Vermont Woman Survives Bear Attack in Strafford | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Vermont Woman Survives Bear Attack in Strafford


Published August 23, 2022 at 2:51 p.m.

A treed black bear - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • A treed black bear
A bear attacked a Strafford woman on Saturday as she was walking her dogs on her property, Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department officials said on Tuesday.

It's just the fourth recorded bear attack in the state's history but the latest in a string of what wildlife officials call “high-risk bear conflicts” in Vermont this year.

The woman, 61-year-old Susan Lee, received a bite to her leg and scratches on her sides and was treated for her injuries at a local hospital. Game wardens said Lee was walking on trails in the woods with her two dogs when she heard a loud noise and saw a black bear charging her.

The bear was likely a mother with cubs that was feeding on blackberries when Lee and her dogs surprised it, according to the game wardens.

"It all just happened really, really fast," said Jaclyn Comeau, a bear biologist with Fish & Wildlife. "She was, unfortunately, just a victim of a freak situation and bad circumstances."
As the bear charged, Lee tripped over a stone wall and the bear pounced on her, biting her on the upper leg and scratching her sides. The scratches were two to nine inches long, wardens said.

The bite punctured the skin and caused significant bruising but was not the kind of bite that would suggest the bear was trying to kill the woman, Comeau said.

"This sounded like a very defensive bite," Comeau said. She also described it as a "punishing bite" consistent with a protective mother bear warning an intruder to leave her cubs alone.

The bear got off Lee after one of her dogs, a 15-year-old Jack Russell terrier named Lucy, distracted it by barking, Comeau said. This allowed Lee to escape back down the trail, call 911 from her home and text a neighbor for help.

When Lee arrived home with Lucy, she found her other dog, a 2-year-old labradoodle named Bruce, on the porch waiting to be let in the house, warden Jeffrey Whipple said.

Lee’s neighbor took her to the Gifford Medical Center in Randolph, where she was treated. Wardens interviewed her at the hospital, advised her of the risk of rabies and collected her clothing as evidence of the attack.

Wardens called a local bear hounder and went to Lee’s rural property with the intent of killing the bear — and they almost succeeded, Whipple said. The pack of dogs picked up the bear’s scent in the woods a few hundred yards from Lee’s home and took off after it, Whipple said.
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Bear hounds
Bear hounds are equipped with GPS tracking collars, which allowed Whipple and the hounder to follow the dogs about a mile through the woods to a specific tree. The dogs could tell the bear had climbed that tree recently, but it was no longer there by the time they arrived, Whipple said.

Because of the heat of the day, however, they called off the hunt, he said.

"This bear is a potentially dangerous bear," Whipple said. "We would have dispatched it that day because it did attack somebody. We would not be able to have a bear attack someone and not put it down."

That's the case in this instance, he said, even though the bear was clearly acting defensively and there was no reason to believe it had become habituated to humans or attracted to human food sources. Killing the bear would have allowed wardens to perform a necropsy to determine if the animal had rabies or other ailments. But, Whipple added, there are no plans to continue hunting for the bear.
In 2021, about 600 bear encounters were reported to the Fish & Wildlife Department. Already this year, the agency has received more than 800 reports from all over the state. Another 250 sightings have been reported to local game wardens.

There have only been three other recorded bear attacks in Vermont history. The last one was in 2018 in Shrewsbury. Before that was an attack in Cabot in 2011.
In both of those cases, the bears were being fed by homeowners, Comeau said.

The other attack was in 1943 near West Townshend. In that case, a hunter is believed to have been squeezed to death by a bear he shot and approached with a knife, mistakenly thinking he had killed it.

This time of year, bear families are often moving together and mother bears will be protective of cubs, making it extremely important for people to give them space, Comeau said.

Bears are generally very shy, and humans should make noise to ensure bears can hear them approach, giving them a chance to safely leave the area. If confronted by a bear, people should remain calm and back away slowly, and fight back immediately if attacked, she said. Hikers can also carry bear spray.

In this case, it doesn’t seem Lee could have done much differently because the circumstances — including the steep terrain — caused her and the bear to cross paths within 25 yards of each other with little warning, Comeau said.

“It was a freak situation,” she said.

Lee was pleased the bear was not killed, according to Whipple. She’s a wildlife lover who had taken all the appropriate steps to keep bears away from her honey bees and compost pile, he said, including using electric fencing.

The bear showed no signs of predatory behavior toward Lee or her dogs, but the attack was nevertheless highly unusual and dangerous, Whipple said.

“The bear was doing everything it was supposed to be doing, except the charging and biting someone,” he said.