These compost bins were put out in Langdale this week. Could a bear have figured out how to open one of the bins and tried it on the other?

Rural residents on the Sunshine Coast have been cleaning up overturned compost bins on collection days. This opens a messy question about bears: Are they smart enough to learn to open a bin?

Studies by scientists suggest that’s possible. Bears have more convolutions in their brains than any other land mammal—except us—relative to their size. Gordon Burghardt, an ethologist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who studies animal cognition, was quoted by Sierra magazine as saying that bears are “up there with chimpanzees in many cognitive capacities.”

Nature, a series produced by the Public Broadcasting System in the U.S., cites animal trainers and zookeepers as saying bears are smarter than dogs. Circus bears have learned to roller skate and play musical instruments. Has your dog done that?

The Bear Smart Society says bears can learn from a single experience, and when it’s successful, they may repeat an action that leads to a reward. That may be what happened in my Langdale neighbourhood Tuesday. Two compost bins were opened and overturned within minutes of each other. They had been left outside within an hour of the scheduled compost pickup. These were the 45-litre green bins the Sunshine Coast Regional District gave to rural residents last year. The little black locking mechanisms were supposed to be bear proof. It seems that’s not always the case.

What can we do about it? Back in 2008 Lisa Waldie from the Bear Aware program in Sechelt revealed the solution. She told BC Living Magazine that to keep bears away from our food scraps, we should never put “bones, eggshells, rotting fruit, cooked food or fats” into outdoor compost bins. But that’s exactly what the SCRD told us to do.

To the bears, this is a feast for their intelligence.