Toni Rhegness was walking her dog in her own yard last Tuesday, Sept. 18, when she had a dangerous encounter with bears attracted to her neighbor’s trash can. According to a press release from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, Rhegness shouted at three black bear cubs to scare them away from the neighbor’s trash and retreated with her barking dog scooped up in her arms. The mother bear bit and scratched Rhegness as she tried to escape to her house. The site of the attack was less than a mile from Owen Middle School in Swannanoa.
Rhegness was treated for injuries that the press release classified as “serious,” but “non-life threatening.” Commission bear expert Colleen Olfenbuttel weighed in on the incident in a statement clarifying that the bear was not trying to hunt Rhegness. “It’s important to note that this black bear’s behavior was defensive, not predatory, and the bear may have been responding to the barking dog.”
A bear sow and three cubs believed to be involved were trapped by Wildlife Resources Commission staff. “Based on observed behaviors, including travel patterns and location of capture, our staff determined a very high likelihood that the sow bear that they captured was the bear that attacked Ms. Rhegness,” Gordon Myers, executive director of the commission, told wildlife resources personnel in an email. The mother was euthanized using anesthetizing drugs. The cubs, which were observed to be weaned and independent, were relocated to a remote location as a precaution.
Wildlife Resource District 9 Commissioner, Brad Stanback, whose district includes Buncombe County, lays blame for the incident squarely upon the presence of garbage put on the curb the evening before scheduled pickup. “I wonder how it would impact public perceptions if the ‘culprit’ who put their garbage out at the street the night before pickup, and thereby put their neighbors at risk, were revealed in the press reports.” He says the public should hold one another to a better standard of bear preparedness: “I think we need to strengthen the public perception that people who carelessly create hazards by putting out garbage and other food sources in bear country can be held accountable, socially if not legally, for the consequences of their actions.”
“I’ve been wondering when we would see this happen in Asheville,” stated Stanback, “it was just a matter of time.”
WLOS broadcast an interview with Rhegness, available here.
Press release from N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission:
A Swannanoa woman sustained serious, non-life threatening injuries after an incident with a black bear on Tuesday [Sept. 18], the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission reported [Sunday, Sept. 23]. Toni Rhegness, 75, was treated at a local hospital and released.
At approximately 10:30 p.m, Rhegness was in front of her house, walking her dog on a leash when she saw three bear cubs in a neighbor’s trash, which was scheduled for pickup the following morning. As her dog barked, Rhegness shouted to scare the cubs off, picked up her dog, and headed toward her home. The adult, female bear, which Rhegness hadn’t seen, then bit and scratched her repeatedly. Once inside her house, she and her husband William went to the hospital for treatment.
“It’s important to note that this black bear’s behavior was defensive, not predatory, and the bear may have been responding to the barking dog,” said Commission Black Bear and Furbearer Biologist Colleen Olfenbuttel. “Mrs. Rhegness followed proper bear safety procedures, such as not putting her trash out the evening before pick up, leashing her dog, retreating as soon as she noticed the bear cubs; however, the adult bear continued to bite her as she made her way to her house. This is an unusual occurrence, but given the number of factors contributing to this incident, 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.”
According to Olfenbuttel, several things likely precipated the incident:
- The bears were feeding at an open trash can. Bears can be protective of a food source if disturbed while feeding;
- Bears are protective of their young, and can be defensive when cubs are around;
- The dog, while on a leash as recommended, was barking throughout the incident;
- The timing of the incident occurred at night when bears are most active; and
- The dark conditions made it hard for the woman to see the bear until she was within close proximity to the family group.
“Because of all the heavy rains earlier this year, there is a substantial lack of natural foods for bears to eat, such as acorns, nuts, berries and other fruits,” Olfenbuttel said. “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.”
Feeding bears, whether intentionally or unintentionally, trains them to approach homes and people for more food. For this reason, garbage and recycling should be stored where bears cannot access the trash, and bear-resistant containers should be used whenever possible.
“We realize that not everyone has access to bear-resistant containers, and in those instances we recommend that people put their trash out the morning of pickup,” Olfenbuttel said. “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.”
Commission biologists and enforcement staff are specially trained to respond to all bear incidences and to take measures to identify aggressive bears from non-aggressive bears. Over the weekend, Commission staff trapped the adult bear and cubs. Because of the bear’s behavior towards the woman, the bear was euthanized to protect human safety and to keep the cubs from learning her behavior.
“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,” said Olfenbuttel.
The bear cubs were healthy and old enough to be independent so they were relocated to a remote area.
Despite this incident, black bears rarely become aggressive when encountering people and attacks on humans are very uncommon. However, encounters between people and bears are becoming more numerous as more people move into areas where black bears live. Olfenbuttel provides these BearWise tips on what to do if encountering a bear:
- Do not approach the bear. Quietly move away and leave the area.
- If a safe distance away from the bear, make loud noises, shout, or bang pots and pans together to scare it away.
- Give the bear a clear escape route.
Learn more about safely coexisting with bears at Bearwise.org.
About the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission
Since 1947, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission has been dedicated to the conservation and sustainability of the state’s fish and wildlife resources through research, scientific management, wise use and public input. The Commission is the state regulatory agency responsible for the enforcement of fishing, hunting, trapping and boating laws and provides programs and opportunities for wildlife-related educational, recreational and sporting activities. To learn more, visit www.ncwildlife.org.
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