000. Grown males weigh up to 440 pounds and have a white patch across the chest in the shape of a bat in flight. They eat mostly vegetation and are known for their climbing prowess. Both species’ claws are made for digging, but when they attack humans, which happens from time to time in the wild, they wrap their arms around the person’s body and swipe, often scalping them. Russians sometimes say that bears kill people by giving them a hug.

While the American species are widely studied, there are practically no bear experts in Primorsky, where I relied on hunters and park rangers to relay local lore. For example, I was told that bears love to booze. Tarasenko said that they are known to break into cellars and waddle away with containers of honey moonshine. He described them as abominable drunks. “They roll around, roar, sleep,” he explained. “It looks like a pogrom. Everything is broken, thrown around.”

Nikolai Agapov, a district inspector at the Land of the Leopard, one of the region’s national parks, told me that he twice found a mother bear returning to the skin of a dead cub as if in mourning. Agapov related another story about how a bear stole one of his kerosene canisters, carried it 200 yards away, unscrewed it, and dumped the contents all over the ground. “That means they have to know which direc­tion to turn the cap!” Agapov told me.

In 2015, there was a failure of every imaginable food source for the local bears—the forest was barren of Korean pine nuts, acorns, and berries. At the same time, local rangers told me, bear numbers had grown substantially; recent implementation of tighter border controls and harsher penalties for poaching and for trafficking to China had led to a spike in the population, and there were roughly 1,000 new members of each species wandering the woods. (Even so, black bears are still considered threatened, due to the demand for bile and paws in traditional medicine.) With more bears than ever competing for fewer resources, they began to migrate in search of food.

That migration led them into towns, where discarded food and summer vegetable gardens were plentiful. Bears are known for their excellent memory and sense of direction—they create mental food maps that last a lifetime. Once a new restaurant is found, it’s never forgotten. When the bears discovered Luchegorsk, the options for dealing with them were limited: frighten them away, draw them to other food sources, or eliminate them. On top of that, many worried about them attacking humans. If a bear killed someone, it might decide that people were reliable prey.

“A person can be standing, gathering berries, and the bear can attack from behind. It’s easy game,” Agapov explained. “The bear knows that a human is dangerous. However, when it manages to kill a person once, it starts thinking: That’s easy! And delicious!”

When it became apparent that the bears weren’t going away, the townspeople started to demand answers: What was being done to protect the people? Children were playing at the lake. How could the government let bears wander around town? Pensioners needed to harvest their vegetable gardens before winter came. Why weren’t the authorities shooting the beasts?

Tarasenko scrambled to assem­­ble a 14-person response team, made up of park rangers and hunters, to patrol the town in shifts. Residents would call emergency services, which would direct the call to Tarasenko, who would then dispatch his team to chase the bears away. There were other precautions: for example, they decided to block access to manholes and basements where bears could hide. Someone suggested it would be best to cut the reeds down, too, but so many pipes and electrical wires ran through the thicket that the plan stalled.

Tarasenko wrote up a list of instructions for what to do in the event of a bear sighting, to be distributed to the community and published in the local paper:

When in the forest or in places where predators are present, safety precautions need to be taken. One needs to rustle; talk loudly! If the bear shows interest in you or aggression, one should speak loudly to mark one’s species affinity—that one is a human. One can raise one’s arms, pretending to be a large animal. A woman’s hysterical cries will provoke it. One shouldn’t scream—that is aggressive—but speak with a loud and clear voice. At every stage of contact, whether it is approaching or not, one shouldn’t run, and one shouldn’t turn one’s back toward it. It is necessary to carefully step back, talking loudly, without screaming in panic!

Parents were told to escort their children to and from day care. Police cars drove around with sirens blaring. A team of four used the hose from a fire truck to spray the reeds in front of the Great Wall to push the bears out.

At around 9 p.m. on August 26, Tarasenko’s measures were put to the test by one of the primary volunteers. Alexander Zhdanov, a stocky 43-year-old with a buzz cut, operates the train that moves coal from the mine to the plant. He is known around town for his enthusiasm for hunting, unearthing World War II relics, and backcountry snowboarding. Zhdanov had just finished dinner and settled down to Russia’s version of Facebook when a friend—a policeman—called to tell him that two bears had been spotted. Officers had injured one with a handgun.

Zhdanov grabbed his Saiga hunting rifle and ran out of the house. He drove to the intersection where the police had parked and got into their van. “We shot him, but we couldn’t do more. What if he attacked us? We just have a pistol,” one of the policemen told Zhdanov.

As they scanned for activ­ity in the shadows, people began running out of Old Park screaming: “Bears! Bears!” Zhdanov saw a dark mass careening across the sidewalk. He jumped out of the van and sprinted after it. The police followed in the vehicle, illuminating the street with the headlights.

“Run! Get out of here! There’s an injured bear!” Zhdanov shouted to anyone who could hear him—­children, women, elderly people, all out enjoying the summer night. The bear was hampered by its injury but still running, moaning, jumping into the metal fence and ricocheting off. Then it disappeared into a residential block with a playground in the middle of a courtyard.

Zhdanov stopped and listened. Silence. I can’t shoot. There are people everywhere, he thought. He turned to the right and saw the bear mid-crouch, a mere six feet away. He fired. The bear fell backward and moaned. Zhdanov shot twice more. The bear scraped its claws against the sidewalk and whined.

People poured out of the surrounding buildings to get a better look. Cars pulled up with their headlights on and watched. It took the bear ten minutes to die.

  Illustration: Mike Reagan

An autopsy revealed that the bear was a four-year-old female, small for its age. It had been lactating and looked to be the same size and shape as the bear that had attacked Dubitsky. (The taxi that startled it away had a dash-cam recording of the attack.) Tarasenko surmised that it was the mother bear, looking for her cub.

“Maybe it wasn’t her. We can’t say for sure. You have a bear. What can we say about a bear that is running? It has no cap, hat, or handkerchief, right?” he told me. “It had to be her,” he decided. They would find what they presumed was her cub, drowned, a few days later.

But like so many of the details in this story, no one could be truly sure—not citizens, not hunters, and certainly not government officials. Maybe a bear arrived on Monday, or perhaps Wednesday. There were five of them, or just one. The summer onslaught bled together. Timelines were nonexistent, as if everyone had been too busy chasing too many bears to remember.

One thing was sure: by mid-September, the bears seemed to have settled in for good. Taxi drivers prospered, called to take people the few blocks they would normally walk. Children played a new game: “Let’s make you a bear, and we’ll surround you!” Teen­agers dared each other to go looking for bears at night; they wandered around town in packs, hooting with nervous laughter at every shadow. Two bears feasted on watermelon rinds in the dumpster across from the Great Wall so many nights in a row that locals parked their cars nearby and waited for them to appear, hoping to make home movies.

Outside Luchegorsk, apiaries were torn apart. Beekeepers went on nightly patrols into the forest, rifles at the ready. The sound of gunfire echoed through the trees. They shot in the air, they shot overhead, and then they just shot directly at the bears. They didn’t even bother to properly hide the carcasses. Zhdanov estimated that 100 bears were extrajudicially killed outside Luchegorsk alone. In all of Primorsky that fall, there were around 60 documented cases of bears coming into villages, approximately 18 cases of conflict with bears, and four or five human deaths. Bears injured hunters, grandmothers, and children.

“I felt unfairness, anger, and joy,” Tara­senko explained when I met him at his office. “Unfairness because there are many villages, why are they coming to ours? Second, why are there so many of them? Third, why do people stick their noses where they shouldn’t, obstructing our work? If officials are already doing their job chasing the bears away, half the town shouldn’t be running behind them, taking pictures, screaming, and giving advice. This made me angry.”

Then he paused, adding, “That there are bears left, espec­ially the Asian black bears, this was joy.”

The problem spread. In the neighboring province of Kha­barovsk, it landed squarely on the shoulders of Yury Kolpak, the 54-year-old director of wildlife protection for the entire region.

Kolpak is short and trim, with salt-and-pepper hair and a wide face. I met him for tea at a road stop along the highway that connects Luchegorsk to the city of Khabarovsk (population 550,000), outside the small town of Bikin, where bears had run rampant. A pregnant woman was among the injured; locals told me she survived because she bit back. Four bears had been shot in Bikin alone, and another three were hit by cars as they traveled the roads.

That fall, Kolpak got a call anytime something fluttered. Kids who didn’t want to go to school conjured bears. A woman reported that she’d been attacked by a bear when actually she’d run into a wire fence while escaping one, injuring herself in the confusion. One bear made frequent appearances at a cemetery, digging up graves. But the incident that Kolpak said almost broke him occurred in Sergeevka, a village on the outskirts of Khabarovsk.

It was a Sunday, around 9 a.m., when he responded to a report that a bear had been living in the basement of an apartment building for several days. Kolpak estimated that some 200 people gathered to watch him deal with the situation. While he was waiting for backup, he was repeatedly asked if the bear would be tranquilized instead of killed.

“Just put him to sleep,” onlookers advised.

“OK, does anyone want to come with me to sing lullabies?” Kolpak joked.

He tried to explain that there was no way to tranquilize the bear, because in the basement’s darkness they had no idea where it was, how big it was, or how much tranquilizer to use. Tranquilizer darts need to hit the right place on the body, and they need time to work—an animal can run around for ten minutes until the drugs take effect. But some weren’t swayed. Onlookers crowded balconies and called down: “You murderer!” From another balcony came the reply: “Go down there yourself and go in the basement!” Meanwhile, one policeman even hinted to Kolpak that they might actually be better off trying to tranquilize it.

When Kolpak finally went in, it didn’t take long. The bear was chuffing. Kolpak turned his flashlight on the animal and fired. Not everyone was grateful. Even two months later, Kolpak was sensitive. He told me that he had done everything he could to warn the population about how to avoid bears. He asked people to clean out their gardens and to gather fallen fruit, especially pears. “When it starts rotting, it gives off the smell of alcohol. For them it’s a drug. They walk toward it and don’t react to anything,” Kolpak told me. “You catch a bear, drive it to the taiga, and he will come back in two days because he remembers there are still pears. It’s a worthless enterprise. And to risk people’s lives, especially children—no one would do this. The only right decision is to shoot them.” But Kolpak and others who had done so were constantly forced to justify their position, particularly after a bear crashed into a shopping mall in Khabarovsk city and was shot by law enforcement.

Kolpak showed me a photograph of a fisherman who was torn apart by a bear earlier in the year. The body was beheaded and quartered—it looked like something out of the Game of Thrones special-effects department. “And you tell us it’s inhumane to kill a bear in a city,” Kolpak said, his voice rising. “So probably we should have waited until this happened.”

  Photo: Brian Cronin

As the number of bears killed grew—many of them in plain view of citizens—­public opinion crescendoed. Rumors spread. Conspiracy theories abounded. Some were convinced that the first bear killed in Luche­gorsk was actually a cub, and its mother had been killed later. They didn’t think it was right to kill a baby. Some didn’t think it was right to kill any bear at all. Some thought the bears had all come from a bile factory over the border in China, so the animals were used to human contact, and that the officials were killing bears left and right because they were irresponsible, or that somehow someone was profiting from all this.

Zhdanov was either a murderer or he was a savior. Tara­senko had done his job admi­rably or he had completely failed. The two men tried to explain that they couldn’t just put up a sign on the road asking bears to walk around the town. Tarasenko told people not to run toward the bears, not to take pictures, and, for God’s sake, not to take selfies, but not everyone listened.

The problem was that most of the bears that came to Luche­gorsk were black bears, which are unbearably cute. With shiny black fur and perfectly round ears, they look like walking illustrations from a children’s book. When Tarasenko explained that they were hungry, a few elderly women began feeding them.

Zhdanov once admitted to me, tearfully, mid-cognac, that he was thinking about giving up hunting—it had all grown too sad. He operated by a code of honor with the God of the Hunt, to whom he left an offer­ing each time he went out. He appreciated hunting as a fair game between him and his prey. Yet after the recent killing, he wasn’t sure how he felt. He was tired. The forest was being clear-cut, and the taiga’s inhabitants were suffering for it. He had begun feeling something more for them these days.

Bears are the spirit animals of the nation—the symbol of Mother Russia. They feature prominently in everything from classic folklore to a viral cartoon series called ­Masha and the Bear. President Vladimir Putin’s ruling party, United Russia, features a bear on its flag. Putin himself has evoked the bear to explain Russia’s foreign policy. Perhaps there was more symbolism than people let on.

At the Luchegorsk bus station cafeteria, I met a drunk taxi driver named Kolya and his slightly less inebriated dinner companion, Dasha, who had two fluffy Pekingese tethered to their table. They decided to explain the bear situation to me: “They shot every single one that came into the city. They made it look like they were chasing them out, but actually they fucking killed them! They didn’t take them anywhere,” Kolya said.

“How do you know?” I asked.

“I’m a local resident!” he exclaimed. This tirade continued for a while, until they pressured an unsuspecting man waiting in line to join the conversation. “There’s a girl here collecting opinions about bears—did they suffer needlessly, or were they attacking people?” Dasha asked.

“There was a migration from China,” the man, named Sanya, said.

“Right, and they just killed them stupidly,” Kolya said.

“No, they were harming people. They did it to make the situation safer,” Sanya tried to explain.

“But did people suffer?” Dasha cut him off.

“Of course,” Sanya said.

“How many?” Kolya pressed.

“A lot, a little, it doesn’t matter,” Sanya answered.

“Did you personally suffer?” Kolya asked.

“What difference does it make how many?” Sanya retorted. “If even one person suffered.”

“Because one person was injured, they killed thirty bears?” Dasha asked.

“It’s enough if even one person suffered!” Sanya said. “Why should we put people at risk for the sake of bears?”

“It would be better if you suffered than forty bears and my dog,” Kolya announced.

“I think it would be better if forty people suffered than forty bears,” Dasha said.

“Forty bears [suffering] is better than one person,” Sanya retorted.

“Sarah, don’t pay attention to him!” Kolya exclaimed, ending the conversation.

  Illustration: Brian Cronin

However people felt about it, there were concrete repercussions to shooting so many bears: orphaned cubs wandering the forest. The lucky ones made it to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center Utyos, in the southern part of Khabarovsk. (The center was founded in 1991 by a famous tiger catcher named Vladimir Kruglov, who hog-tied more than 40 live tigers before his death. It’s now run by his daughter and son.)

Though the sanctuary is far from state-of-the-art, it has released more than 300 orphaned cubs into the wild over the past 20 years. A large administrative house and a wooden lodge for visitors sit below the tiger enclosure and a rusted bear cage. A 12-acre bear enclosure has been under construction for the past several years. When I visited, they were still waiting for the last part: heavy wire from Belarus. It was due to arrive the following week.

In 2015, the sanctuary had taken in eight cubs. It had turned down 30 more. The center’s veterinarian, Yana Panova, took me to see the cubs one morning. They were sleeping in a pile on one side of a divided cage. Panova placed bread, carrots, and apples on the other side. When she opened the slot, a few cubs eagerly rushed out and began to munch.

They were puffy black balls with tiny ears and deep brown eyes. They pulled the apples toward them with their front paws and chewed with their mouths open. I badly wanted to pet one. Inadvertently, I stepped on a twig, and the crunch sent a few of them charging at me, bashing into the metal frame. I sprang back and laughed nervously. I could see Tarasenko’s predicament.

By October, Tarasenko had caught three orphaned cubs, and a fourth had been heard crying outside Luche­gorsk for days. Natalia Prodan, a 41-year-old former journalist, learned about it from an acquaintance and joined a group of volunteers who fed it. As the days grew colder, they decided that they needed to get the cub somewhere safe for the winter, so Prodan contacted a former zookeeper in Ussur­iysk, a town 260 miles away, who agreed to find a home for the cub.

It was three weeks before the proper documentation came through. During that time, Prodan and her friend Natalia Kargina took turns leaving apples, carrots, condensed milk, and meat for the cub. They began calling it “our Mishka,” the diminutive form of cub. The pair didn’t actually see Mishka with their own eyes until Kargina watched a video of the cub sitting in a tree that Zhdanov had posted online. Kargina showed the clip to Prodan, and the women grew concerned—why was the cub sitting motionless in the tree for so long? They contacted Zhdanov, who agreed that the cub looked sick. They needed to catch her imme­diately.

Prodan runs an extracurricular media program, and she decided to let two students come along the next day to produce a segment about the cub’s rescue. The two girls, Irina Katsuyta, 15, and Sonya Shtyarova, 16, were so excited the night before that they couldn’t sleep.

The small group arrived a little before noon. It was Irina’s first time on camera. In the segment, the petite blonde kneels excitedly in front of the empty den, speculating on what Mishka has been eating. Dogs start barking. “It could be the sign of attack,” Zhdanov announces and crashes into the forest, his handgun drawn, to look for the cub. He manages to scare off the dogs and chases Mishka into a muddy ditch. Still filming, the girls run to the spot. Mishka peeps out of the water-logged ditch and whimpers. The cub is soaked, her round ears sticking out.

When Tarasenko arrived, the men captured the cub in a blanket and brought her to a nearby barn for the night. They had rescued the bear. The girls and Prodan were ecstatic. They filmed the end to the happy tale as the bear was driven to safety.

But the next morning, Prodan got a call: Mishka had died from injuries overnight. An autopsy revealed a rubber bullet in her body. Someone had probably shot her while she was sitting in the tree.

Mishka was the last bear seen in Luche­gorsk. Soon after she died on October 7, the others seemed to disappear. They weren’t wandering around town, they weren’t sitting in the reeds, and they weren’t terrorizing the townspeople. Some thought they had migrated farther south in search of food or perhaps had retreated to the region’s ridges to build their winter dens.

While I was in Khabarovsk, the first big snow of the season fell. The taiga’s golden autumn hues disappeared under a blanket of snow so white it was blinding. Pine and Mongolian oak trees drooped under its weight, like a ballet frozen mid-dance. This was the moment when bears were supposed to begin hibernating. People told me it was likely that many that survived the shootings would die over the winter for lack of fat, shrinking the population the following year and restoring the natural order.

But many locals and hunters worried that some of the animals would be too malnourished to sleep. Such bears are called shatuns, dangerous insomniacs that no longer fear anything in their fight for survival. According to legend, they are vicious predators, undeterred by any of the usual defenses, fervently eager for human flesh. And so the hunters remained vigilant, watching for signs of their return. 

Sarah A. Topol (@satopol) is a writer based in Istanbul. This is her first story for Outside.

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