Northeast Minn. woman survives rare bear attack
By John Myers
McGREGOR, Minn. – A 72-year-old rural McGregor woman was bitten and clawed by a sow bear Monday evening in the yard just outside her lake home.
The woman sustained non-life-threatening injuries and the bear was later killed when it charged at a state conservation officer about 200 yards from where the attack occurred, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource said Wednesday.
The woman spent one night in the Aitkin hospital and was treated for bite and claw wounds to her left arm, side, right arm and right leg. She was released Tuesday morning but is still being treated for rabies as a precaution until lab results from the bear are available.
DNR spokesman Chris Niskanen said the woman was traumatized by the incident and has asked not to be named.
The DNR said the sow weighed about 190 pounds, slightly larger than average, and had been seen around the woman’s property in recent days.
Bears had damaged several bird feeders in the woman’s yard and apparently were attracted to the property to eat the bird seed, said Maj. Phil Meier of the DNR’s law enforcement division.
“It takes a lot for even a female black bear with cubs to attack someone. It’s not a typical situation,” said Dave Garshelis, the DNR’s lead bear research scientist.
DNR officials for years have suggested that people remove bird feeders, dog food and garbage cans from outdoor spaces if bears might be in the area.
After emerging from hibernation, hungry bears eat mostly grass and insects this time of year, but they also eat fawn deer and other animals easily captured, waiting for nuts and berries to ripen in midsummer.
The incident took place on Starvation Lake about 3 miles southeast of McGregor.
The woman’s next-door neighbor, Annette O’Keefe, said she was at the lake fishing when she heard the victim’s “blood-curdling screams” and ran to her house to get her keys and drive to her aid. O’Keefe didn’t even notice that the sow and cubs were by then in her yard.
“I dropped my rod, and I never do that, and I must have run right by the bears. But I knew (the victim) was in trouble and I had to get over there,” O’Keefe said. “When I looked back and the bear was there … I kept yelling until she left and I could get out.”
O’Keefe arrived at the victim’s house to find her standing on her steps and lucid. The ambulance was already on its way, O’Keefe said.
“I asked her what I could do to help her, but the only thing she cared about was her dog, Rosy,” she said.
The victim’s golden retriever had run off chasing the yearlings and has not been found.
O’Keefe said it was the first bear she had seen in her yard in 16 years at the location.
According to the DNR, the incident began just before 7 p.m. Monday when the woman let her dog out after checking to make sure the bears weren’t around. When the three yearlings unexpectedly ran from under the deck, the woman’s golden retriever ran off the deck to chase them.
The sow at first ran toward the running cubs and dogs, but when the woman yelled for the dog, the sow turned and attacked the woman, striking her on her left arm and side. The bear retreated from the woman but returned to inflict more wounds, DNR officials said.
The woman called 911 just after 7 p.m. An Aitkin County sheriff’s deputy was first to the scene to help the woman. The conservation officer arrived shortly after and found the large bear nearby. About 90 minutes after the attack, the officer saw the bear. The bear reportedly threatened him, so the officer shot the sow. The bear was taken for a necropsy.
The three yearling cubs were left to fend for themselves. Because they were at the age at which they would normally strike out on their own, DNR officials said the yearlings’ survival will not be jeopardized by the death of the mother.
Despite their size and imposing presence, black bears are mostly a docile animal, Garshelis said. They generally avoid people and seldom attack, choosing usually to run away, climb a tree or bluff an attack. Still, people are warned to keep their distance from bears.
No human fatalities have been reported in Minnesota from black bear attacks, and there have been only a handful of reports of bears touching or hurting anyone. That’s despite a population of more than 12,000 to 15,000 bears and increasingly more people living and recreating in the north woods where bears live.
The DNR says this is the fifth known time a bear has attacked a person in Minnesota since 1987. According to Duluth News Tribune files, it is the sixth such incident:
• In July 2005, a bear charged, clawed and bit a 50-year-old Holyoke woman near her rural home. She suffered scrapes and bruises and was treated for rabies as a precaution.
• In 2002, a bear attacked a woodcock researcher near Milaca. He suffered broken bones and puncture wounds.
• In 2003, 37-year-old Kim Heil-Smith was attacked by a bear in her home near Grand Marais. She was talking on a cordless phone when she opened her home’s entryway into the attached garage and came face-to-face with a sow and her cub. The bigger bear bit her head, shoulder and thighs. She suffered multiple puncture wounds and scratches that required stitches at Cook County North Shore Hospital.
• In 1997, Ken Berger, of Ely, was bitten and clawed by a bear in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness after he chased a bear that took his food pack.
• On Sept. 14 and 15, 1987, a black bear injured two campers in unprovoked attacks in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Each attack followed the same pattern. The gaunt bear entered a campsite, approached a camper, hesitated, and then attacked, biting the camper on the head and neck until someone drove the bear off with canoe paddles.
A day after the second attack, the bear was killed and later found to be emaciated, with plastic in its stomach.