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Nicole Minkin Lissenden and her husband Alex tried to coax the bear trapped in their minivan out. The bear lost patience and found its own exit. Nicole Minkin Lissenden, Nicole Minkin Lissenden

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SWANNANOA – State workers have killed a mother bear that attacked and injured a 75-year-old woman as she was walking her dog near her home, the state Wildlife Resources Commission says.

The woman, Toni Rhegness, sustained serious but nonlife threatening injuries in the Sept. 18 attack. She was treated and released from a local hospital.

The commission says the adult bear and the three cubs were trapped over the weekend. The bear's three cubs were healthy and old enough to be independent. They were relocated to a remote area, the commission says.

The mother bear was euthanized to protect human safety and keep her cubs from one day doing something similar, according to the commission.

The presence of trash in the neighborhood and the dog's hostility toward the bear played a role in leading to the attack, said Colleen Olfenbuttel, black bear and furbearer biologist for the commission. The attack also happened at night when bears are more active and when it was harder for Rhegness to see the mother bear.

There have been a number of interactions between people and bears in the Asheville area this year, but Wildlife Resources Commission biologist Mike Carraway said in May that bear activity and numbers were normal this spring.

Olfenbuttel said in a statement released Sunday that heavy rains earlier in the year resulted in "a substantial lack of natural foods for bears to eat, such as acorns, nuts, berries and other fruits.”

“This lack of food means bears are getting bolder and going into neighborhoods and other places they may normally avoid seeking food. Unsecured trash cans left out overnight are one of the biggest attractant to bears,” she said.

The commission said the attack happened as follows: 

Rhegness was in front of her house in northeast Swannanoa at 10:30 p.m. while walking her dog on a leash when she saw three cubs in a neighbor's trash, which had been set out for a scheduled pickup the next morning.

Her dog barked, and Rhegness shouted to scare away the cubs. She then picked up her dog and headed home.

She had not seen the adult bear. It bit and scratched Rhegness repeatedly as she moved away. 

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Olfenbuttel said the bear's behavior was "defensive, not predatory, and the bear may have been responding to the barking dog."

She called the attack an unusual occurrence.

"It was like an unfortunate perfect storm of events and ultimately a case of both the bear and woman being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” she said.

The commission says it rarely kills bears and says attacks on humans are very uncommon. Offenbuttel said commission workers had killed only one other bear in the state since 2007.

She wrote on the commission's website that bears usually withdraw from a confrontation with a human as soon as they view the threat as being over.

"However, the bear in this situation did not withdraw and continued to bite and scratch the victim, despite the victim responding appropriately prior to and during the incident," she said.

Those atypical actions were a big factor in the decision to kill the bear, she said.

“Once a bear learns a new behavior, such as how to interact with people, it is likely to repeat that behavior and pass it on to the cubs,” Olfenbuttel said.

Wild bears do not do well in captivity, she said, and problem bears relocated elsewhere often return to where they were caught, making euthanasia the best option in this case.

Bear in the neighborhood?

The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission's Colleen Olfenbuttel offered these tips for bear encounters:

--Don't approach the bear. Quietly move away.

--Give the bear a clear escape route.

--Store garbage and recycling in places bears can't reach it and put your trash out the morning of pickup instead of the night before.

“Even though that may be an inconvenience, putting your trash out the night before pickup attracts bears and rewards them for being in your neighborhood, so don’t risk their safety or yours,” she said.

--More information is at bearwise.org.

 

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