Why a 150-pound black bear in the Catskills of New York fatally mauled a five-month-old baby may never be known, but wildlife experts said the most likely reason is the bear had become accustomed to eating food that humans throw away.
"Black bears are extremely timid creatures and will usually run at the sign of a person, but if they associate people with food they become 'habituated' to it and may, just as people would, get frustrated and aggressive if the food disappears," Laura Simon, urban wildlife director for the Fund for Animals in New Haven, Conn., told United Press International.
"With the bear in question, we don't know if he smelled food on the baby or even knew it was a baby, but black bears do not normally attack people," Simon said.
Ester Schwimmer was snatched from her stroller on Aug. 19 outside her family's cottage in Sullivan County. The baby's father, Shmeya Schwimmer, scared the bear, and the bear dropped the baby and went into the woods. The bear later was shot by a state conservation officer.
New York's Department of Health examined the bear's head and said it was not rabid. The state's chief wildlife pathologist, Ward Stone, also said the bear had a thin layer of fat underneath its skin, indicating it probably was hungry. The bear's stomach contained a dozen plastic bags smeared with peanut butter, stickers from fruit sold in markets and pieces of aluminum foil.
"The bear had been feeding on garbage," said Stone, who added that in his 34 years with the state he could not recall a bear attack. Several people from the area where the baby was killed said they had seen bears eating from the garbage cans during the summer.
People who feed bears, intentionally or otherwise, are doing bears a disservice, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
"Artificial feeding -- humans feeding wild animals -- can bring a host of unintended outcomes, including starvation and disease," Peter Constantakes, a spokesman for the department, told UPI. "There have been a number of cases of rabid wild animals such as raccoons and foxes biting people and artificial feeding can attract animals with unfortunate consequences."
Handouts of food or not securing garbage will attract wild animals, but the food, usually bread, is not good for them -- it represents empty calories, bloats them up and does not provide adequate nutrition, and if it suddenly disappears, the animals can become aggressive, said Simon.
"I've seen raccoons round as balls from bread -- what happens is someone starts feeding a couple of raccoons and soon someone has 30 raccoons showing up daily at their deck wanting food and then it gets nasty and residents call us."
The Fund for Animals has a Wildlife Hotline (203-389-4411 weekdays) that receives about 5,000 calls a year, of which about 80 percent involve problems resulting from people feeding wild animals or leaving out garbage, Simon said.
People often want to help, but they cause more harm than good, according to Gary Alt, director of the Pennsylvania deer management program.
"They'll take a new fawn even though the doe is nearby, bottle-feed it, and it loses its fear of humans," he said. "When they get older, they tend to compete with humans, looking on you as if you were another buck. When they breed, they are far more dangerous than any bear I've ever worked with."
According to DEC officials, human feeding of wild animals can cause:
-- Animals and waterfowl to suffer from poor nutrition and starvation. In natural settings, waterfowl and animals can find a variety of foods, such as aquatic plants, natural grains and invertebrates. Many items commonly used to feed animals -- bread, corn and popcorn, for instance -- are low in protein and are very poor substitutes.
-- Competition for each scrap or corn kernel so the weakest and youngest lose out and can starve.
-- Altering normal migration patterns of waterfowl by shortening or even eliminating them. Ducks, reluctant to leave in the winter, may not survive sudden cold.
-- Animals congregating in unnatural numbers, beyond what people will tolerate, resulting in over-grazed and badly-eroded lawns, golf courses and school playing fields.
-- Increased rodent populations because they eat the food as well as bird seed dropped from bird feeders. Even bears are attracted to bird seed, plus pet food left outside for cats and dogs and grease left on outdoor barbecue grills.
-- The spread of disease.
"There is currently a 90-day ban on the feeding of deer in New York that says, 'No person shall place, give, expose, deposit, distribute or scatter any substance with the intent to attract or entice deer to feed,'" said Constantakes.
"Certain types of deer feeds could be a source of chronic wasting disease infection and people feeding deer may bring the animals together in a small area, which could increase the potential of the disease spreading from one deer to another," Constantakes said.
In Buffalo, N.Y., hundreds of ducks were killed in an outbreak of avian botulism at a feeding site where people took their children to feed bread to the ducks.
Apergillus, a fatal disease caused by mold to humans and animals, occurs when food is scattered too liberally, it piles up and becomes moldy.
Excess nutrients in ponds caused by unnatural numbers of waterfowl or animal droppings can result in water-quality problems such as summer algal blooms. Where waterfowl gather to feed, E-coli bacteria counts can swell to levels that make the water unsuitable for swimming.
In some cases, humans have been affected by disease transmitted by waterfowl. In Skaneateles, N.Y., swimmers contracted "swimmer's itch" caused by a parasite emitted from ducks attracted by artificial feeding at the town park.
"The bottom line is that feeding wild animals is not good for the animals or for people but while people may initially rationalize they are helping the animals they are really doing it for their own fulfillment -- it's a selfish thing because they want to observe the animals," said Simon.
"If people sincerely wanted to help animals, all animal shelters could use donations of cat or dog food," she said, adding that nature has a good system of providing food for wild animals, which does not include throwing out loaves of bread outside one's deck.