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Not so unbearable: Auto insurance can cover damage done by bear break-in

Seeing the sights at a national park or living where bears roam could open the door to hungry ones seeking food in your car, truck or SUV.

Bears, with their strong sense of smell and ravenous appetites, can be more violent and costly than a thief who's itching to swipe your purse, wallet or stereo system. Rest assured, however: Your auto insurance pays for bear damage if you've got comprehensive coverage.

Shauna Veo, personal lines manager at the Neil-Garing Agency in Glenwood Springs, Colo., points out that comprehensive coverage is optional. Such coverage pays for non-crash damage from things like storms, vandalism, fires -- and, yes, even bear insurance bear damage

The grizzly bear attack in July at Yellowstone National Park that killed a California man emphasizes the potential for serious injury and property damage in spots populated by bears.

Family's car destroyed by bear

Most bear break-ins result in a few thousand dollars worth of damage, which will be paid by your insurer if you have comprehensive coverage, Veo says. But this summer, Neil-Garing Agency handled a claim for Jeremy Lowell, an Aspen, Colo., resident whose car was totaled after a bear break-in.

“We’ve seen other ones where they’ve got partially in or tore up the outside. This is the first car that’s been totaled from this type of claim,” Veo says.

Lowell’s 2009 Toyota RAV4 was on the road just above his Aspen driveway, which had just been resurfaced in June 2011 when the bear broke in.

Lowell says his 18-year-old son, Alec, came into his bedroom about 12:30 a.m. and said he thought a bear was in the SUV – which was next to three other cars about 150 feet from the home – because the horn kept sounding. When they ventured outside, they saw the bear had opened a rear passenger door of the SUV.

The Lowells had brought home takeout Chinese food – barbecue spare ribs and chicken fried rice – in the RAV4 that evening. They had removed the food from the car when they arrived home about 7 p.m.

“I guess the odor was enough that the bear opened the door and searched everywhere for the food and literally tore every panel off the door, tore the entire dashboard apart, tore the back panel, broke the windshield and bent the steering wheel in the process,” Lowell says. "By the time we got to the car, it had escaped through the rear passenger door.”

The bear also set off air bags, damaged the electrical wiring when he ripped apart the dashboard and panels, and scratched the paint. Lowell called police, who told him a report did not need to be filed. The next morning, he contacted his insurance company. An insurance adjuster estimated repairs would cost $26,000.

“The car was only valued at $24,000, so they considered it a total loss,” Lowell says.

Bears can take a toll

Here's what a hungry bear might do to your car:

• Break the windows.

• Rip open the doors.

• Scratch the exterior.

• Shred the upholstery.

• Claw through the back seat (seeking to enter the trunk).

• Bend the frame.

• Destroy the dashboard.

• Defecate on the seats.

Food lures bears

Veo says all of the companies her agency represents -- including Progressive, Chubb and Travelers -- cover bear break-in claims if the owner has optional comprehensive coverage. Once the policyholder meets the deductible (typically $250, $500 or $1,000), the remainder of the damage is covered by the insurer, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.

But if you're visiting or moving to an area with a big population of bears, Veo recommends reviewing your policy to make sure you have coverage.

No matter where you live, food is the main reason that opportunistic bears break into vehicles.

“It’s just the smell of the food. They’re interested in food,” says Christopher Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Missoula, insurance bear damages

Bear break-ins are more likely to occur in late summer and fall because bears try to eat more during those times to put on weight for hibernation, he says.

Incidents are fairly common at Yosemite National Park in California, where hundreds of American black bears live. Financial damage reported at Yosemite in 2010 totaled nearly $113,000. About 85 percent of the damage in more than 500 cases involved cars.

Where the bears are

While bear break-ins happen fairly often in Colorado and California, black bears can be found in at least 40 of the 50 states.

“It can happen in anybody’s driveway if there are bears around, and particularly if they have food in their vehicle or if their neighbor has food in their vehicle,” Servheen says.

If a window is not fully closed, the bear can pull on it and break it. Servheen says he's seen extreme cases where bears have bent door frames. “The bears can open it up like a can and get in that way,” he says.

If you don't want a bear to treat your car like a can, follow these tips:

• Remove all trash. That includes canned food and drinks, fast food, candy wrappers and even baby wipes.

• Close the windows.

• Use bear-proof food lockers if you're at a park, particularly at night.

• Clear the clutter. This means crumbs of food, or items that may be under seats or in cup holders.

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