The behemoth bear of Lake Tahoe, infamously known as ‘Hank the Tank,’ has captured headlines and hearts over the past year with his rampant dumping and home invasions.
But what was thought to be the exploits of a single massive male bear actually turned out to be the misadventures of three hungry female bruins just trying to fend for their cubs.
DNA evidence recently revealed that the bear branded ‘Hank’ was not in fact a hulking male bandit, but rather a group of mama bears driven by maternal instinct to seek food by any means necessary.
The females’ quest for calories led them to brazenly burglarize homes around South Lake Tahoe, California, behaving more like determined den mothers than petty thieves. While the bears caused a ruckus worthy of an infamous outlaw, their motives were simply to fill their bellies and nourish their young. As ‘Hank’s’ true identity emerged, what seemed to be the tale of a rogue bear was actually a story of motherhood, showing that the bonds between parent and child can drive animals to great lengths.
The Notorious ‘Hank the Tank’ Bear of Lake Tahoe Revealed as Three Female Bears Just Trying to Feed Their Cubs.
In February 2022, authorities in South Lake Tahoe, California reported a bear they called ‘Hank’ was causing havoc, breaking into homes and dumpsters in search of food. ‘Hank’ was blamed for 152 reports of conflict behavior, including 28 home break-ins. The internet fell in love with the rogue bear, nicknaming him ‘Hank the Tank’ for his massive size.
However, DNA evidence has now revealed that ‘Hank’ was actually three female bears whose behavior was mistakenly attributed to one animal. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) captured one of the bears, known as Bear 64F, on Friday along with her three cubs. Genetic testing confirmed she was behind at least 21 of the break-ins originally blamed on ‘Hank.’
The CDFW said it typically euthanizes ‘conflict bears’ that pose risks to humans. But Bear 64F is no ordinary problem bear. Due to the public’s affection for ‘Hank the Tank’, the CDFW plans to relocate Bear 64F and her cubs to a sanctuary in Colorado once she receives veterinary clearance.
Bear 64F chose to make her den under a home in Tahoe Keys, an affluent community on Lake Tahoe. This makes sense given her food-motivated behavior. After discovering her den, biologists took the opportunity to collect samples, tag her, and attach a tracking collar. The collar fell off after two months, but provided enough data to differentiate Bear 64F from the approximately 500 other bears in the Lake Tahoe area.
Black bears typically weigh up to 275 pounds, but males can exceed 500 pounds. Their diets consist mainly of plants, berries, seeds and insects. However, bears are skilled at adapting to find food wherever they live, which makes them such successful predators.
Residents reported that in addition to human food from trash cans and homes, the ‘Hank’ bears also got into more novel items like a 2-gallon tub of ice cream.
Dr. Staci Baker, a veterinarian with the BEAR League, said the bears’ behavior is simply instinct – they explore and search the landscape looking for their next meal. So the responsibility lies with humans to bear-proof their homes and trash.
The community of Tahoe Keys has since changed policies that prohibited residents from using bear-proof trash cans. Hopefully more bear-smart practices will prevent bears from seeking food inside homes.
While Bear 64F’s behavior is problematic, she is not simply a rogue criminal, but rather a mother trying to find enough calories to nurse her cubs. Relocating her gives Bear 64F a second chance at life in the wild without needing to resort to human food sources.
The fate of the other two female bears remains unclear. But the CDFW hopes to eventually rehabilitate and release the three cubs found with Bear 64F. With effort from both humans and bears, communities like South Lake Tahoe can find ways for people and wild predators to coexist in harmony.
Here are some tips for what to do if you encounter a bear:
- Stay calm. Do not run or make sudden movements, which can trigger a bear’s chase instinct.
- Back away slowly while facing the bear. Avoid direct eye contact, which bears may see as aggressive.
- Give the bear plenty of space and an escape route. Make noise and wave your arms to appear larger and more threatening.
- Do not approach or surround the bear. Get to a secure spot like a car or building.
- If the bear stands up, it is trying to get a better view and detect scents. This is not necessarily aggression.
- Don’t climb a tree, bears are expert climbers. Also don’t run uphill, bears can run very fast.
- If attacked, fight back aggressively and aim for the bear’s face and nose. Use sticks, rocks, bear spray or any weapons if necessary. Playing dead does not work for black bears like it does for grizzlies.
- Report any bear encounters to authorities so they can monitor the animal and warn others in the area if needed.
- Avoid hiking alone or at dawn/dusk when bears are most active. Make noise when hiking to avoid surprising them.
- Keep food stored properly and garbage secured so bears don’t associate humans with food rewards. Preventing conflicts is the best strategy.