The fatal shooting of a black bear in Newton has inundated the state Environmental Police with a torrent of criticism that its officers did not do enough Sunday to transport the animal far from the MBTA tracks, Massachusetts Turnpike, and fitness club where the year-old male had wandered in a haphazard search for someplace to live.
“We’ve had terrible phone calls here,” Lieutenant Colonel Chris Baker of the Environmental Police said Monday.
But what critics call a heartless disregard for animals, Baker calls something else: equipment failure.
The bear was shot in a tree after a tranquilizer gun misfired and police determined they could not find a replacement in time to drug the 120-pound bear before Sunday morning traffic began increasing on the adjacent Massachusetts Turnpike, Baker said.
Although black bears are considered relatively docile, the prospect of a lost bear on the loose in a dense residential neighborhood with heavy traffic posed a public safety danger, Baker said. “The bear can run 30 miles per hour. He could have been out of the tree and onto the Pike in a matter of seconds,” Baker said. “We could have waited, I guess, but the problem is he could have gone in any direction, and we would have lost him in an urban situation.”
The shooting, in which the bear fell about 30 feet onto the commuter-rail tracks, is the first for Environmental Police since a black bear was euthanized after a motor vehicle accident in Hancock in April 2012, Baker said.
“The officer with the tranquilizer gun was in position and tried to take a shot, but the gun misfired,” Baker said. “It’s one of those incidents. We can look at it now, but at the time a decision had to be made.”
The chemical-laden dart never left the barrel of the tranquilizer gun, Baker said. Repairs were not possible at the scene, he added, because “once the drug is loaded into the dart, it has to be very carefully removed in a very controlled environment.”
Although Baker described the shooting as “unfortunate,” some animal-rights advocates questioned whether other options had been explored enough.
“How many safety risks do we have every day on the streets? I’m sure the public would have waited patiently if the Environmental Police had the patience to do so,” said Joanne Mainiero, founder of the Massachusetts Humane Society, which operates an animal shelter in Weymouth.
“They rushed to judgment: Shoot it, kill it, it’s out of the way,” Mainiero said. “That poor bear paid the price.”
Rob Halpin, spokesman for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals-Angell, said other options exist besides tranquilizing darts.
“The first decision should always be how might we ensnare, net, or tranquilize this animal so they can be safely transported to another location,” Halpin said. “Bears can be frightened with firecrackers or shot with rubber bullets. They also can be chased away with trained dogs.”
Halpin said he did not want to second-guess officers at the scene, but speculated that “if all of those people left, the bear likely would have left on its own.”
Greer Tan Swiston, an alderwoman in Newton, said she lives three streets from where the bear was shot. “I’ve gotten a whole heck of a lot of calls about it,” she said. “We’re reacting because we don’t deal with bears on an everyday basis. But from everything I’ve seen, we’re part of something bigger that’s happening in Massachusetts.”
The bear population in Massachusetts has increased to about 4,000 animals, state officials said. And with bigger numbers comes more interaction with humans. When bears pose a public-safety threat and cannot be tranquilized or steered away from problems, Environmental Police are given the option to kill them.
“With a lot of animals this size, if they’re cornered or put in a position to defend themselves, certainly it’s a dangerous situation,” Baker said. “If he was outside the Route 128 belt, we would have had more options to hazing the bear back into a wooded environment.”
That protocol is in line with many other states. Wildlife officials in Maine, Connecticut, and Colorado all said Monday that black bears will be shot if they pose an imminent threat to the public.
“We try to tranquilize them when we can, but when it’s a case of public safety, then we’ll do what we have to do,” said Doug Rafferty, spokesman for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
In 2012, Rafferty said, the state received 800 nuisance complaints about bears, up from an annual average of about 450. Rafferty did not have data on the number of bears that were killed.
In Colorado, 148 black bears were euthanized last year, said Jennifer Churchill of the state Parks and Wildlife agency. One of the latest involved a bear that was killed in a park in Boulder, home to the University of Colorado, where the animal had retreated after entering two homes, one of them occupied.
One longtime specialist on bears said the animal in Newton probably was roaming unfamiliar territory while trying to find new habitat. John Beecham of Boise, Idaho, who heads the human-bear conflict team for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, said the bear had a greater chance of inadvertently causing a traffic accident than finding its way safely to less populated habitat.
“They’re in totally unfamiliar territory and have no idea where they’re going to end up,” Beecham said. After the tranquilizer gun misfired, he added, Environmental Police appear to have acted appropriately.
“I would have a difficult time criticizing law-enforcement personnel for shooting the bear,” Beecham said. “You really only had two options: to tranquilize it or to kill it.”