Barbearians at the Gate
A journey through a quixotic New Hampshire town teeming with libertarians, fake news, guns, and—possibly—furry invaders.
In the summer of 2017, the survivalists began to worry—really worry—about the bears.
The problem wasn’t the animals’ nighttime behavior; that was just a nuisance. The survivalists were used to catching sight of the hulking intruders emerging from the darkened woods of rural New Hampshire to damage property, steal food, and deposit huge piles of excrement. Recently, though, the bears had started showing up in broad daylight, and not just at the survivalists’ encampment. Throughout Grafton, the tiny town on the outskirts of which the camp sat, residents told stories of furry forest dwellers pushing through porch windows, chasing house pets, getting drunk on fermented apples, and capering on rooftops. One bear had cleaned out a chicken coop by lying on its belly, reaching inside the structure’s tunneled entrance, and scrabbling around with an extended paw. The bleakest anecdotes told of bears swiping their claws through human skin as if it were tissue paper.
The survivalists agreed that something had to be done to defend their makeshift home. But no one suggested calling law enforcement. This was Tent City, a place people came to avoid government. The messy jumble of cabins, trailers, and tarps, anchored by an old carport that served as a communal lounge, was a crucible of self-reliance. Residents believed in untethering themselves from institutions, foraging for food, and hunting game with guns, arrows, and knives. When society inevitably collapsed under the weight of bureaucracy and corruption, they would be ready. Their lodestar was freedom.
Tent City, where the population swelled to 30 or more on any given night, was an extreme manifestation of cherished local norms. Reachable by one paved road and policed by one full-time cop, Grafton has no stoplights, zoning laws, or building codes. Personal freedom springs eternal, so much so that don’t-tread-on-me types from across America have moved there in search of a laissez-faire utopia. People live where and how they please: in ramshackle homes, solitary yurts, old cars, or shared camps.
The survivalists sketched out a multifaceted plan to protect themselves from the bears. Adam Franz, a bearded, restless man in his late thirties, managed the land that Tent City sat on. In his younger days, Franz had studied economics, designed computer programs, become an ordained minister, and played professional poker. Now he was the closest thing Tent City had to a mayor—which is to say that when he talked, people listened. This included both cohorts of the unregulated idyll: left and right. When I remarked on a Confederate flag slung across the front of a cabin, Franz directed my attention to a Bernie Sanders sign attached to another. “If you’re an anarchist of any stripe,” said Franz, who tends toward the left end of the spectrum, “this is a good place to be.”
Franz’s anti-bear arsenal included firecrackers. “I also think we should get bottle rockets,” he said one day, talking loudly to be heard over the constant buzz of a generator. Guns were a given; they were as much a staple in Grafton as picket fences are in the suburbs. Franz had recently traded his .357 Magnum for a Taurus Judge .410. The Magnum was more accurate, the owner of his favorite gun store had told him, but if a bear got too close for comfort, the Judge would do more damage. Though it looked like a six-shooter, its bullets were so big that it held only five.
The residents of Tent City decided they needed a barrier of some sort. One man scrounged several cheap metal posts and scrap rolls of chain-link netting from local suppliers, and a small crew of volunteers got to work. They inched along Tent City’s winding perimeter, methodically erecting sections of a fence. They adorned it with bells, beer cans, and bottles filled with BB-gun pellets. This would be the alarm system.
One day the workers were hammering posts into the rocky earth when they heard a woman who lived in the camp call out. Urgently. Scanning the area around them, they saw why: A black bear was swaggering along a finished portion of the fence, not 30 feet away. It was as if the bear had appointed itself foreman and was inspecting the men’s progress.
What a goddamned insult, thought Franz, who was working on the fence that day. He shouted at the bear like someone trying to get a kid off his lawn: “Go away!”
The creature paused, as if calculating risk versus reward. Then, on heavy paws that doubled as lethal weapons, it lumbered toward the men. Still shouting, Franz held a lighter to a pack of firecrackers he’d stashed in his pocket. Flick, flick, flick—the fuse caught. He hurled the explosives toward the incoming enemy.
Popping and sizzling, the firecrackers hit the ground between the foes. Startled, the bear reversed course and galloped clumsily away from the men. When the clamor ceased, however, the animal stopped short of the forest. “He started watching us,” Franz recalled.
Several tense seconds dragged by. Finally, the creature slunk into the undergrowth and disappeared from sight. The humans took a gulp of air. They’d won the latest skirmish in Grafton’s escalating bear war.
“In my opinion, there is nothing out of the ordinary going on in Grafton.” So said Andrew Timmins, a wildlife biologist employed by the state of New Hampshire. Timmins is tall and muscled, with grizzled hair that he often wears tucked beneath his Fish and Game Department cap. He showed me a spreadsheet that documented the annual intake of “bear complaints,” his department’s name for reports of human encounters with the 6,000 or so black bears that roam New Hampshire. There was Grafton, a community of about 1,000 people in the state’s central region, with 50 complaints over the previous decade. It ranked 29 out of 227 towns, which placed it in the top 13 percent of bear-afflicted places. But was that really so surprising, given its forested location? Timmins insisted it was not.
He diagnosed a kind of xenophobia: People are often frightened of black bears for no good reason. Sure, the creatures are big—they can grow to 500 pounds or more—and they’ve got sharp teeth and claws. But according to Fish and Game’s public-education campaign, “Something’s Bruin in New Hampshire,” which is intended to “enhance public tolerance towards bears,” the animals “do not typically exhibit aggressive behavior.”
That was the opposite of what I’d been told in Grafton. I’d first visited the town for an assignment that had nothing to do with bears. It was bears, though, that kept me coming back. I was lured by tales told over kitchen tables, in gardens, and on front stoops about an unprecedented conflict between man and beast.
People in Grafton said that, year after year, the bears were getting bolder. The same anti-authority ethos that gave rise to Tent City convinced locals that the threat needed to be dealt with, no matter what any government data said. It’s illegal to kill a bear in New Hampshire without a special hunting license, yet I heard whispers that a vigilante posse had embarked on a clandestine hunt. Meanwhile, here was Adam Franz, flinging firecrackers and pledging to use his new Judge on a moment’s notice. “This is my baby,” he said when he let me hold the firearm, placing the weight of his trust in my palm. “I fuckin’ love that thing.”
I visited Grafton several times over two years to determine if, to poach Timmins’s words, “anything out of the ordinary” was happening there. When it came to bears, where did truth end and myth begin? What I found was more revealing than I expected: a parable of liberty, disinformation, and fear. A parable, really, of America.
Grafton’s unruliness and disdain for authority dates back centuries. Fittingly, when the town incorporated in the late 1700s, it took its name from the third Duke of Grafton, who’d served as England’s prime minister and scandalized his constituents by divorcing his wife because she was pregnant with the child of a lover, no doubt taken while her husband engaged in a very public affair with a courtesan. By then colonists in Grafton had long ignored the native Abenaki people’s respect for nature, divvying up and then clear-cutting vast tracts of forest. Eventually the settlers decided that royal laws were also impediments to their freedom and joined the revolutionary fight against colonial oppression. At every stage of this history, they turned their muskets against black bears, a species they’d decided was better off dead. They delivered the carcasses for bounties.
Over the century following the American Revolution, Grafton residents demonstrated mastery of their domain by transforming it into New Hampshire’s most intensively farmed region. They denuded hills and covered them with sweeping grasslands, hordes of sheep, and miles of stone walls. In 1868, they banded together to protect their livestock from a bushy-tailed black wolf described in the local newspaper as four feet tall and seven feet long. People built homes, mills, two churches, 12 schoolhouses, and several mines, including one that, in 1887, produced a 2,900-pound aquamarine crystal, the biggest ever found in the nation at that point. Three years later, about 15 miles from town, a wealthy, eccentric land speculator named Austin Corbin built a game reserve for species imported from out of state, including bighorn sheep, Russian boar, bison, and elk.
Then came a seismic change. As the U.S. economy shifted toward industry, farmers abandoned their livelihoods in droves. Over the course of the 20th century, Grafton lost nearly all its agricultural land. Neatly cultivated fields reverted to impenetrable thickets, stagnant bogs, and tangles of young trees. Clearings shrank until they were tiny islands, adrift in an inexorable sylvan tide.
The new forest had a strange, ominous flavor. In 1938, a hurricane breached the fences of Corbin’s reserve, releasing hundreds of animals into the wild, and Grafton residents described frequent encounters with the creatures’ startling descendants. Packs of coyote-wolf hybrids, once unheard of in the area, trailed people who were out walking their dogs. There were taller tales, too, of a Bigfoot-like creature, dragonflies as big as hawks, and birds with claw prints larger than a human hand.
For a long time, Ursus americanus didn’t rank on locals’ list of worrisome fauna. Though the black bears’ habitat included some 90 percent of New Hampshire, they gave humans a wide berth. Attacks were exceedingly rare; the most recent was in the mid-20th century, and the last fatal one in 1784. Statistically speaking, and not only in New Hampshire, a person was (and still is) much more likely to suffocate in a giant vat of corn than be killed by a bear.
All was well until 1999. That’s when the cat massacre happened.
I heard about it when I first visited Grafton, in the fall of 2016. I was there to interview 62-year-old veteran Jessica Soule about her difficulties accessing support from the Department of Veterans Affairs. As I drove into town on Route 4, I observed that the town had no medical services or grocery store; one of its two gas stations had shut down.
Soule lived in an area of Grafton known as Bungtown, which received that name after an incident in the mid-1800s when bungs—a type of cork—came loose from barrels while they were in transit, allowing the liquid inside to spill out. Soule’s house had white siding and a creaky metal wheelchair ramp leading to the front entrance. When she answered the door, she wore a button-up shirt under two sweaters. A long, neat braid hanging over one shoulder softened her face.
Inside her house, the smell of cats hung in the stale air, trapped by tightly sealed windows. Several felines jockeyed for Soule’s attention. I sat on a lumpy couch with a quilt spread over it and was startled when one of the mounds beneath me began to move. “He’s hiding,” Soule said.
As we meandered through the usual small talk that precedes an interview, I noticed that Soule used a striking phrase: before the bears came. As in, “I used to let my cats outdoors, but that was before the bears came.” I asked her to explain.
One fine July night in 1999, Soule sat down at the picnic table in her backyard to enjoy the cool air. The moon had already risen. It looked like liquid silver—what the Abenaki called temaskikos, or the grass-cutter moon. Soule’s only companions that night were three cats, all less than a year old, wrestling near her feet.
As Soule relaxed, she heard footfalls behind her, quick and heavy. Before she could react, the bear was within a few feet of the picnic table. But instead of snatching her, it scooped up another feast: two of her kittens, whose mewling Soule could hear as the bear blew past her and disappeared into the woods.
It reemerged just beyond the tree line behind Soule’s house, near a small creek. The animal cut a bulky silhouette in the moonlight. Smaller shadows joined it: hungry bear cubs. All Soule could do was watch, horrified, as the creatures finished off their dinner and sauntered away.
Soule hunted desperately for her third cat, named Amber, in the woods. It wasn’t until morning, when the sun was up, that she found the tiny feline, huddled beneath a carpet of leaves. The cat was terrified but alive.
I asked what happened to Amber after that. “She’s right here,” Soule said, pointing to a cat nestled in the center of her lap like pet royalty. The milky-eyed feline, now 17 years old, was so rough coated that she looked taxidermic, and so decrepit that she could no longer retract her claws. Like her owner she was a veteran, a survivor.
“That,” Soule said, “was the beginning.”
In Soule’s telling, the bears that ate her kittens developed a keen taste for felines. When other cats in Bungtown went missing, locals knew why. Soule said that a bear approached her front door one day. Perhaps it was the same mama bear, she thought, back for more. By then she’d gotten wise; she kept her cats inside, no longer left food scraps in the backyard for birds, and opened doors and windows only when she absolutely had to.
Andrew Timmins told me that he’d never received a bear complaint involving a cat, from Grafton or anywhere else. Plus, the idea that wild bears could acquire a taste for felines seemed dubious to him. When a Grafton resident told me about a bear that drained his biodiesel supply—a five-gallon container of two-year-old French-fry grease—I was reminded that bears will devour even the most loathsome fare, so long as it adds to their winter stores of fat. They’re after calories, not cuisine. Despite local perception, the cats of Bungtown probably weren’t the bears’ preferred target; they were just there.
Perception, though, matters a great deal when people craft stories about how they overcome obstacles and cope with conflict. Once the seed of the purported bear hazard was planted, stories nourished it. Often the light of reality was refracted such that it transformed an animal into a totemic version of itself: bandit or strongman, noble savage or mythic monster, bumbling idiot or cunning predator.
Alongside the stories, a few key ingredients influenced people’s assessment of the bears in their midst. First was a quantifiable increase in New Hampshire’s ursine population. In 1990, the state had some 3,000 bears. Steady annual growth, which peaked at 10 percent around the time that a bear got clawsy with Soule’s kittens, nearly doubled the population in the next quarter-century. During that same period, New Hampshire got serious about bear monitoring. Based on what wildlife experts deemed prudent preservation goals, the state designated population targets and bear-management strategies: how many annual hunting licenses to grant, how long hunting season should last, and even what hunters could use as bait. Chocolate, for example, was banned, because it could be toxic to bears. If a human wanted to kill a bear, they’d have to shoot it, not feed it a brownie. Fair’s fair.
The edicts and regulations didn’t sit well in Grafton, particularly with the town’s newest colonists, who started showing up in 2004. It sounds like the start of a bad joke: A lawyer, a firearms instructor, and the owner of a mail-order-bride business walk into a fire station. The three men were Tim Condon, Tony Lekas, and Larry Pendarvis, respectively, and they were avowed libertarians with the Free Town Project, a splinter group of a national initiative founded in 2001 to convince some 20,000 liberty-loving Americans to move to a chosen place, where they could concentrate their voting power and rid the political landscape of pesky rules. On the anything-goes frontier that Free Towners envisioned, people would be able to keep as many junk cars on their property as they wished, buy and sell sex without shame, gamble at will, consume drugs of all kinds, and educate their kids however they liked. Hell, they could even debate the merits of incest and cannibalism if they wanted.
Condon, Lekas, and Pendarvis were scouts, tasked with looking for the right spot to pioneer the project. They focused on low-population states, including New Hampshire. An added bonus of the “Live Free or Die” state was that it didn’t impose income and sales taxes. The trio drove from town to town; some places were too far north—excessively cold and isolated—while others had strict zoning laws or a tight real estate market. Finally, the men came to Grafton, situated on a rugged stretch of 42 square miles. They met up with local volunteer firefighter John Babiarz, who had recently run for governor on the Libertarian ticket and won 3 percent of the vote. Now he and his wife, Rosalie, welcomed the three men around a folding table in Grafton’s firehouse, because there were no coffee shops or restaurants in town. They discussed their shared pet peeves, namely busybody bureaucrats and onerous laws.
Grafton was the mecca the scouts had been looking for. The town had more land than people and virtually no statutes governing property. There were fewer than 800 registered voters, most of whom didn’t bother showing up at the polls, and because Babiarz already had a base of support, he could help tip the political scales in the project’s favor. What’s more, natives loved their guns as much as they despised meddling government. The scouts stopped their search and sent word to their fellow Free Towners, along with the phone number and email address of a local realtor.
How many people answered the call to move to Grafton is hard to say. Libertarians aren’t exactly known for keeping records. According to the federal census, between 2000 and 2010, the town’s population swelled by more than 200 residents. Soon after the project was launched, Free Towners began purchasing hundreds of acres of land, which they made available, at their discretion, to like-minded people who wanted to establish permanent homesteads or temporary encampments. Tent City, then in its early days as a home base for Grafton’s most extreme natives, served as a model of the type of loosely organized community that might work for the newcomers.
Grafton’s newest denizens infused its relaxed culture with impudence. At the annual apple festival, they encouraged children to dip homemade United Nations flags into a bonfire. At town meetings, which were usually sleepy affairs, they emphatically insisted that Grafton withdraw from the regional school district, condemn The Communist Manifesto, and eliminate funding for the local library. None of those proposals gained any traction; for all the ideological DNA they shared with the new arrivals, longtime Grafton residents thought some of the Free Towners’ ideas crossed the line of common sense. Still, the settlers managed to pass measures to slash the town’s budget by 30 percent (later rescinded on a procedural technicality) and to deny funding to the county’s senior-citizens council.
Babiarz, who went on to become Grafton’s fire chief, gradually distanced himself from the project’s purists, deciding that he preferred a less evangelical brand of liberty. Yet he maintained common ground with Free Towners on plenty of things, including the threat of bears.
The same year the Free Town scouts came to Grafton, a bear stole onto Babiarz’s farm on Slab City Road, where he and Rosalie live in a converted 19th-century schoolhouse, and eviscerated one of his rams. By the time I visited Babiarz in 2017, bears had infiltrated his property numerous times, making off with chickens sleeping in their coop, sheep locked in their paddock, and apples swinging from tree branches. Babiarz, a tall, lean 60-year-old who has now run unsuccessfully for governor four times, became convinced that one bear in particular watched him from somewhere in the forest. It waited for him to run an errand or visit the fire station, and then it struck. This damn bear was a seasoned criminal, Babiarz told me in his small kitchen, where amid potted plants and household clutter an old sign urged me to elect Libertarian Harry Browne president in 1996.
Babiarz and the bear had a fundamental disagreement over how many of the farm’s livestock were there for the taking. His starting position was zero. The bear’s was all of them. “It had no fear,” Babiarz said. “Which is a problem.” He decided that pain-based deterrence was called for. He loaded an electric fence with strips of bacon, hoping to zap any hungry bears in the mouth. On the ground outside his chicken coops, he laid down boards with nails or screws sticking skyward to puncture the soles of bear paws. One board I saw had claw marks on it and a screw was missing. “Yep, it went right through,” Babiarz said, referring to the unlucky bear that had stepped on the board. “There was blood pouring. There was nice red all over.”
One September morning, he came home from town to find a bear—the bear, Babiarz claimed—sitting on its rump and feasting on a chicken. “Like a human at a campfire, munching,” Babiarz recalled with dismay. How had it gotten past every line of defense? Babiarz sprinted into his house and grabbed a Ruger .44 Magnum from his closet, but by the time he got back outside, the bear was galumphing toward the refuge of the forest. Panting, Babiarz took aim and pulled the trigger. The Magnum bucked in his hand, exploding with sound.
“Apparently, I missed him,” Babiarz said. A concerned look crept over his face as he told this part of the story. He gestured toward the woods, adding, “He was a moving target against a black background.”
I realized that Babiarz felt he had to defend his marksmanship. Competition was everywhere, after all. In 2012, New Hampshire had attained America’s highest per capita rate of machine-gun ownership; federal data showed nearly 10,000 of the weapons registered in the state.
“There’s a lot of trees here,” Babiarz continued. “Hitting it would have been a miracle.”
I squinted in the direction the bear had gone. After a pause that felt sufficient for reflecting on a deep knowledge of firearms—which I by no means had—I replied in solidarity.
“That’s a really tough shot.”
Babiarz looked relieved. He went back to talking about the bear. It was out there still, his Moby Dick. He was sure of it.
Can bears be calculating? Babiarz and other Grafton residents I spoke to sure seemed to think so. Dave Thurber, a Vietnam War veteran who lives up the road from Jessica Soule, recounted how, one dark winter night, he had a feeling that something wasn’t right. He peeled back a corner of the curtains covering his living room windows and peered out at the front lawn, where he spotted a bear delicately licking sunflower seeds from a bird feeder. When a car approached, the bear flattened itself against a snow bank like an escaping prisoner evading a watchtower spotlight. After the car passed, the bear resumed eating.
Rumors of the bears’ cunning had planted unsettling questions in the minds of Grafton residents: How close are we to a bear right now? Could one be just beyond someone’s front door or hiding behind a nearby tree, casing a pet or, worse, someone’s child?
I put the question of bear intelligence to Ben Kilham, a wildlife biologist and leading expert in ursine behavior, who happens to live about 20 miles from Grafton. Before he became interested in bears, Kilham designed guns. Now his personal website features a photograph of his head and upper torso protruding from the entrance to a bear’s den. He has adopted and raised dozens of orphan cubs, which he releases into the wild and tracks for thousands of hours apiece. He has been bitten and scratched more times than he can count, but never seriously. State wildlife officials speak of him reverently, and his fame has gone global. In an Imax documentary released in April 2018, he’s featured as a bear whisperer helping China reintroduce pandas into the wild.
Kilham suggested that if I really wanted to learn the truth, I should read a book he wrote entitled In the Company of Bears. The book paints a picture of bears—worrying or inspiring, depending on your priors—as the Einsteins of the wild. According to Kilham, bears have a highly developed sense of self. They can also count to 12 (higher than chimpanzees), transport and use tools, observe societal bonds that include a rudimentary sense of justice, remember the distant past, calculate the likelihood of future events, and, if necessary, ask other bears to care for their offspring. Kilham also asserts that bears can screen foods for palatability by mouthing them and inhaling their scent. He came to the idea after noticing cubs gently manipulating leaves, mushrooms, and frogs with their snouts. Kilham developed a working theory that bears have a special sensory organ about the size of a jellybean embedded in their palate, which he dubbed the Kilham organ. He finally proved its function when, he told me, he “boiled a half-rotted bear head and found what I was looking for.”
Kilham comes across as the Jane Goodall of bears, uniquely positioned to understand the species. Also like Goodall, his insights aren’t always backed up by hard data or laboratory tests, leaving him vulnerable to academic criticism. In his book, the only evidence he cites that a bear can out-count a chimp is his experience with one bear, named Squirty, who always seemed to know when Kilham had shorted her one or two cookies from a sleeve of Oreos. Yet formal studies measuring bear intelligence generally support Kilham’s conclusions. Bears in captivity have been observed solving problems—moving stumps to use as stepladders in order to access high-hanging fruit, for instance—and distinguishing between different numbers of dots on a screen.
A more enduring critique of animal behaviorists is their tendency to anthropomorphize, or assign human characteristics to the species they study. Here the question is one of intent: why animals do what they do. If a bear lingers in the presence of a screaming survivalist, is it calculating its odds of getting fed or shot, or processing a more basic fight-or-flight reaction? It’s hard to answer these questions definitively, because we can’t read animals’ minds. That doesn’t stop Kilham from trying, however, nor has it stopped Babiarz and other Grafton residents from ascribing human motivations to the bears prowling around town.
Maybe they do so because it’s easier to think you know an enemy than it is to admit that you don’t and never will. Or perhaps, as scholars have suggested, anthropomorphism is an evolved trait, a kind of shorthand that allowed primitive humans to interpret animal behavior and protect themselves accordingly. Millions of years later, we still feel the urge to think of animals as basically like us, even if we live an infinitely safer existence; we don’t hunt to survive, and we’re not hunted. Tested only rarely in high-stakes circumstances, our assessment of creatures as friend or foe can be exaggerated or ill applied—sometimes to comic effect.
One night in the spring of 2009, in a house on a hill overlooking Grafton’s somnolent downtown, a sheep farmer named Dianne Burrington was awoken by frantic bleating. She reacted instinctively, throwing back her covers, leaping from bed, and racing to the kitchen for her rifle. Burrington, then in her fifties, grabbed a pistol from a drawer for good measure before bursting out the front door “half-assed dressed” in her nightgown and a coat.
Burrington wasn’t a shit taker—she was a shit kicker. If you were casting her in a movie, you’d want Kathy Bates: someone solid, assertive, and able to project a down-home friendliness. Whatever was out there, Burrington would deal with it. A coyote? No problem; she’d shot one before. As for bears, she’d installed an electric fence to keep them out. It hadn’t failed her yet.
She sprinted through tufted pasture toward her barn. As she got closer, she realized that most of the braying was coming from Hurricane, her llama. Standing five feet nine inches tall and weighing 400 pounds, Hurricane was the farm’s guard animal. Burrington claimed that he patrolled the fence line and kept an eye on the smallest sheep, ushering stragglers into their pens at the end of the day. He was a noisy animal; when a potential danger stressed him out, he hummed. But the sound he was making that night was more like honking, as if he was sounding an alarm.
Burrington rounded a corner of the barn and saw what had Hurricane upset: a bear, which must have slipped through the electric fence wires like a boxer entering the ring. In the ensuing chaos, as sheep stampeded away in fear, a portion of the fence had been torn from its support on the barn. Now a ewe was tangled in the wreckage, panicking. Juggling her firearms in one hand, Burrington reached into her coat pocket and pulled out a pair of scissors. A few snips and the ewe was free.
By then the bear had fled, with the llama hot on its heels. “Hurricane!” Burrington bellowed. “No!” She took off running, too, a distant third in a race toward the fence line separating pasture from forest.
Burrington feared that if the bear turned around, Hurricane would be done for. As she ran, she cocked her pistol. But the bear, flustered no doubt by the llama and the farmer, seemed not to see the thin, electrified wires he was barreling toward. He ran into them full force; their tension bowed and rebounded. The bear caromed back at an angle, spinning across the ground. When it regained its feet, the bear turned to face Hurricane. Burrington looked on helplessly.
She learned something surprising that night: Despite their cartoonish appearance, llamas can fight like hell. They have six pronounced, razor-sharp “fighting teeth” at the front of their mouths for that purpose. In a whir of gnashing incisors and pummeling hooves, Hurricane assaulted the prone bear until it managed to pull itself away, slip through the fence, and disappear from sight. The llama snorted and stamped the ground and brayed some more—this time, Burrington was sure, with pride.
Of the clashes in Grafton’s bear war, Hurricane’s triumph was an instant classic among dinner-table tales. It elicited gasps of horror and laughs of delight in equal measure. Another attack, though, prompted only frowns and solemn vows of retaliation.
Tracey Colburn lived in a little yellow house in the middle of the woods. She was used to seeing bears in her yard, up in her trees, and raiding her compost pile, where they chucked aside cabbage in what she could only interpret as disgust. Colburn was in her forties, with long brown hair and a youthful face. She’d had a tough go of it; a breast-cancer diagnosis cut her college career short, and a long string of clerical and municipal jobs were unfulfilling. In 2012, she was in and out of work, but she had enough savings to care for her dog, Kai, a Husky-Labrador mix she’d rescued from a shelter. Kai had developed allergies to wheat and corn, two of the main ingredients in cheap dog food, so she was trying not to give him the stuff.
One muggy weekend, the kind where you leave the windows open to welcome even the slightest breeze, Colburn sliced up a cold pot roast and fed it to Kai. Then she let him out to pee. She was startled to see that her small porch, eight by ten feet, was “just full of bear.” Two of the animals, young ones, were down on all fours sniffing the deck. A bigger, older bear stood right in front of Colburn. Kai rocketed at it, and Colburn screamed. The bear lunged at the sound. “They move like lightning,” she told me.
The bear raked Colburn’s face and torso with its left paw. Its claws dug into one forearm, thrown up in self-defense, and then the other. Colburn, who’d fallen onto her back, tried to push herself inside but realized she’d accidentally closed the door when her head thumped glass. “She was going to frickin’ kill me, I just knew it, because her face was right here,” Tracey said, holding her hand about eight inches in front of her nose. “I was looking right into her eyes.”
Kai must have bitten the bear’s rear legs then, because it jerked away from Colburn. The two animals started snarling and fighting in the yard. Colburn regained her feet and scrambled inside the house, shaking from adrenaline. She looked at her right hand. It didn’t hurt, but it made her stomach turn. The bear had unwrapped the skin from the back of her hand like it was a Christmas present. The gaping hole showed ligaments, muscles, and blood. Colburn looked around her kitchen and picked up a clean dishcloth to wrap the wound.
Kai, only slightly injured, came trotting back toward the house; the bear was nowhere in sight. “Huskies prance. He come prancing out of the shadows, big grin on his face,” Colburn recalled. “Like it was the most wonderful thing he’d ever done.” But she was worried that the bear and its cubs were still out there, waiting for her. It was a terrifying prospect, because she needed to go outside. She didn’t get cell reception in her house, and she couldn’t afford a landline, so there was no way to get in touch with anyone to help her stanch the blood pouring from her injuries.
Carrying a lead pipe to defend herself, Colburn made a desperate run for her white Subaru, only to realize, once she was safely inside, that her mangled right hand couldn’t move the stick shift. Reaching across her body with her left hand, she got the car into gear and puttered down the driveway. She rolled along until she got to the home of a neighbor named Bob. When she rang his doorbell, he stuck his head out an upstairs window.
“I’ve just been attacked by a bear,” Colburn said, breathing heavily.
“Hold on,” Bob replied, and he ducked back inside. A few seconds later, his head popped back out.
“Uh, you’re kidding, right?” he asked.
Colburn conveyed, in painful shouts, that she was most certainly not kidding, and Bob quickly gave her a ride to the fire station. John Babiarz happened to be on duty. “Those goddamn bears!” he kept repeating. He called emergency responders, who whisked Colburn in an ambulance to the nearest hospital, then he phoned the Fish and Game Department. The person on the line was incredulous, like Bob before him. “It’s been a century since we’ve had a bear attack on a person,” the man said, referring to the whole of New Hampshire.
“I’m here!” Babiarz yelled back. “I see the blood!”
Doctors told Colburn that her body would heal. When she was released from the hospital, a warden from Fish and Game showed up at her house to erect a box trap in her yard. After he left, Colburn peeked at the single pink doughnut resting inside. That night she heard a bear banging on the side of the trap, but the next day the doughnut was still there. A few days later, the warden decided that the trap was useless, packed it up, and took it away.
Colburn thought about the bear all the time. She wondered how often it had ventured into her yard, onto her porch, and up to her windows without her knowing. Not like a Peeping Tom. Peeping Toms were people, and bears, she now knew for sure, were nothing like people. “If you look at their eyes,” she told me, “you understand that they are completely alien to us.”
At least one theory of aggressive ursine behavior supports the takeaway that bears are monstrous. Jaroslav Flegr, a biologist at Charles University in the Czech Republic, studies Toxoplasma gondii, a protozoan parasite that lives inside warm-blooded animals and reproduces inside cats. (T. gondii is the reason pregnant women are told to steer clear of litter boxes.) When the parasite gets into an animal’s brain, the effects can ramify through the central nervous system. Flegr explained that infected people can become less risk averse. Men with T. gondii, for instance, have higher levels of testosterone and less regard for authority than they otherwise would.
Homo sapiens aren’t the only species that T. gondii can cause to act strangely—black bears are at risk, too. A study from the Journal of Wildlife Diseases found that 80 percent of black bears examined in a lab tested positive for the parasite.
It’s compelling to imagine that a horde of bears, zombified by a brain bug that triggers risky behavior, is terrorizing a small American town. But that’s more likely the stuff of science fiction than of good science. A more probable explanation for bold bear behavior is bold human behavior—which, in Grafton, means people embracing individual liberty. And one person’s freedom, it turns out, can be another’s burden.
Take the case of two women I’ll call Doughnut Lady and Beretta, for reasons that will soon be clear. (Neither wanted to be named in this story.) They both live deep in Grafton’s forest, and Beretta’s house is just down the hill from Doughnut Lady’s. When I met her, Beretta spoke in a sharp, clipped way, and she favored pronouncements like “My handyman is such a leftist” and “Do not write a story glorifying it.” The “it” in this case was her neighbor’s behavior. Beretta suggested that Doughnut Lady was treating a serious threat like it was all “fun and games.”
For some 20 years, dating back to around the time that Jessica Soule’s kittens were gobbled up, Doughnut Lady had been feeding Grafton’s bears. She was now in her seventies and owlish, with glasses and a no-nonsense demeanor. She told me that she started feeding the bears accidentally; they stole grub from her two cows, Princess and Buttercup. Then, several years ago, she felt sorry for the bears and got into the habit of feeding them directly. The ritual was this: Every day at sunrise, and again in the late afternoon, she tottered outside with two buckets of grain. Up to eight bears at a time waited for her at the edge of the forest, where she poured the grain into two piles and topped each one with six sugared doughnuts. The animals ate in an orderly fashion, side by side on the ground, and then the cubs would clamber up nearby trees or Doughnut Lady’s satellite dish.
The number of bears grew, and food costs ballooned. Doughnut Lady didn’t want to admit how much the enterprise cost her—“I’m embarrassed, I really am,” she admitted to me—except to say that it represented a significant portion of her monthly budget. But the bears were darn cute, and they never once bothered her cows. Doughnut Lady showed me a homemade calendar she’d compiled featuring pictures of the bears.
Hadn’t she been worried that she might fall down in the midst of her unusual chore, leaving her vulnerable to animals the size of sumo wrestlers? In a tone that suggested I was being silly, Doughnut Lady said that the thought hadn’t fazed her. Not because she was sure-footed. Indeed, she told me that she fell frequently in winter, when the ground was slick with ice.
I soon learned that there were four or five other families in Grafton who fed the bears, in defiance of state recommendations. Fish and Game was intolerant of such generosity: If you fed one bear, the department said, more bears will want to be fed, and once a bunch of bears get accustomed to food and its human sources, they’ll keep coming back whether you like it or not. Fish and Game recommended that, in addition to not deliberately offering bears tasty snacks, people should use airtight trash cans, keep meat scraps out of compost piles, and take down bird-feeders in early spring, when bears emerge from their dens.
Late one night in 2017, the long-simmering debate about bear feeding took on added urgency when Beretta heard noises outside her house. She grabbed her gun, the brand of which you can guess, and went to investigate. Paw prints littered the ground, and she was sure she knew which doughnut-fattened creatures had left them. This wasn’t the first time the bears from up the hill—a “sleuth” of them, to use the correct collective nomenclature—had gotten too close for comfort. Once, when she was preparing to leave the house for a shift at a volunteer job, she’d been stymied by several bears prowling in her yard, blocking the route to her car. Beretta had called her boss to say that she’d be late, due to unforeseen bear. On more than one occasion, she’d seriously considered shooting a bear and turning it into a rug, but she never acted on the impulse; fashioning the style she really wanted, with the bear’s head intact, would be too expensive.
After discovering the paw prints, Beretta called Grafton’s police officer to complain about her neighbor’s feeding habits. He said he couldn’t help, so Beretta called Fish and Game, which agreed to look into the matter. That’s how a uniformed warden wound up on Doughnut Lady’s doorstep.
Like many Grafton residents, Doughnut Lady referred to Fish and Game as “F and G,” but she put her own spin on the name, so that it sounded like “effin’ G”—as in, “The effin’ G came to attack me.” The warden showed her a printed copy of the state’s public-nuisance laws and told her that her daily feedings could lead to prosecution.
“You deserve a budget cut,” Doughnut Lady told him before slamming the door.
Angry, she called a lawyer, who said that while a legal case against her wouldn’t be airtight—the state would have to prove that her actions, not some other cause, were clearly the root of a defined problem or danger—she should probably stop feeding the bears. What if they hurt someone? She was sure they wouldn’t, but she wanted to avoid further scrutiny. The next morning, she didn’t go outside for the morning grain dump. She felt terrible. Doughnut Lady couldn’t look out her window for fear of making eye contact with the hungry bears waiting for her.
“So that was it,” she said, her eyes moist.
Then, brightening, Doughnut Lady suggested that she could try a new strategy. She could plant blueberries and other calorie-rich flora that bears enjoy. She hinted, too, that she could stretch the definition of planted. Take sunflower seeds, for instance: Bears loved them, and she could scatter them on her property however she wanted. “I could just put them on the ground,” she mused, “and they’re planted.”
Fish and Game contends that “the majority of human/bear conflicts can be avoided,” to the tune of 86 percent, if people act responsibly with their grub. It was no surprise to learn that, in 2012, the year Tracey Colburn was attacked, New Hampshire suffered a drought that limited the animals’ usual fare of bushes, berries, and bugs. Fish and Game got more than 1,000 bear complaints that year, many of them describing animals anxious to get their paws on human food.
Regardless of the reasons for the attack, some locals saw it as a breaking point, a violation of the line between man and nature that demanded recompense. The day after the incident made local news, Colburn stood on her porch and watched as a pickup truck bumped up the dirt road past her house. Inside the cab were several men. The bed held a large wooden box containing hunting dogs, whose acute sense of smell and loud baying would lead the men to their prey. The men didn’t acknowledge Colburn, and she never saw them again. She was fine with that; if an illegal bear hunt was happening, she didn’t want to know about it.
I very much wanted to know about it, so I asked around. As soon as I did, I got what I learned to be a mainstay of small talk in Grafton: friendly advice. It came in various forms, like “I’m a proud gun owner” slipped with a smile between someone’s descriptions of their pets. Tom Ploszaj, a scruffy guy who lives in a trailer in an encampment where the preferred method of keeping bears away is pouring cayenne pepper all over the garbage, explained the subtext to me. “There’s a lot of places around here where they’ll never put a shovel into the dirt,” Ploszaj said. “You don’t want to find one of those places.” I had no idea what he meant, so he clarified: “If you ask too many questions, you might be in a hole in the woods, and no one’s going to find you.”
It never came to that, but getting answers was still like pulling teeth. During one of my trips to town, a pair of men standing on the wooden porch of the Grafton Country Store told me that an illegal posse had hunted and killed 13 bears in one day. When I pressed for details, the men clammed up, as if suddenly remembering that they shouldn’t brag to a journalist about breaking the law. Another resident said he knew about the vigilante hunt and opposed it, but would never have put up any resistance. “It’s like being a German in Nazi Germany and not wanting to kill the Jews,” he said. “You hear about it, and you know it’s happening, but you just don’t want to think about it.”
I asked the town’s police officer, Russell Poitras, about the posse, and he said he didn’t know anything about it. Would it have been possible to hear the bear hunt, I asked—all those gunshots fired in the woods? Sure, Poitras said, but gunfire was to Grafton what traffic is to a big city: background noise.
Another local resident, who asked not to be named because she feared repercussions, was more helpful. She told me that one day, in the middle of winter, when hibernating bears were easier targets than they were during legal hunting season, she answered a knock at her door. Standing there was John Dodge. He spoke of “us,” and the woman understood that Dodge was there with a few other men. They were probably behind him on the road, bundled up inside their trucks and away from the freezing air.
Dodge told the woman that the group wanted to kill a bear whose den was inside a hill on her land.
“I got nothing to do with it,” she replied.
“We need to know if we can get on your property,” Dodge explained.
“What I don’t know won’t hurt me,” she told him with a shrug. “I won’t look out my window.”
After that she heard gunfire in fits and starts. She stayed inside and didn’t peek out, as she’d promised. A few days later, Dodge told her that the posse had finished its work, which had included much more than shooting the single bear on her property. “He said they got them, emptied them out,” the woman told me. “He said it was 13.”
Would Dodge or the other men talk to me? I wondered. “They agreed that they’re not going to,” the woman said. Word had gotten around about the questions I was asking, and an omerta was in effect. This surprised me less than the revelation that I’d already spoken to Dodge some months prior. His door was one of many I’d knocked on while first sussing out tales of Grafton’s bears, before I knew about the posse.
“I just moved here,” he’d said. “I haven’t seen any bears.” Then he’d shut the door.
In fact, I learned, Dodge was raised in Grafton and had lived alongside bears his whole life. Armed with this knowledge, I drove to his house, parked across the road, and approached him when he came into his yard. Rangy, with a sun-browned forehead, skullcap of white hair, and mouth that cut a straight line across his skeptical face, Dodge listened while I explained that I wasn’t trying to get him in any trouble—I just wanted to know the story.
“I still ain’t going to talk to anybody. I don’t want nothing to do with it,” he said. “You can explain it, but I don’t want to get involved with it.”
Dodge denied taking part in any posse. He added that he’s part Cherokee, and killing bears was a violation of that heritage. Then he offered me some friendly advice: “If you find out about this bear hunt that you keep mentioning, you’re going to have a problem.” I took him to mean that the members of the posse would wield some brand of street (forest?) justice at me and anyone who snitched. I thanked him for his time and walked toward my car.
“Just leave me out of it,” he called after me. “Because a war’s going to come, and I’m going to be right in the middle of it.” What role he’d play exactly he didn’t say.
It’s easy to see locals like Dodge as foolhardy and eager to use the bear threat, whether real, imagined, or embellished, as an excuse to live out action-movie fantasies. But when I looked under the hood of New Hampshire’s law and order, I found deficiencies—the kind that people might take as evidence that they needed to act on their own.
Budget troubles in recent years have forced Fish and Game to reduce its staff size. Wardens, of which there are 32 statewide, are stretched thin. They handle upwards of 600 bears complaints annually, among thousands of other calls, and Andrew Timmins admitted that it can be hard to do much more than keep track of the number and type of reports. When I asked him if I could review the department’s paperwork on the Colburn attack, he said that none existed. “Given the magnitude of the work, sometimes details slip through the cracks,” Timmins wrote in an email, speculating on why a responding warden didn’t write the incident up. “I can tell you from experience that there are times when I would not have time to do the same.”
To a journalist, it was a frustrating answer. I imagined it might be the same for people who prefer that bears not devour pets, destroy property, or get violent with innocents like Colburn. “If the government won’t do its job, the people will,” Babiarz told me one day.
But what is the government’s job in the eyes of a citizenry that exists on a political spectrum from lightly libertarian to all-out anarchist? Only a well-funded, organized state agency can efficiently safeguard communities from bears, and Grafton is full of people who tend to support the depletion of government coffers. Babiarz, I realized, probably didn’t want a state agent coming to his farm to capture or kill the chicken-eating bear. More likely, he wanted New Hampshire to lift restrictions on his right to shoot the animal or, if he felt like it, to feed it chocolate. That was the state’s job: to protect his freedom.
“I feel, on my property, I have the right to defend and protect,” Babiarz told me. “If I see a problem bear, I will deal with it. We can argue about it in court later on.”
Driving around Grafton, I passed dilapidated houses that stood like rotting teeth against a yawning green mouth of New England forest. Other fossils of town history were submerged in the intruding wilderness: platforms that once held church revivals, cemeteries in various states of senescence, foundations of long-abandoned homesteads. This, nature’s relentless fecundity, molded the town’s Great Bear Drama—a mix of luring, feeding, shouting, shooting, and storytelling. History also played a part, as did politics and culture. Vital, too, was the prism of individual experience.
One day I found myself thinking of C.I. Lewis, a New England–based philosopher who wrote a book called Mind and the World Order in 1929. At the time, his college-age daughter was dying of leukemia. Lewis used the term qualia to describe the unique properties that someone senses during a life event. His daughter, for instance, likely felt pain, the weight of her body, and the speed of time in ways that he, at her bedside, could not. What did qualia mean, Lewis wondered, for the concept of shared reality and objective truth?
Perhaps Grafton’s relationship with bears was a huge bundle of qualia, stacked like cords of wood. Every resident’s experience looked awfully like the one next to it, as if cut from the same tree, and they were all bound by the ties of a communal existence. Yet up close, each one was distinct, shaped in various ways by ferality and freedom.
Late in the spring of 2018, I visited Grafton one last time. At the end of the day, in a deepening dusk, I steered my car up a rocky dirt road and around tall, twisting trees toward Tent City. I wanted to talk to the survivalists again, to see whether their bear troubles had faded or intensified in recent months. I got there later than I’d intended and could barely see the camp in the gloom. I made out the finished barrier, more motley than originally conceived: a crude network of chain-link, metal gates, and picket-fence sections, all of it trussed together in a common function.
I reached the road’s end; I would have to walk from there. Rolling down the window of my car, I squinted at an indistinct shape moving in the woods. Was it a survivalist, foraging for mushrooms or firewood? Or was it a bear, foraging for something else? If I couldn’t tell what it was, would the survivalists know I was human when they saw my figure approaching their camp in the creeping darkness? If not, would firecrackers or worse come flying my way?
I spent a long moment considering unwanted consequences, whether wrought by man or by beast, and the fact that danger, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Then I rolled up my window and drove back the way I came, leaving Tent City to another restless night.