Summer is the time city folk head to the Angeles National Forest with their Twinkies, hot dogs and potato chips--and that means party time for black bears.
There are as many as 24,000 black bears in California, one of the highest populations ever recorded in the state, said state Department of Fish and Game officials. The bears are usually most visible in the summer, prompting state officials to issue guidelines on how to avoid them and what to do if the wily animals show up.
"If they've been hungry for four days and they find a bag of Twinkies: Boom. They've hit a honey hole," said Bob Stafford, a black bear specialist for the fish and game department.
Bear sightings are uncommon in the Angeles forest and foothill communities, officials stressed. But bears occasionally wander through campgrounds and picnic areas, snatching whole cakes off tables or tearing off car windows like banana peels to get to an ice chest. In May, police officers shot a 350-pound black bear that wandered from the foothills onto a residential street in Azusa.
Black bears rarely attack people, Stafford said. But last year, one black bear mauled a 12-year-old Fullerton Boy Scout on a camping trip, and another attacked a 13-year-old boy in the San Bernardino Mountains.
More typically, mother bears teach their cubs that most campers and hikers will abandon their food when the animals come around.
"I've seen little cubs do this little bluff charge," Stafford said. "Their whole thing is a show."
The bears are attracted by the faintest of odors.
"Someone opens up a can of sardines, and it's like waving a red flag in front of a bull," said Armand Denis, co-owner of a store at the forest's Crystal Lake recreation area. "They can smell it a mile away."
Bears eat almost anything, including whole, unchewed cantaloupes, entire yellow jackets' nests and large kitchen sponges, according to reports by state biologists. A black bear once broke into Denis' truck to drink the sweet-tasting antifreeze, and another ate 40 pounds of dog food from a Forest Service garage.
Officials offer these tips:
* Never feed a bear. Once a bear gets food from someone, it will associate all humans with food. When a bear loses its natural fear of people, it may become aggressive.
* Keep the campground neat. Bears are attracted to garbage, pet food and anything smelly or edible. Don't leave uncleaned cooking utensils in camp. Even the clothes worn while cooking should be put away. Store garbage neatly.
* Store food and toiletries. While camping, keep food and toiletries in a car trunk or suspend them from a tree limb.
* Do not run from a bear. If you see a bear, yell, whistle or honk your car horn. Back away slowly if it does not retreat. Running provokes a bear to chase.