In the early morning hours of July 28, 2010, at the Soda Butte Campground near Cooke City, Mont., 5 miles east of Yellowstone, a female grizzly and her three cubs attacked three people while they slept in separate tents. Kevin Kammer was killed and partially consumed. The other two mauling victims—Deb Freele and college student Ronald Singer—survived with moderate injuries. The sow was euthanized, and her cubs were placed in a zoo.
Slate spoke with Freele, a 59-year-old retiree and mother of three, about her experience on the night of the attack, how she felt about the decision to euthanize the bear, and why she wants to return to Yellowstone someday.
Slate: What brought you to Soda Butte in the summer of 2010?
Deb Freele: I was there for fly-fishing. I had been there in ‘87, the year before the fire. That was my first attempt at throwing a fly. Now that I’m a better angler and my kids were all grown up, I could do it.
Slate: Were you an avid camper before that?
Freele: I grew up in Michigan. I’m retired now, basically. I was an outfitter; I sold outdoor equipment, canoes, kayaks. Before that I was a lactation consultant. I’ve been camping since I was 8 or 9. I’ve spent a lot of time in and around National Parks. I worked up in the Bruce Peninsula as a campground host for many years. It was a way, while I was raising my kids, to camp. It was free and I worked four to five hours a day for my keep, and I could stay there for as long as I wanted to.
Slate: Can you describe the night of July 28?
Freele: It doesn’t bother me at all to talk about it. It started off as a typical night. I had been fishing that day, and I went to bed around 10 or 10:30. My husband [Bill] and I slept in separate tents because he snores and he drinks and I don’t like the smell of that. I was closer to the car. There was a chain of campsites, maybe four or five. It was a rather remote site. We were there about 13 nights, and this was going to be our second to last night.
Around 2 a.m. I had been very sound asleep, and I had this sense that something was badly wrong and it was bringing me out of my sleep. I was just becoming aware, and the bear clamped down on my arm. The tent was gone at that point. Then the bear bit down and held me there for a while. My back was to the bear and to my bear spray. The bear was driving me into the ground, and it was trying to pull me up every once in a while.
Then I started yelling and the first thing I yelled was, “Oh no!” It was really an unbelievable moment for me. The most bizarre things go through your head. I knew I was in big trouble. The more I yelled, the more aggressive the bear got. I needed to let everyone know in earshot; I hoped people would get together and scare the bear off, but no one did anything, which was a disappointment. I was worried people were going to run over with a firearm and start shooting. That was in the back of my mind as well. The bear continued to bite. The more I yelled, the harder it got, and it still hadn’t brought its paws into play. I was trying to think about what might happen next, and the thought of it was just horrifying.
I could tell it wasn’t normal bear-seeking-food behavior. I figured: I am definitely prey. At that point my gut told me not to fight. I was 58 years old, just turned 58, and I wasn’t as strong as I had been 10 years before. In the position I was in, I’d just tick it off, I’d just make it all worse. I knew my bear spray was behind me; I didn’t have a whole lot of options. So I tried to play dead and see what happened. I thought the bear would roll me over and pull at my front, and I could get my bear spray and spray it in the face.
Then it bit my arm. I felt a big crack, and it dropped my arm for a second, and then picked it up again. It’s like a vice, tighter and tighter. It’s like the lions in Africa, how they choke their prey—it gets tighter and tighter until it breaks the neck. It was just biting and hanging on and so then I started to listen. I could hear sounds that at the time I didn’t know what they were. It sounded like—when we go hiking around here, you can hear the worms moving in the leaves, but I couldn’t see anything, no moon, pitch black; I couldn’t see the hand in front of my face. I didn’t know what that was, and it sounded weird.
It turned out to be the cubs running around, they were really excited. I thought the mother bear bit me in the leg, and I couldn’t figure out how she could drop [my arm and then get to my leg so quickly]. Later I realized it had to have been a cub that bit on my leg. I think the mother bear was holding [my upper half] so she could teach her cubs to go for meat.
When I decided that the only option was to play dead, I just went limp. Like a rag doll, didn’t move a muscle, didn’t move an eyelid. You can disassociate yourself from what’s going on. I was only hoping I could get my bear spray. The other option was, how could I end it quickly? I didn’t know what to do.
I was listening, and I could hear the people in the site next door make a run for the car. They got into the vehicle, slammed the door, and I heard the click click [of the lock before they drove off]. The bear dropped me sometime around then. Later on when I thought about it, [the click] was what made the bear move off. I didn’t hear the bear leave. But when the bear dropped me I didn’t move for quite a while; I didn’t move for fear it might pounce on me. [I waited] 20 to 30 seconds before I did anything. I rolled over, grabbed the bear spray, armed it, [and] that’s when I started yelling for help. I was yelling 20 minutes or 30 minutes, before I got help.