Woman who survived bear attack in Mont. says she played dead to get the animal to leave her

By Matthew Brown, AP
Thursday, July 29, 2010

Survivor of Mont. bear attack says she played dead

COOKE CITY, Mont. — A woman who was attacked by a bear in the middle of the night at a busy campground was bitten on her arm and leg before she instinctively played dead so the animal would leave her alone, she said Thursday.

At least one bear rampaged through the campground near Yellowstone National Park on Wednesday, killing a man and injuring Deb Freele of London, Ontario, and another young man.

Appearing on the network morning talk shows from a Wyoming hospital, Freele said she woke up just before the bear bit her arm.

“I screamed, he bit harder, I screamed harder, he continued to bite,” she said, adding that she could hear her bones breaking.

Her survival instinct kicked in, and she realized that the screaming wasn’t working.

“I told myself, play dead,” she said. “I went totally limp. As soon as I went limp, I could feel his jaws get loose and then he let me go.”

Freele said the bear was silent.

“This, to me, was just an absolutely freaky thing,” she said. “I have to believe that the bear was not normal. It was very quiet, it never made any noise. I felt like it was hunting me.”

A frequent camper, Freele said that she was already prepared hours after the attack to go camping again, though she acknowledged that it will take time to recover both physically and emotionally.

She suffered severe lacerations and crushed bones from bites on her arms. The male survivor, thought to be a teenager, suffered puncture wounds on his calf.

The names and ages of the male victims have not been released.

On Thursday morning, it appeared a bear had triggered one of the three traps set near where the man was killed. An Associated Press reporter could hear two bears calling back and forth to one another down in the creek valley while Fish, Wildlife and Parks employees walked around the culvert trap, guns in hand.

FWP Warden Capt. Sam Sheppard declined to comment.

The bear attack was the most brazen in the Yellowstone area since the 1980s, wildlife officials said.

One camper said he heard the screams from two of the attacks early Wednesday.

Don Wilhelm, a wildlife biologist from Texas, thought the first scream was just teenagers, maybe a domestic dispute in the middle of the night. He tried to go back to sleep, stifling thoughts that a beast might be lurking outside his family’s tent.

Minutes later, another scream — this one coming from the next campsite over, where a bear had torn through a tent and sunk its teeth into Freele’s arm.

“First she said, “No!’ Then we heard her say, ‘It’s a bear! I’ve been attacked by a bear!’” said Wilhelm’s wife, Paige.

By that point, the bear already had ripped into another tent a few campsites away, chomping into the leg of a teenager who had been sleeping with his family. The solo camper who was killed was at the other end of the Soda Butte Campground.

Then, the screams stopped.

After a quick parental back-and-forth over whether to shield their 9- and 12-year-old sons with their bodies or make a break for it, the Wilhelms took advantage of the silence and darted to their SUV.

They drove around the campground, honking their horns and yelling to alert other campers. Along the way, the met with a truck leaving the campground with the teenage victim, who apparently tried in vain to fight off the bear by punching it in the nose.

“It was like a nightmare, couldn’t possibly happen,” Paige Wilhelm said later.

In 2008 at the same campground, a grizzly bear bit and injured a man sleeping in a tent. A young adult female grizzly was captured in a trap four days later and transported to a bear research center in Washington state.

The latest attack had residents and visitors to this national park satellite community on edge. Many were carrying bear spray, a pepper-based deterrent more commonly seen in Yellowstone’s backcountry than on the streets of Cooke City.

“The suspicion among a lot of the residents is that the bear they caught (in 2008) was not the right one,” said Gary Vincelette, who has a cabin in nearby Silver Gate.

Last year, another grizzly broke into three cabins in Silver Gate, said Vincelette. That bear was shot and killed by a resident when it returned to the area.

“Three attacks in three years — we haven’t ever had anything like that and I’ve been coming up here since I was a kid,” Vincelette said.

About 600 grizzly bears and hundreds of less-aggressive black bears live in the Yellowstone area.

The region is pasted with hundreds of signs warning visitors to keep food out of the bruins’ reach. Experts say that bears who eat human food quickly become habituated to people, increasing the danger of an attack.

Yet in the case of the Soda Butte Campground attack, all the victims had put their food into metal food canisters installed at campsite, Sheppard said Wednesday.

“They were doing things right,” Sheppard said. “It was random. I have no idea why this bear picked these three tents out of all the tents there.”

The 10-acre campground in Gallatin National Forest has 27 sites.

Two other campgrounds were also closed while the attacking bear or bears remained at large.

AP Writers Matt Volz and Amy Beth Hanson in Helena contributed to this report.

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