After enjoying two days of Needham hospitality, two itinerant juvenile black bears have moved on to neighboring communities.

But as the Massachusetts black bear population pushes further east in search of food, such appearances in town could become a more common occurrence.

“People need to learn to live with bears because they are here,” says Lt. Michael Lees, one of the officers who tracked last week’s visitors. He is a member of the Large Animal Response Team of the Massachusetts Environmental Police.  “Culturally, this area isn’t ready to see bears. We are trying to educate so that more people get used to it and understand.”

Lees acknowledges that it’s an adjustment and said there are a few things residents can manage: bird feeders, grills, garbage and dumpsters. 

“People are leaving their grills on the back deck, we all do. I do! It smells good, they are attracted to that. They are attracted to your garbage when you put that out. They’re attracted to bird feeders especially, that’s a big problem. They will eat it all and then move on.”

Lees said the bears will develop a pattern, coming back to places they have found food before, so he recommends taking bird feeders down, keeping grills and garbage containers closed and dumpsters secured. 

But what to do if, as seems quite possible, there’s a future bear visit?

“Leave it alone,” said Lees. “Don’t ever approach a wild animal. You can make noise, banging pots together or an air horn people keep on boats, sometimes they respond to that.

“At the same time don’t run from it either. You don’t want to surprise it; you’ve got to let it know that you are there. If it’s coming toward you and it’s just mosey-ing, don’t run away from it but look around.  Maybe go knock on somebody’s door and say ‘hey can I come in?’ But don’t run. Yell at it – ‘Hey bear!’

“And make noise. And if he starts going away, let him go that way.”

“They are very docile,” Lees said. 

Close encounters of the ursine kind are rare. “We have not had anybody get mauled by a bear in our state. It hasn’t happened in Massachusetts,” he said.

For more information about black bears in Massachusetts visit

The sad saga of Billy Bruin

By Bob Baker
Credit: Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society

The meandering black bears caused a stir in Needham last week, but they were not the first to wander through town. In 1874, Billy Bruin, a 2 ½-year-old black bear from Labrador arrived at Ridge Hill Farm, purchased by its highly eccentric owner, William Emerson Baker.

Baker had created a pleasure garden, a forerunner of a modern amusement park, between Grove Street and the Charles River. He owned a vast expanse of west Needham, where he summered and partied — quite hard. He built a 226 room hotel for his guests, held what were probably the biggest shindigs in town history, and alienated the town fathers in the process.

Baker built sculpted parks, waterways such as Wellesley’s Sabrina Lake, a 100 ft. tower, and grottoes that were designed to thrill and delight. At the bottom of one of the grottoes, invitees had to pivot sharply and then, if they were lucky, a black bear would charge towards them. At the last moment the visitor would notice the iron bars that held the bear back.

Baker had several bears throughout the 1870s when his pleasure gardens operated. In 1874, Baker bought Billy Bruin from a traveling showman. Apparently Billy was not pleased to be in Needham because, within hours, he escaped, sending waves of terror through town and all of Norfolk County.

Sadly, Billy was shot and wounded. He ended up floating down the Neponset River and washing ashore in Hull. Baker had him transported back to Needham and held an elaborate funeral, with Billy buried in a solid copper casket.

Needham resident Bob Baker (no relation to William Emerson Baker) is a former high school history teacher and curriculum writer.

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