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Backstory: Closest Call

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A treed bear - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • A treed bear

This "backstory" is a part of a collection of articles that describes some of the obstacles that Seven Days reporters faced while pursuing Vermont news, events and people in 2021.


When the black bear bolted from a cornfield in front of our pickup shortly after dawn, my initial reaction was relief.

Photographer Jeb Wallace-Brodeur and I had gotten up before 4 a.m. to drive to Newbury to catch a bear hunt in action, and it now seemed like our efforts would not be in vain.

And yet my exhilaration quickly turned to dread.

As Butch Spear, armed with a loaded .45 pistol, and his hunting partner began unleashing their baying hounds, it now seemed entirely possible that they would follow their dogs off into the forest and kill the treed bear while we looked on.

It was what we signed up for, and now the moment had arrived.

I didn't really want to see that outcome, but I felt an obligation as a reporter writing about animal rights activists' criticism of bear hounding in Vermont to bear witness to the activity — I'll leave it to others to decide whether it's a sport — in action.

I was more concerned about causing that outcome. Weren't we, in effect, asking bear hunters to go kill a bear so we could watch? And if so, was that ethical, journalistically or morally?

War correspondents wrestle with these questions all the time — will their work to document atrocities end up causing them?

Did brigadier general Nguyen Ngoc Loan shoot a Vietcong prisoner in the head despite the presence of photojournalist Eddie Adams, or because of it? The general certainly wanted the world to see what happens to the enemy on his watch, and the photograph, which would win the Pulitzer Prize and become one of the most searing images of the brutality of the conflict, certainly accomplished that.

In the end, however, there was never much risk that Spear, the president of the Vermont Bearhound Association, was really going to plug a bear in the presence of two journalists.

He had already shot himself in the foot, so to speak, by barreling onto the property of a Peacham YouTuber named Morgan Gold while Gold's cellphone video camera was rolling. The exchange and Gold's snarky commentary went viral, and Spear had taken some serious heat for calling unwanted attention to his normally cloistered corner of the hunting world.

So Spear wasn't about to let Seven Days document a bear bloodbath. But he was willing to have us along to watch him scare a bear away from a farmer's corn crop and then humanely let the trespasser off with a stern warning.

So that's exactly what he did. Spear tracked his hounds — with the aid of GPS radio collars — over hill and dale to the base of a huge hemlock tree.

And then, as though taking a page out of Gold's playbook, Spear turned a little video camera on me. Had they done anything wrong? Had I witnessed his hounds mistreating a bear? Burned by social media, Spear wasn't going to let the lame-stream media burn him, too, by misrepresenting his beloved pastime.

I didn't consent to his impromptu interview. But Jeb and I did document the sow's safe escape, which was, after all, the only reason we were allowed to be there in the first place.