A group of officers from the RCMP Integrated Road Safety Unit say nothing surprises them anymore – except this story.
In a true Kootenay interpretation of Jurassic Park meets Jellystone Park meets NYPD Blue, officers from the RCMP and Nelson Police Department executed a search warrant on a rural property near Christina Lake, and were confronted by more than a dozen guard bears – and a raccoon, and a pig ...but that part of the story comes later.
Const. Chuck Brindamoor, of the RCMP, said five officers arrived at a privately-owned acreage in the area of Fife, near Christina Lake, to execute a search warrant for a marijuana grow operation, on July 30.
“There are two sites to the property – the first site had a small residence, more of a shed, really, with a number of (pot) plants ... and we also saw four bears that appeared somewhat tame,” Brindamoor said. “Then we go to the second site, where two residences and roughly 1,100 plants are surrounded by an electrified fence.”
He said there were more – many more – bears outside of the fence, and many well-beaten paths around the fence perimetre and leading out into the forest, that would indicate the bears had made the property their territory and had been living there for some time. There were also indications the bears may have been fed dog food to encourage them to stay and protect the property.
Const. Dave Smith, of the RCMP, said he thought it wasn't much of a stretch to think the bears were there to, “protect the crop; to discourage anyone from coming onto the property or hanging around.”
He said the method was effective in some regards – the 500-pounds-or-more animals certainly gave the attending officers pause.
“They never showed any aggression toward us, but they got aggressive with each other, which gave us a bit of a scare,” Smith said, adding it's maybe easier to laugh after the fact, when safely away from the unpredictable animals. “They weren't just small cubs – some of them were full grown and very, very large.
“One climbed right up onto our police car and just sat there – like a really big Kootenay hood ornament.”
At one point, two bears got into a basement room used for drying marijuana, and had to be shoo-ed out by police – a situation fraught with tension for cops and critters alike.
“I counted 12 bears myself, that I could see, and I'm pretty sure there were more in the bushes that we couldn't see,” said Nelson police Const. Bill Andreachuck. “It was scary.
“I've been a police officer for 35 years, have probably been to five hundred or more grow ops, and I've never seen anything like this.”
“We're told to expect the unexpected, but ...”
Andreachuck said one large sow seemed to enjoy the show as police dismantled the grow op – she settled in under a tree and watched the proceedings for two-and-a-half hours or more.
A man was arrested at the second site, and police say he warned them to be cautious around the creatures – advice they heeded.
“We didn't want to hurt them,” said Brindamoor, explaining they let the bears be and hoped the bruins would return the favour.
But their descent into Dr.-Doolittle-style weirdness was not yet over – in the kitchen, they encountered a pig weighing at least 50 pounds, sleeping in a doggy bed. The pig was unimpressed by the proceedings and ignored them all for the duration.
The same cannot be said for a creature they found sleeping, all four legs in the air, on a bed at the second site. What they first mistook for a cat turned out to be a juvenile raccoon.
“It was like a small dog or domesticated cat,” said Brindamoor. “It followed us around and was crawling on our legs for hours.”
What seemed cute at first quickly became a major nuisance, as the raccoon was getting into boxes with evidence police were collecting/labelling, not to mention tripping the officers and generally being a pest, albeit an adorable one.
Rough estimates indicate the grow op was a million-dollar operation, and two Christina Lake residents in their late 40s or early 50s have been arrested and will likely face charges of production of a controlled substance (names will be released when charges have been sworn). The two suspects (the man who was at the second site, and a woman who arrived at the first site later on) may be facing more charges after the conservation officer conducts his investigation.
As well as Brindamoor, Smith and Andreachuck, RCMP Const. Scott Appleby and Nelson Const. Dan Markevich executed the warrant and dismantled the grow op.
Brindamoor, Smith and Andreachuck joked about how laid-back the bears turned out to be – wondering if perhaps they had been sampling the crops.
“Sure, it may have mellowed them out at first ... but then what happens when they get the munchies?” Smith joked.
For all the hilarity, though, police admit it was a stunningly dangerous situation, given how territorial bears are, and that the officers spent hours hauling plants and evidence from the property to their vehicles, all the while running a gauntlet of only partially-tame bears.
“As funny as it is, it's really a sad situation,” said Sgt. Fred Mansveld, spokesman for the Integrated Road Safety Unit. “They're magnificent animals (the bears, not the officers) that have been habituated to humans. We're not sure what will become of them – this may lead to their destruction.
“It just shows you what lengths these people will go to, to protect their marijuana crops.”