Hiking in the woods can be dangerous. You can get lost, you can fall and break a leg, you can eat the wrong mushroom and poison yourself — the list goes on and on. Occasionally, you can even be attacked by a big, hungry bear.
That happened on May 10 to hiker Bradley Veeder. While he rested in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina, a large black bear ripped Veeder’s tent open and grabbed his leg in his mouth. Injured, Veeder managed to scramble away. The bear did too, but later came back to plunder the tent a bit more.
Clearly, we can’t have man-eating bears causing fear and danger to hikers. It’s not like we’re trespassing where the bears live, right? Oh wait, we are. Put that consideration aside, though. People will continue to hike. We can’t have the ursine version of The Hunger Games going on out there.
After the attack on Veeder, park officials sprang into action. Here’s the interesting part, though. Did you know we now have a way to determine exactly whether a particular animal is the one that attacked a human?
We use DNA testing. If we can get a sample of the animal’s saliva from the wound or clothing, we can analyze it and identify the one bear in all the world that committed this offense. That’s exactly what they did in this case. DNA testing of the saliva from Veeder’s wound made it clear what bear attacked him.
The fly in the ointment of this story happened three days after the attack. While they were awaiting DNA results, park officials found a 400-pound black bear in the same general area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They euthanized it. Then the test results came in. Oh, you’ve guessed what I’m about to tell you: They killed the wrong bear.
Here’s how it’s supposed to work. Park officials find a bear they believe might be the culprit. They tranquilize him. If he’s not already wearing one, they fit him with a GPS monitor on a collar. Then they either let him go or move him to a special place where they can temporarily house bears. DNA testing results take some time, even for bears, so these options allow the park to keep track of suspect bears until they know for sure if they have the correct animal.
What went wrong this time? This particular bear was just too big. At 400 lbs., this bear’s neck didn’t fit the GPS collar park officials use.
“What we have did not work, and they tried for over an hour to where it would not come off,” park spokesperson Dana Soehn told the National Parks Traveler.
“They described it to me as trying to slip it on a cone, because it (the bear’s neck) was so much larger than his head,” Soehn added. “We have put collars on bears this size, it was just this particular bear. That doesn’t mean every 400-pound bear is going to be like that, but this one certainly was.”
His massive size also made it difficult to schlep him to the bear jail, which would have normally been the fallback idea. He was in a forested area six miles away from the holding facility. The logistics of such a move defied an easy resolution to this problem.
In addition, this bear had dental injuries that seemed consistent with the bite on Veeder’s leg. He was “the first and only bear present near the scene of the attack” according to park officials. He fit the overall profile of the bear they sought.
Yet when all was said and done, they killed an innocent bear. The same thing happened in the same national park in June 2015, unfortunately. A bear attacked a teenager who’d been sleeping in a campsite hammock. Great Smoky park officials shot and killed a suspect bear, finding out only later through DNA testing that it was not the right one.
The only good news from that incident was that park officials didn’t want it to happen again. They announced this would be “the first time in the history of managing bear populations in the park where wildlife biologists have had access to a lab willing and capable of processing DNA samples in a timely enough manner to be of use in a bear attack case.”
Well, that’s true if you’re not a really big bear. Park officials, perhaps it’s time to invest in a few extra large collars for your husky size bears. It’s a shame your only option is to euthanize an innocent animal when you have an ironclad way to figure out whether they deserve that fate.
Make no mistake — I applaud the fact that the National Park Service found a way to prove what animal presents a danger to people. Now, I hope this latest incident prompts another much-needed improvement. Figure out how to deal with animals that can’t be collared or transported. Injectable tracking chips, perhaps? Surely there’s something. Let’s find it and use it.
The hungry leg-biting bear is still out there, by the way. Happy hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains, everyone.