By William Cass
The first letter to appear in the newspaper was Janice’s own. It ran about a week after the incident with the bear cub in the tree.
I am writing to alert citizens in Delaney Springs of an unfortunate circumstance I found myself in recently in the hopes of preventing it from occurring to someone else unknowingly, as it did to me.
My five year-old daughter, Dee, and I moved west from New York to this wonderful mountain town three years ago because of my love of nature and my desire to raise Dee in a place where that abounds. Delaney Springs has exceeded all expectations. I enjoy my job as a nurse, we love our home at the edge of the woods, and Dee has made many friends in our neighborhood. Until recently, most of them played regularly in our backyard.
This happy routine became interrupted a couple of weeks ago when a young bear cub appeared in the mid-reaches of a pine tree in our backyard. At first, we were delighted to discover it there; it spent most of its time sleeping, and we had only to glance outside our upstairs windows to regard it in repose.
Unfortunately, over the next several days, we found that the cub seemed to never come down from the tree. And, of course, there was the possible presence of a mother bear nearby. So it was unsafe and impossible for Dee and her friends to play in the backyard while it remained there. After about a week, I called Fish and Wildlife, and a couple of their men came to assess the situation. They told me that although they sometimes stunned adult intruding bears, to do so would almost certainly result in a fall and injury or death for the cub. So, since it presented no immediate danger, we would just need to wait for it to leave on its own.
For months, I had been planning a birthday party for Dee the next Sunday. It was to be held in our backyard, which was the only place large enough for all the guests and activities involved. I waited hopefully for the cub to move each day that week. When I awoke Sunday to find it slumbering in exactly the same spot, I knew I had to do something to scare it out of the tree. At first, I attempted shouting at it and banging pans out of my window without luck. Then I remembered the BB gun my nephew had left when my brother’s family had visited in the spring. I brought that to the window and fired it once in the general direction of the cub, but well away from it. At the sound, the cub did startle awake and scampered down out of the tree and into the woods.
A little while later, I was setting up for the party in the backyard when a police car pulled up, and an officer came over to me. He told me they’d received a report of a gun being fired at my residence and asked me if I knew anything about it. I explained to him what had happened, and he told me that it was illegal to discharge a weapon within town limits and that he had to file charges against me for the incident. Dee had come outside in her party dress to listen and began to cry. I said that I had no idea such a law existed and that I considered the B-B gun to be a toy, not a weapon. He said he was sorry, he had no choice. He told me that an investigation would ensue that would determine whether there would be a simple fine or if an arrest and a trial would result. He asked for the BB gun, which I retrieved for him. He filled out a violation, handed me a copy, and left.
So, as stated, the reason for this letter is to let others know about this law so they don’t find themselves in a similar situation. Please know that I intended no harm. —Janice Becker
In response to Janice Becker’s letter from last week, I wonder if she would consider a BB gun a toy if someone was shooting it at her.
I’m a neighbor and friend of Janice Becker’s and know her to be a kindhearted person of high character. I, for one, believe her account that she was only trying to arouse the bear so it would leave her property. At any one time, there are as many as six or seven of our neighborhood children, my own included, playing in her backyard. Are they supposed to wait it out? They have a right to play there whenever they like and feel safe.
Do they allow guns to be fired in whatever neighborhood Ms. Becker hails from in New York? What did she think she was getting when she moved to a community like ours surrounded by miles of National Forest in her pursuit of getting closer to nature? Just what she asked for: nature in her own backyard. Deal with it, Ms. Becker, or move someplace else.
Last I checked, a BB gun is by no means a lethal way of dealing with a pesky bear. Concern for her daughter and other small children was the motivating and essential factor. What is there to fault in that?
Our editorial team has been in communication with Police Chief Don Watkins this week. He sent a few clarifying remarks regarding recent letters about the citizen who fired a BB gun in her backyard because a bear cub was in her tree. They follow:
First, the weapon she used is not a toy Red Rider BB gun. It is a Daisy PowerLine Model 880.177 caliber pellet gun that is capable of firing either pellets or BBs. The description on Daisy’s website includes the following language: ‘Our best selling multi-pump pneumatic rifle. Pump the gun three times for indoor target practice or up to ten times to achieve maximum velocity for outdoor shooting and pest control. Daisy’s PowerLine Model 880 is appropriate for adults and those over 16 years of age under adult supervision. It has a crossbolt trigger block safety, a barrel of rifled steel, and a maximum shooting distance of 291 yards.’ In short, the weapon she used is anything but a ‘child’s toy’.
Second, in response to Ms. Becker’s claim that she had no knowledge of the ordinance involved in this case, the homepage on the town’s website has a link to the Municipal Code (Section 9.08 – Firearms) that is easy to find. Ms. Becker states that she would like this story to serve as an education that it is illegal to discharge a pellet or BB gun within town limits. While at the time she may have technically been unaware of the specific statutes to that effect, common sense would tell anyone that it’s not appropriate or legal to shoot such a weapon in the direction of a bear cub sleeping in a neighborhood tree. –Editor, Tim Steele
As the Fish and Wildlife officers indicated to Ms. Becker at the time, had this been a mature black bear rummaging through dumpsters in town, it would have routinely been stunned and removed. The same is true of any campground in our nearby National Forest backcountry where bears – cubs or otherwise – are sometimes construed as disturbing visitors. And this later is done as a matter of course on land that is arguably more the bears’ than our own. A mother concerned for the safety of her five year-old daughter fires off some BB’s as a way to startle a bear that has homesteaded on her private property in a tree just outside their bedroom windows and now faces possible significant criminal charges as a result? Come now…that makes no sense.
Can you let us know what clinic or hospital Ms. Becker works at as a nurse? With the sort of decision-making she exhibited, I want to be sure to take my health issues elsewhere.
I’m Janice Becker’s brother and my teenaged son’s BB gun is the one she used to scare the bear cub out of her tree. We purchased it during a visit there in April, and he and I used it to have contests together where we shot at tin cans in the open unincorporated land south of town. We didn’t intend to leave it there when we left, and I’m very sorry now that we did.
I want to let everyone know that my sister would never shoot at or try to injure a bear cub or any other animal for that matter. Since we were children, she has had an uncommon love of all living things. As a young girl, she wasn’t capable of killing even a spider. Janice became a vegan at age nine after seeing a video about the abuse to animals at some slaughterhouses and farms. She volunteered at our local zoo throughout high school, has always cared diligently for
whatever pets her allergies would allow, and was ecstatic when she was finally able to live in a place like Delaney Springs where wildlife is abundant. In short, hers is the most life-affirming spirit I’ve ever known. She is incapable of intentionally shooting at a bear, and it is ridiculous and cruel that she should have any of these charges pending against her.
With the police chief’s views on a private citizen’s case and personal integrity having now been aired publically within the pages of this periodical, there had better not be a trial for Janice Becker. With his comments, due process has been tainted, as has any possible jury pool.
When a student breaks a rule, especially a rule with dangerous implications, a teacher must invoke consequences that are not only consistent with the misdeed, but which send a clear message to classmates that such actions will not be tolerated in light of group safety and the needs of the greater good. Parents act similarly with one child’s poor behavior in respect to the lessons to be to be learned by his or her siblings. The same must now be true for Janice Becker.
Janice didn’t even read the last set of letters in the paper. People at work had mostly stopped asking her about the incident; she was glad about that. She was glad, too, that few of her neighbors seemed to stare or whisper among themselves anymore when she passed. She tried to go about her business as normally as possible.
That Saturday, she began her weekend chores by taking Dee grocery shopping. The store was crowded. They started in the produce section because Dee liked to help squeeze the fruit they selected. They moved next to dairy where Janice noticed their reflections in the glass on the display case: identical round faces and small caps of brown hair. When they turned into the cereal aisle, it was empty except for a small girl a little younger than Dee who stood alone towards the middle with her head bowed and a finger in her mouth. Janice frowned and she and Dee went up to her.
“Hey,” Janice said gently. She bent down. “Hi, there. Are you with someone? Your mommy or daddy?”
The little girl looked up at her wide-eyed, nodded, and then began to sob.
“Shh, shh,” Janice said. She took the girl’s hand and stood up. “That’s okay. Come on. We’ll find them.”
“What’s your name?” Dee asked.
Dee took Lily’s other hand and they walked together to the front of the store. Janice found the manager who went over the intercom asking for anyone who had lost a little girl named Lily to come to the first register. After he’d finished, he told Janice that she could leave, that he’d wait with Lily. Lily looked up at her and Janice shook her head.
The three of them were still holding hands a moment later when a burly man in shorts and a T-shirt hurried up to them pushing a shopping cart.
“Daddy!” Lily exclaimed.
He abandoned the cart, knelt, and Lily ran into his embrace. Both had their eyes shut tight.
“We found her,” Dee told the man.
He looked up at them. “Thank you,” he said. A tiny tear had trickled down one cheek. “I don’t know how we became separated. I was looking…I was so worried.”
“No problem,” Janice said. She reached down and gave Lily’s shoulder a squeeze. “Everything is okay now. Your dad is here.”
She and the man exchanged small smiles, and Janice resumed shopping with Dee.
On Monday, Janice awoke pleasantly enough, but then a slow cloud of dread spread through her. At first, she was unable to place why until she remembered that it was the morning of her meeting with the police chief. A deputy had called to tell her that the investigation regarding her case had been completed, a report submitted to the chief, and now he wanted to meet with her himself before determining next steps. He had a few questions, the deputy told her. It wouldn’t take long.
Janice woke Dee and got her ready for school, trying to keep her manner regular. On the front porch, she closed Dee’s little fingers around the handle of her lunch box, kissed her on the forehead, told her to have a good day, and watched her run down the street to the bus stop.
Janice went back inside, showered, dressed, and made herself up minimally. She fed the fish and turtle. She moved quickly and perfunctorily, trying not to think. She watered the house plants, opened the blinds, and folded laundry. She glanced at the clock on occasion until it was finally time to go. Before driving away from the house, Janice looked once up into the tree in the backyard; the cub still had not returned.
At the police station, she stood against the wall in an anteroom until a deputy showed her to the chief’s office, motioned her to sit in one of the chairs in front of the desk, and left. The chief was seated behind the desk, his head down, reading a sheaf of papers. The light from the window next to him was bright, dust drifting in the shafts of sun. Janice lowered herself onto the edge of one of the chairs and swallowed.
It wasn’t until the chief cleared his throat and raised his head a little that Janice recognized him as the burly man from the grocery store. His arms strained the short sleeves of his uniform and his badge was pinned crooked over one pocket. A film of sweat rose at the back of Janice’s neck; her heart thudded in her chest.
Finally, the chief set the papers on the desk and regarded her, his lips pursed in a tight line. Slowly, grudgingly, recognition crept into his eyes.
“You,” he said.
Janice nodded. “How’s Lily?”
He looked at her for a long moment before he said, “Fine.”
The chief leafed through the papers again and pretended to study them further. He’d scratched a number of notations in the margins, but he wasn’t thinking about any of them. A blue jay called outside the window and a second answered nearby. Another moment passed, then he replaced the papers on his desk and folded his hands on top of them. They sat looking at each other.
“I really only have one question for you,” he said. “Did you know that B-B gun was a weapon or did you honestly think it was a toy?”
Janice stared outside the window, then back at him. “I don’t know,” she said.
“I never really considered the difference. To be honest, I was thinking of only two things at that moment: Dee’s party and her dress we’d made together for it.” She looked down at her lap. “I know I wrote about other things in the letter – safety of children in the neighborhood, fear of a mother bear – but really only those two things mattered.” She looked up at him. “If I’m to be entirely honest.”
He nodded slowly and chased away thoughts of his own daughter’s upcoming birthday. Instead, he concentrated on Janice’s eyes, which held the same steadiness they had in the grocery store. He looked down at the papers again and rubbed his chin. It was still in the room.
“Well,” he said finally, “we’ve confiscated the B-B gun, so you’ll never use that again.”
“And you’ll never purchase another or one like it.”
“No.” She shook her head.
“And, for the record,” he said, “you understand that a gun like that is considered a weapon?”
“I do now. Yes, I do.”
They were quiet, looking at each other. In an outer office, a voice chuckled and a chair scraped; a door opened and closed.
The chief said, “You can’t ever do anything like that again. Not in this town, not in any town.”
“No.” She shook her head once more.
“All right, then. The fine will suffice. We can dispense with the other charges.” He narrowed his eyes sternly, then made a gesture like he was shooing away a fly. “That’s all,” he said. “You can go.”
He took the papers from his desk, opened a file, slid them inside, and set the folder on a bookcase behind him. When he turned back, Janice was still seated as she’d been, looking at him.
“I appreciate that,” she said slowly. “Very much. More than you can know. But, I’d also like to do community service. I was foolish, acted hastily and with poor judgment.”
“Community service,” he repeated.
‘Yes. I was thinking I might arrange my off days at work to do fall flu shots for the inmates at the prison.”
“Yes.” She nodded. “I’d like to be able to tell my daughter that was involved.”
Janice blinked several times. “When she’s old enough to understand.”
The chief leaned back in his chair and put his hands on the armrests. He rocked slightly, studying her. “You’re quite something, aren’t you, Ms. Becker?”
“No,” she said quietly. “I’m not much of anything.”
“Actually,” he said, “I think you are.”
After a moment, she raised her eyebrows and blew out a breath.
“The community service can be added,” he said. “The flu vaccinations can be arranged, will be arranged. Someone from my department will be in touch.”
“Thank you.” She stood up and took a step towards the doorway.
“Where does your daughter go to school?” he asked.
He nodded and smiled. “Our daughter starts there next year My wife and I are excited. Kindergarten.”
“It’s a nice school.” Janice smiled, too.
“Good,” the chief said. “Maybe they’ll become friends.”
“I hope so,” Janice replied.
The chief watched her leave. He was late for a meeting, but he made no movement to rise. His phone began to ring, and he let it go unanswered. He was unaware of the blue jay that called again.
Janice got in her car, put the key in the ignition, but didn’t start it. She’d taken the day off work and the remainder of it was unplanned. She thought about going home and washing windows; they were badly in need. She thought about taking the car in for an oil change, which was overdue. She looked at her watch. It was nine-thirty, and her daughter’s recess break was at ten. If she hurried, she could get donuts, sign Dee out for a few minutes, and they could eat them together at the bench in front of school. It would be a treat; she wouldn’t make any more of an explanation than that to Dee. The rest of the day could wait. She started the car, turned on the radio, and hummed along to a song she hardly recognized.
Early fall had arrived in Delaney Springs, and with it, the first yellow, red, and orange leaves; those on the aspens had already turned golden and spun in the breeze like sequins. Looking out his office window, the chief admired and welcomed the change. Janice did, too, on her way to the donut shop. At that moment, there were very few people, if any, in that town who didn’t feel the same.
Copyright Cass 2016