When Julie Faith Strauja moved herself and her three children—ages 5, 6, and 9— to Forest Falls, California little over a month ago, she couldn’t have expected that protecting her family would make her a public enemy in the small mountain town.
She definitely didn’t think it would lead to death threats and people hissing at her.
It all began when a 400-pound black bear broke into her garage to get at her garbage.
Frightened but not yet panicking, Strauja moved her garbage inside the house to keep the bear away.
It showed up again, however, clearly already with the knowledge that there was food at the location.
She tried scaring it away with mace and even had a local deputy shoot a bean bag round at it to scare it back into the forest, but the bear showed up again.
This time, it was in her kitchen, where it tried to attack the family dog.
Strauja, not wanting to harm the animal but fearing for the safety of her family and feeling backed into a corner, contacted the Department of Fish and Wildlife and obtained what’s known as a depredation permit—allowing her to legally shoot the normally only seasonally unprotected animal if it posed a threat to her and her family’s safety.
She told the San Bernadino Sun:
“It had already come into my house Friday night and then again broke into my kitchen early Saturday morning and attacked my dog. I have my three babies in the house.”
The next time the bear appeared on her property, Strauja had a friend shoot and kill it.
The backlash from the community was swift and extreme.
She told the Sun:
“There kind of was a mob mentality. People walking by my house yelling ‘bear killer’ and obscenities.”
She then showed the Sun a Facebook post written on Wednesday— since removed— where a local wrote
“Contact me if you want to legally make their life a living hell.”
“I’ve had death threats and my address posted all over social media.” Strauja elaborated.
She doesn’t seem to be exaggerating. Some comments online really are vicious:
Forest Falls is a town where people get attached to the local bear population, and the death of “Big Red,” as local Alycia Wheeler called the slain bear, hit Wheeler especially hard.
She told The Washington Post that she didn’t feel the bear, who had been in her yard the night before it was killed, posed any real threat to people:
“He wasn’t this mean, aggressive bear that they’ve made him out to be. These bears were hungry and they look for food, and if it’s not properly stored they’ll find it.”
Wheeler chalks the death of Big Red to a tragedy of poor communication in the community:
“Unfortunately, somebody who is new to the area took it upon themselves to have the bear shot and killed. I just really hope that in the future, they reach out to the community. Many of us have taken measures to keep the bears safe in the past. When in doubt, ask your neighbors.”
Wheeler has said she’s even experienced her own social backlash due to her outspokenness about Big Red’s death, saying it’s “divided the community.”
She also adds that if people had been more informed and open, Big Red could have been spared:
“All of this could’ve been avoided. By educating people, it doesn’t have to happen again.”
California Fish and Wildlife spokesman Andrew Hughan told the Sun that he feels for the community, but that Big Red’s death may have been unavoidable:
“We don’t want to destroy animals unless we have to. The fact is this bear was inside the residence and had been inside the house several times.”
Bear specialist David Garshelis, employee of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, told The Washington Post that bears present a serious problem in some populated areas because they have a strong sense of smell, allowing them to smell food inside people’s homes, and are “intelligent, strong and persistent,” adding:
“If the animal enters your home, what prevents it from entering again? You’re always on edge and have to lock yourself in at all times. Even if you’re not attacked, the bear could trample a child. It’s an unpredictable situation.”
The U.S. Forest Service itself writes:
“Although black bears rarely attack and generally avoid people, they are powerful animals and are capable of injuring or killing people. A conditioned bear may associate people with food sources. This may turn a bear into a ‘problem animal’ and will have to be dealt with aggressively; sometimes at the expense of its life.”
Meanwhile, some residents of Forest Falls have taken action towards preventative measures.
Alycia Wheeler started a GoFundMe page to raise money for the town to buy bear-proof trash cans and educational signs. Since July 31st it has raised just $295 of its lofty $10,000 goal.
This isn’t the first time recently that the slaying of a beloved animal has caused an uproar on the internet—Twitter and Facebook alike were alight with outrage in June over the shooting of Harambe the gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo, after the 17-year-old 400-pound ape manhandled a 4-year-old boy who had fallen into his enclosure.
And last year, social media had a field day with the dentist who illegally shot and killed Cecil The Lion, a protected animal in a national park in Zimbabwe.
— BonVoyageurs (@BonVoyageurs) August 5, 2016
Forest Falls, which lies 80 miles east of Los Angeles on the edge of the San Bernadino National Forest, is home to a healthy, large bear population, according to U.S. Forest Service.