Photo by Richard P. Smith.
Serious black bear attacks are always tragic because someone ends up injured or killed. The tragedy is magnified when more than one person is attacked, and it reaches unprecedented levels when three members of the same family are involved.
That was the case in southeastern Tennessee last spring when a rogue male black bear attempted to kill a woman and her two children who were visiting a popular tourist destination on April 13, 2006.
Forty-five-year-old Susan Cenkus from Clyde, Ohio, traveled to Cleveland, Tennessee, with two of her younger children to visit her oldest son, who was attending Lee University. While there, Cenkus decided to take 2-year-old Luke Cenkus and 6-year-old Elora Petrasek to visit Benton Falls near the Chilhowee Recreation Area, which is about 22 miles east of Cleveland, and in the Cherokee National Forest. Little did she know how that decision would forever change their lives.
The 200-pound bear attacked when the threesome were in the process of leaving the falls. The 2-year-old boy was the original target of the attack. The bear grabbed Luke by the head, and punctured his skull. The boy’s mother responded by hitting the bear with rocks and sticks to get the bruin to drop Luke — and she succeeded.
“There were two families at the falls when the attack happened,” said David Brandenburg with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. “When they got the boy from the bear, the other family took him to get medical attention. When they came back, the boy’s mother was unconscious and her daughter was nowhere in sight.”
The bear obviously renewed its attack after the other family left the scene, seriously injuring Susan and killing Elora. The bear was found standing over the girl’s body about 100 yards from the falls. Danny Stinnett, who is chief of a county search and rescue unit, found the bear and its victim. He shot at the bruin twice with his .380-caliber handgun as it approached him.
Efforts to catch the bear then kicked into high gear as the dead girl’s mother and brother were airlifted by helicopter to a hospital in Chattanooga. Both surviving victims were in serious condition and had to undergo surgery. They recovered from their injuries, but they will bear scars from the attack the rest of their lives. Susan suffered eight puncture wounds to her neck, and too many claw and tooth injuries to count elsewhere on her body, according to doctors. Live traps and snares were set in an effort to try to catch the aggressive bear. It was caught and killed three days later.
“It was a young adult male in excellent condition,” Brandenburg said. “He had a lot of fat. We had a good crop of acorns the fall before, which would explain why he was in such good condition.”
If the bear was in excellent health, what would explain its behavior?
“We consider it a predatory attack,” explained Brandenburg. “The bear stalked the smallest child and attacked. It’s a classic example of a predatory attack that is surprisingly similar to other attacks by adult males at a time when natural foods are low.”
The fact that the bear fed on the remains of the 6-year-old girl adds plenty of credibility to this theory. Bear expert Dave Garshelis with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources agreed that the Tennessee attack is an example of predation. He said bears are opportunist predators that most often prey on young animals, such as fawns. The bear in this case obviously viewed the small children as prey.
The vulnerability of small children to bears is also illustrated by a fatality that occurred at Fallsburg, New York, during August 2002. A 5-month-old girl was in a stroller in front of a porch with members of her family when a 150-pound male grabbed the stroller and the child. The girl then fell out of the stroller and the bear grabbed her by the head, thus killing her. The bear climbed a tree after family members got the girl from it, and it was killed when law enforcement officers arrived on the scene.
“It appears that this bear had become habituated and conditioned to people, garbage, this site and especially a nearby dumpster,” explained New York bear biologist Lou Berchielli. “The site was a small group of bungalows located in good forest cover just outside of Fallsburg. The bear probably routinely walked between the bungalows on its way to an unprotected dumpster. We didn’t receive any complaints or reports about this bear until it killed the child.”
Dave Garshelis said most bear attacks come as a surprise.
“It’s hard to predict when or where an attack will occur,” Garshelis said. “In some cases, the circumstances may result in an attack such as when a bear is surprised, or a female feels like she is protecting her cubs. At other times, the bear involved may simply be more aggressive than normal.”
Garshelis emphasized that black bear attacks are rare, but they seem to be more common during recent years, for some reason. For instance, in Minnesota — which has one of the highest black bear populations in the country — there have been three attacks in the last four years.
“Prior to 2002, the last bear attack in Minnesota was 1987,” Garshelis said. “That’s 15 years without a bear attack that we know of. We’ve never had a fatality from a bear, but that could change as soon as we hang up the phone, or next week or next month. Any of our attacks could have resulted in a fatality, but we were lucky they didn’t. Black bears are certainly capable of killing a person without much difficulty. It’s simply a matter of whether they want to.”
The first attack in Minnesota’s string happened in September 2002 when 24-year-old Miles Becker stumbled onto a bear in thick cover while doing woodcock research, which generated a defensive attack. Becker was tracking woodcock that had been fitted with radio transmitters and was listening to the signal from an antenna he was holding as he walked through the woods and surprised the bear.
Garshelis said Becker initially tried to fight the bear off, which he said you are supposed to do in the case of a black bear attack. But when that didn’t work, Becker played dead. Soon after he went limp, the bear left, which indicated it was a defensive attack. As soon as the person was no longer perceived as a threat, the bear abandoned the assault.
r ended up with a broken leg as well as fractured facial bones and wounds to his head and left leg. Although efforts were made to capture that bear, it was never caught. The fact that no other problems developed in that area indicates it wasn’t an exceptionally aggressive animal.
The circumstances seemed similar in September 2003 when Kim Heil-Smith from Grand Marais, Minnesota, surprised a sow and cubs eating sunflower seeds in her garage as she attempted to enter it from her house. The mother bear immediately attacked. The woman tried to fight the bear off, and hollered at the animal, eventually getting it to leave.
Heil-Smith received bites to her head, a shoulder and both thighs. Many stitches were required to close the wounds. Although it may have been a defensive attack, the 155-pound female bear also proved to be exceptionally aggressive, according to Garshelis. He said the bear was killed several days later in the yard of another home not far away as it was threatening a homeowner who was cutting firewood.
Minnesota’s last bear attack happened on July 29, 2005. Mary Munn from Holyoke was attacked when she was walking in the woods near a beaver pond with her dog. She had looked at the beaver pond and was returning home along the same course she had originally taken when she came upon the bear 30 feet away. Munn had been carrying a stick, so she hit the bear with it as it attacked, breaking it. Then the woman punched the bear in the nose after it grabbed her. Munn’s dog distracted the bear a couple of times, but the bruin returned to the woman each time the dog outran it. The attack lasted about a minute, and then the bear suddenly took off and Munn was able to make her way home. She spent time in a Duluth hospital being treated for her injuries. The worst were to a knee and her side where the bear grabbed and shook her at one point, but she had numerous scratches.
No one knows for sure what was responsible for this attack on Munn, and the bear was never captured. The animal may have felt threatened or it could have been a female with cubs that weren’t visible that she was trying to protect. The presence of the dog may have helped precipitate the attack.
Garshelis credits Minnesota’s liberal bear hunting seasons for limiting attacks and problem bears. He said there are between 20,000 and 30,000 bears in Minnesota. Bear season is 1 1/2 months long, starting on Sept. 1. Hunting over bait is the most popular bear hunting method in that state.
“Some people think that by baiting bears, you are creating a problem because bears will be more likely to seek out food in association with people rather than eat natural foods,” the bear expert commented. “That hasn’t been our experience. One of the theories is ‘a fed bear is a dead bear.’ That’s what we’ve been doing. We feed them and then we shoot them.
“By doing that, we are removing bears from the population that are inclined to seek out sources of easy food,” he continued. “Our nuisance bear activity has totally disappeared.”
Annual bear hunting seasons not only help manage bear numbers and problem bears, but bruins learn to fear people, too, which reduces the chances of attacks on humans. The potential for bear attacks tend to be higher in areas where black bears are either not hunted or lightly hunted.
New Jersey is a prime example of an eastern state that would benefit from an annual bear hunt. The northwest portion of that state currently has one of the highest densities of black bears in North America at three to seven animals per square mile, according to Larry Herrighty, chief of the state’s Bureau of Wildlife Management. And there’s no shortage of people, either.
Herrighty said there’s been an average of one bear attack per year in New Jersey, but they reached a peak in 2003 before the state’s first bear hunt in modern times was held. None of the attacks have resulted in a person being killed, but an incident involving a 2-year-old boy during late May 2003 easily could have been similar to the Tennessee tragedy in 2006. The boy was on the steps of his parents’ home in Sparta when he was approached by a 150-pound female bear. The bruin swatted the boy in the head with a paw. The child’s mother rushed outside to get him after witnessing what happened through a window. Fortunately, the boy only suffered a bump on his head from the attack. The bear was killed — over the objections from the boy’s mother, who didn’t want the bruin killed.
Also that May, a 150-pound female bear and her yearling were attracted to a West Milford yard by the smell of food. The homeowner’s yellow Lab attempted to chase the bears away but was attacked. When Rob Skrypek saw that his dog was in danger, he tried to intervene and was also attacked. He suffered injuries to his head, a hand and a shoulder. Both the man and dog recovered. The bear was never identified in that case. Its actions were clearly defensive.
In June 2003, a bear broke through the door of a Highland Lakes home and started eating food in the kitchen while Lisa Spirko and her two children hid in a bedroom. The animal was killed when it exited the house via a window.
Then in August, a 400-pound bear attacked an 18-year-old woman walking in Wawayanda State Park in Sussex County. The woman elbowed the bear in the snout and managed to get away. Later, the bear was killed.
New Jersey held its first bear hunt in 33 years during December 2003, and hunters killed 328 bears. Herrighty said nuisance bear complaints declined 50 to 60 percent after that hunt. Another bear hunt was scheduled for 2004, but was called off due to anti-hunting pressure. The result was predictable — bear complaints increased. Jersey’s second bear hunt in modern times was held during 2005, and problem bear activity declined again. Plans now call for bear hunts for at least the next four years.
Although bear hunting is the best way to manage the animals and reduce the chances of attacks, it won’t eliminate them. The recent attacks in Minnesota prove that, and so does the attack that happened in Tennessee.
Tennessee has had annual bear hunts for years, primarily with hounds. The portion of the Cherokee National Forest where Elora Petrasek was killed is heavily hunted, according to Dave Brandenburg. He said an average of 180 bears per year have been shot by hunters in the state between 2000 and 2004. The state’s second-highest bear harvest ever was recorded during 2005 when 308 were bagged. He added that the hunter harvest has been increasing at a steady pace since 1980.
The state obviously has a growing bear population, but Brandenburg said they don’t have a current bear estimate. However, there are an estimated 1,800 bruins in the Smoky Mountains National Park, which is very close to where the attack took place. Bear hunting is prohibited in the park, where a woman was killed by a 113-pound female bear and her yearling in 2000. Both bears were killed as they remained by the woman’s body.
Part of the reason attacks could be on the rise is black bears are generally increasing in number and expanding their range into new places. More people are also living in outlying areas, and visiting bear country,
thus increasing the opportunity for bear/human interaction. Most bruins that find themselves close to a person leave without the people knowing a bear was nearby. Other bears depart soon after being seen.
It’s the rare encounter that results in an attack. Hikers and campers can help prepare themselves for dealing with a bear attack — if and when one should occur — by carrying a sturdy walking stick, a can of bear repellent spray or both with them at all times. A sturdy walking stick can be used to fight off a bear in case of an attack, striking the animal on the nose, if possible. Your life may depend on it.
(Editor’s note: Counter Assault is a proven bear spray used most often on grizzly bears, but it can also fend off black bears. The cans come with a holster that can be worn on a belt. The toll-free telephone number of the company that makes Counter Assault is 1-800-695-3394. Their product is also available on www.Amazon.com. Counter Assault cannot be transported on airplanes or taken across the Canadian border.)