We all saw it: that video of the bear that let itself into a California police station. Jokes! But seriously, the bear wasn’t there to report a crime or to complain about a parking ticket. So what gives?
Food could of course have been a motivator, says Fiona Reid, the author of A Peterson Field Guide to Mammals of North America. There were vending machines inside the police station—and, we assume, a box of doughnuts somewhere—and, as all cottagers know, “when bears enter cabins or cars, it’s the food that starts the process,” says Reid. (PSA: food-conditioned bears can learn to recognize food packaging and know how to open doors—they can push lever handles. Bears don’t have to smell anything to be attracted to buildings if they have a reason to think they’ll find food inside.)
But YouTube tells us that all over the globe, all kinds of animals walk into all kinds of places: alligators go to Walmart; bears stroll into hospital emergency rooms and shopping malls; deer visit grocery stores, gift shops, and bars; skunks enter coffee houses; squirrels go pretty much anywhere they please. (And steal stuff.) At least one beaver was caught on camera visiting the Christmas aisle of a Maryland dollar store. It was December, so hey, fair enough.
“I think an explanation that can be applied to a lot of these situations is curiosity,” says Reid. “This seems particularly likely in sub-adult animals that are dispersing. They need to find new territory and thus are willing to enter unfamiliar surroundings and driven to explore areas, even where there are potential dangers.” That said, “I don’t know of any scientific studies on this kind of behaviour, so this is just my conjecture,” she admits.
And if you’re inside a store and wildlife walks in? Happily, many calm animals will leave on their own if given the chance. (So don’t chase them or start screaming.)
Reid herself was at a Scotch tasting event when a weasel ran into the room and went under the table. “I don’t know that most people would have even seen it,” she says. The weasel left immediately. Not a fan of hard liquor, apparently.