‘Deranged’ bear attacks bird-watching biologist
By Jenny Neyman
Special to the Tribune
The details of a bear attack Sunday afternoon on the Kasilof beach were about as ripe for tragedy as they come. The incident ended with officers shooting what was described as an older sow just after 5 p.m.
A bird-watching family with three of their kids, one just a baby in a backpack, unarmed and out for a walk along the shore encountered an adult sow brown bear, seemingly “deranged,” acting erratically and aggressively. It did not respond to attempts to chase it away.
Now that it's spring, bears are on the prowl. An incident at Kasilof marks the first bear attack of the season.
The family was caught in the open sand, with no cover or protection, no chance of making it back to their vehicle, no one around to help and nothing with which to defend themselves but a bird-spotting scope and tripod.
And yet, the encounter ended about as well as it possibly could, the only casualties being the tripod, one of the baby’s mittens and the bear, which was shot and killed by Alaska State Troopers.
“After it was all done, my overwhelming sentiment that I was left with was, I just felt grateful. It could have ended so many different ways and, really, no one was hurt. It never laid a paw on any of my family and I didn’t get torn up, so I just felt really grateful,” said Toby Burke, of Kenai.
Burke, 48, a wildlife biologist with the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, was at the Kasilof River at about 3 p.m. Sunday with his wife, Laura, daughter, Grace, 11; 8-year-Damien, 8 and 7-month-old baby girl, Camille, snoozing in a pack on Laura’s back.
“So, little people,” Burke said, from his office Monday. Then a pause. “Little people.”
“We were not armed. We just came out on the beach to recreate. We didn’t have bear spray, we didn’t have any firearms with us,” he said. “We weren’t even that far from our vehicle, and it’s a fairly high-use area. And even the day we picked to go there, it was windy and cool but it was still sunny and people were coming out to walk their dogs. It just, I guess, caught us by surprise.”
The Burkes are avid birders and were at the north beach of the river to conduct a shorebird survey in the estuary. With binoculars and a heavy-duty spotting scope and tripod, they spotted some yellowlegs, black-bellied plovers and ducks at a distance. They’d arrived a little early for the tide to be fully in, though, so decided to walk down along the shore toward the river mouth to kill some time.
They cleared the dunes and were heading south down onto the sand, but stopped when they spotted a brown bear ahead, about 400 meters away.
“We just stopped in our tracks and said, ‘Oh. We’re not going to be going down there,’” Burke said.
They saw no one else in the vicinity, though they had noticed vehicles of two other parties walking north along the beach. Just then a dune buggy came zipping along. Burke tried to get the driver’s attention to indicate the presence of the bear, but he’s not sure if the driver noticed as he headed toward the bear.
“It was like a homemade dune buggy, really loud, so we thought, ‘OK, this guy is going to drive it into the next county. At least into the flats away from the beach area,’” Burke said.
Sure enough, the bear retreated into the dunes. The buggy stopped at the river mouth, then turned and zipped back the way it had come.
As the Burkes watched, the bear re-appeared.
“The bear in the dunes was acting really erratic. Like it was deranged. It would run out on the beach and back into the dunes. It looked like a very unhealthy bear, not just its appearance, but its behavior. I’ve had experience with bears with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And I even said to my wife, ‘That looks like a candidate to be destroyed or shot,’” Burke said.
They lost sight of it in the dunes. Then it reappeared about 300 feet away, near a chain-link fence that denotes private property.
“It was just walking. I thought, ‘This bear’s a little curious but not showing any particular interest in us.’ But it was getting closer so we thought, ‘We need to get out of here.’ But again it disappeared and we couldn’t see it,” Burke said.
They were about to head for their van when, “All of a sudden it popped up behind us in the dunes and was right there — 50 or 60 feet from us,” he said.
The bear had circled back behind them, and this time is it was more than curious. The Burkes grouped together and tried to haze the bear away, waving their arms, clapping their hands and shouting.
“It didn’t leave. It decided to charge into us. Then I just told my family to get behind me and I was using my scope and tripod to try and fend it off,” he said.
He’s well aware of recommended procedures if unarmed when attacked by a bear — lie down, facing away from the bear with hands protecting the back of the neck and head. But that wasn’t an option for this scenario.
“People talk about playing dead, but this was not the proverbial play-dead situation,” Burke said. “This was one of those half-starved bears that was really erratic. It wasn’t a bear that had been surprised and just wanted to get out of the area. This was a bear that decided to come after us. The only alternative I had was to try to fend it off.”
He swung the tripod and spotting scope at the sow. She grabbed the scope in its mouth, then swatted it and snapped the scope off the tripod shaft.
“And then I just basically had this jagged shaft sticking out from the tripod that I kind of smacked the bear with in the face and mouth trying to fend it off,” he said.
“As far as trying to remember everything, with the adrenaline rush, I know I hit it in the face and body some, and I know it hit me in the side with its paw,” Burke said.
The bear knocked the tripod from his grip.
“And all I could use was my hands. I put my left arm out in front. I was just trying to stay between my family and the bear. It seemed to me more interested in them. I was just trying to stay in between them,” he said.
The bear clamped its mouth on Burke’s forearm, but he dressed in several thick layers for the cold and the teeth didn’t puncture his skin, nor did the claws from the paw swipe he took to his side do more than bruise and scratch.
Meanwhile, Laura and the kids stayed together and stayed behind him.
“They all did a good job. I think the kids were inclined to run, but they didn’t. I could see out of the corner of my eye that one of them looked like he was ready to go to a track meet and start sprinting. But they listened and didn’t run,” Burke said.
“Eventually” — in retrospect under a minute, but at the time an eternity — the sow broke off and headed toward the dunes, only to turn back again, and again.
“It would kind of bluff charge us like it was going to engage us again. After several times we were thinking, ‘Oh no, it’s coming back, it’s not done with us.’ Even about 200 meters away it looked like it was going to come right back for another round. Then it turned around and started to amble away from us. When it was about 300 meters we started to feel like we were in the clear,” Burke said.
“None of the kids even cried. My wife even said the baby was asleep on her back the whole time — never even woke up. I think they were pretty clearheaded. It was all kind of surreal. It wasn’t terror, it wasn’t any of that. I think everyone was like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening’ as the bear’s approaching. And not necessarily thinking things were going to end well,” Burke said. “Fortunately, our guardian angels were looking out for us that day,” he said.
The bear headed north, still acting erratically — attacking a fence and a post.
“It was attacking inanimate objects along the way. I think this was an old, sick bear,” Burke said.
They called 911, particularly concerned about the walkers to the north that would be headed back to their vehicles, toward the bear. Troopers arrived and headed up the beach. A short while later, safely back at their van, the Burkes heard gunshots. The two parties of walkers returned unharmed, followed by the troopers with the bear in the back of their vehicle. A trooper report later stated that the officers shot and killed the bear when it charged them.
Jeff Selinger, Kenai area wildlife technician with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said that there was another report of a brown bear behaving aggressively at about noon Sunday, but on the south beach of the river. A man out to fish for halibut from shore spotted a brown bear coming toward him. He got in his truck and the bear continued to approach.
“So he started to back out slowly and the bear charged and made contact with the truck and finally got turned around, and the bear kept pursuing him for a ways down the road, is how he put it. And it finally kind of pulled off,” Selinger said.
Without a DNA sample from the bear on the south beach, there’s no way to know for absolute certain if it was the same bear from the north bear attack, but there’s a very high likelihood it was, Selinger said. It would not be unusual for a bear to cross the river, and though problem bear activity is uncommon along that particular stretch of beach, it is not unusual for bears to be on Cook Inlet beaches.
Perhaps the bear was desperate for food. Though its musculature appeared to be in good condition and it still had fat reserves, Selinger said that it was an older sow and its teeth were worn down, which would make eating a challenge.