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Hungry bears prefer meals in imported cars

KTVU's Tom Vacar takes a look at the four-legged burglars
Windows Media 28K 56K

January 19, 1999
Web posted at: 10:32 p.m. EST (0332 GMT)

YOSEMITE, California (CNN) -- Shrouded in an almost surreal blanket of fog and mist, Yosemite National Park's recent weather seems to have discouraged tourists -- but encouraged full-time residents of the woods to come out in the open to search for food.

Park rangers warn the few campers who brave the elements to be on the lookout for black bears. The big furry creatures account for a six-fold increase in car break-ins over the last six years.

Hundreds of bear-proof boxes are located throughout the park. Bears know they can't pry open the steel contraptions, but many visitors fail to use the boxes, leaving food in their vehicles instead.

Intelligent foragers with a keen sense of smell, bears skip the boxes and head for the autos -- which to them are little more than canned food containers -- ripping them open with powerful claws and teeth.

Bears raided cars at Yosemite more than 1,100 times last year alone, according to a new Park Service report. The study indicates that bears seem to prefer Honda and Toyota sedans.

"Bears don't know a Honda is a Honda. They don't know that a Toyota is a Toyota. They don't even know a car is a car," says Ranger Shelton Johnson. "They just see an object that has textures, that has smells, that has a physical surface. And sometimes within that physical surface there is food."

Shelton thinks bears like the Japanese imports because of their lightweight construction.

"It's just obviously more likely that a bear is going to break into the vehicle that's easier to get into," he says.

One generation of bear teaches the next the intricate skills of foraging, Shelton says. Bear mothers may even teach their cubs what shapes to target.

"The sow is a good parent and she teaches the young what to do, and if she's breaking into a particular type of shape or object, then there's a chance that the young will learn what she has taught," he says.

Bears only break in when they smell food inside a vehicle, Park Service officials emphasize. Yet despite signs posted throughout the park, visitors continue to tempt fate.

The ursine marauders average one car every eight hours. Last year alone, they ran up a car repair bill totaling $634,000.

KTVU affiliate reporter Tom Vacar contributed to this report.

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