Bear of the Week: Hank the Tank, the Chaotic Fat Bear of Lake Tahoe
The 500-pound black bear is an icon, a legend, the moment, and an anti-capitalist hero. We must protect him at all costs.
Editor's note: Bird of the Week is on vacation this week. In its place, we bring you...Bear of the Week! A reminder: you can check out our complete Bird of the Week list here, and get in touch with your bird suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By now, you’ve surely heard about “Hank the Tank,” the 500-pound California black bear that’s causing chaos in South Lake Tahoe. If not, hello and welcome, I’m so excited that I get to be the one to tell you about him.
Hank is a "severely food-habituated bear” who's accused of breaking into more than 30 properties since July looking for a good meal (okay, any meal) at all costs, and causing all kinds of material damage along the way. Despite efforts to deter, “haze,” and trap him, Hank managed to evade capture.
Why do we know all this? Ah yes, the cops.
Interesting. Police reportedly received more than 100 calls about Hank in the last seven months, and since the above post, the news of the beast that’s “terrorizing” poor residents has spread like wildfire. (Wildfire! Another man-made hell that’s threatening the bears! Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself.)
As I alluded to above, the media absolutely loves this story, and I get it, it’s hard to resist an animal piece! I’m failing to resist it at this very moment. But such a story is especially hard to resist when you can weave in frenzied neighbors spouting largely baseless fears. Nothing clicks like hysteria!
The truth is, Hank has been described as sweet and gentle, and has not harmed a single person during his months-long binge. But for every bear encounter that goes by without incident, there’s one (like a different Lake Tahoe bear that attacked a woman in October) that gets loads of press and furthers the narrative that we humans, who have fundamentally altered the planet and ruined the lives of animals all over the world, are somehow under deep and imminent threat.
The story of Hank the Tank was enough on its own to bring audiences to full attention like a bear standing tall on two legs reaching for honey, but like beast who's managed to stick his furry paw in the pot, things only got stickier from there. Amid the frenetic coverage of Hank, and nearly a week after the South Lake Tahoe Police Department's initial viral post, there was a huge twist in the case: DNA evidence showed at least two other black bears had also been part of the burgling spree, exonerating Hank from some, though not all, of the reported crimes. And even in the light of inarguably good news for Hank, the troubling truth remained: something would have to be done about these bears.
Despite the seemingly universally acknowledged fact that he—and presumably his coconspirators—are gentle giants, the Hank Problem has captivated the world because people love to freak out about ANIMALS in HUMAN spaces, especially when that human space is one like Tahoe Keys. Tahoe Keys, where Hank & Co. are stirring shit up, just happens to be a waterfront gated community where the median home price is somewhere in the $700,000 range according to real estate data, and million-dollar homes are not uncommon. Coincidence? I think not. It should also be noted that the community rules forbid bear boxes—which are designed to stop animals from accessing food and prevent this exact kind of thing from happening—because they are unsightly. That policy could now change in light of these black bears.
So yes, Hank and his pals are anti-capitalist icons who are currently on the run from authorities. They're not the first animal disruptors and working-class heroes, and they won’t be the last, but now the question becomes, what happens to our furry and fearless socialist friends when the “law” catches up with them?
Officials have said that euthanasia is their “last option” and the honorable human comrades in the neighborhood have intervened to prevent authorities from catching Hank, going so far as to even spray-paint “bear killer” on the bear traps set by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Honestly? Very cool.
Meanwhile, the cops have been inundated with attention and phone calls, which is cause for some solace as this story unfolds. After all, they won’t murder Hank or the other bears with this much attention on them (the bleakest of statements on several levels).
With all the press and eyes on the issue—and in light of Thursday’s revelation—the question about what to do about Hank and his nameless buddies has turned a thorny problem into an even bigger head-scratcher. While an out-of-state sanctuary reportedly volunteered to take Hank, officials now say he won't be relocated after all, which is a mild comfort at best. In one "humane" scenario, he is removed from the wilderness and the place he knows as home. In another, he's trapped and studied. Other still-unnamed solutions are surely being discussed at this moment. Those victories would still serve as sad and dystopian emblems of our deeply fucked relationship to nature, one in which we expect wild animals ty won’t, they are imprisoned or killed. It’s not enough to invade, we must also control. And we are somehow still surprised that, as we continue to encroach on their land, these creatures are forced to encroach on ours and act like the animals that they are. Thankfully, not everyone in Tahoe sees things that way, but it’s hard not to view the bears' situation or their fate, whatever that may be, as a larger statement on how we regard the very natural proceedings of the natural world. It is a persistent problem of the human race that we constantly act like we are the ones being intruded upon.
In researching this blog, I couldn’t stop thinking about how if this were adapted into an anthropomorphized movie, Hank the Tank would be played by Lebowski-era Jeff Bridges or Will Ferrell or Seth Rogen or Tracy Morgan, or one of the other slovenly-but-lovable puppy dog comedic actors we adore for their hedonism, hubris, and disregard for polite society. At the end of the adaptation, we’d cheer for the hulking, adorable, huge-but-sly Hank. We’d call him an absolute unit. A four-legged king. We’d hold him up over our heads like a real-life Yogi Bear and cheer. We’d belch in solidarity.
I know for certain that this is true because of the National Park Service’s Fat Bear Week, which celebrates the chonky bears of Katmai National Park & Preserve in Alaska, and is one of the most celebrated weeks on the internet. On the landing page for the annual tournament, the intro text reads, “For bears, fat equals survival.” It appears Hank isn’t even hibernating anymore. He is eating to live, and living to eat. He isn’t in contention for ultimate Fat Bear, but he certainly deserves it.
Peter Tira, a spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said that Hank is “a bear that has lost all fear of people.” And he isn’t the first. A different 500-pound Tahoe bear that broke into business Lake Tahoe’s North Shore in 2020 was trapped and released following his debauchery. That bear was shot and killed at a campground less than a year later.
From the moment I learned about Hank the Tank, I’ve been holding these two primary feelings in my gut: 1) I love this socialist king, this thicc ursine, and 2) I really, really hope he doesn’t die. I’ve also been daydreaming about the future. In all likelihood, humans will take the entirety of the animal kingdom down with us as we destroy the planet and ourselves, but in my dream of dreams, Hank and the other bears disappear from sight and their descendants roam the California forests long after us. I like to imagine Hank’s great great great great grandkids wandering through the ruins of the Tahoe Keys gated community many years from now. In my vision, there are trees growing through caved-in roofs and ivy overtaking long-abandoned cars. Despite the industrial wreckage, the skies overhead are clearer than ever. There’s clean water and a thriving ecosystem. The bears wander into the houses freely. There’s a comfort and ease in their gait. They’re not looking for food and they’re certainly not looking for humans. They’re not trespassing, how could they be? They’re simply exploring, sniffing around, and living. Just as they ought to.