I Survived a Bear Attack

A grizzly bear crime
April 2 2012 5:59 AM

“I Survived a Bear Attack”

Questions for Deb Freele, a woman who was mauled near Yellowstone in 2010.

Grizzly bear attack survivor Deb Freele.
Grizzly bear attack survivor Deb Freele

Courtesy of Deb Freele.

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.

Jessica Grose Jessica Grose

Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.

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.

Slate: What happened after that?

Freele: It’s hard to figure out timing. I was pretty well drugged up. I remember leaving Cooke City, and they were already trying to get questions answered while I was in the vehicle. I was on the way to the hospital; I don’t know if they were relaying that information to some of the game guys [bear managers]. It was on the trip that I had heard a call come over the radio that they had found a body.

Slate: How long did it take you to recuperate?

Freele: I was in the hospital for four days, and then I would say it took a good year to get my hand back and my arm back to a point where I was real comfortable with it. I had several weeks of physical therapy, and then it was a case of strengthening things.

Slate: How did you feel when you heard that the bear was going to be euthanized?

Freele: I knew a man was dead at this point; I knew the bear ate him. I said I understood that they would have to euthanize the female, and they asked me what I thought they should do with the cubs.  

[I said,] I’m not comfortable with the idea of them being let loose in the park. If you can find a place that can take them and use them for educational purposes, that’s fine—a  zoo setting. [Kevin Frey, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department official who spoke with Deb Freele about the cubs, told Slate that a victim's feelings are not taken into consideration when making decisions about bear management. He asked her opinion, he says, because he was curious about how the attack had affected her.]

I hate seeing things euthanized like that. On the other hand, I know a lot of people are going to be upset, but where are you going to put her? I was happy with the result.

There was a lot of pressure from outside people not to euthanize the bear. The wildlife guys got death threats. It was that bad.  And if you go and read a lot of the comments and the articles online, [it seems like] they would have rather seen us all dead than the bear.

If I had walked upon that bear while I was out in the bush, and I startled it and it mauled me there, I wouldn’t have a problem saying that bear should have a pass, once. She was doing what she’s supposed to do. Protecting her cubs.  But we were all sleeping. It was coming into the territory, looking for food, [but] there wasn’t any garbage. [The bear was] looking for meat in a tent. That kind of situation? The bear has to be put down.

Slate: Have you camped since the attack?

Freele: I have a bit of PTSD. But I’ve already been camping out in black bear country in Michigan. [Black bears] don’t really faze me too much. I follow all the rules; they behave the way they’re supposed to. The site I was in, there was a family of raccoons and the babies were sniffing around my tent—I thought the chemicals they used to treat it smelled like meat. When these little things were sniffing around my tent, I had a panic attack. The [PTSD] actually comes up when I’m playing this video game called Skyrim. I normally play Call of Duty, and I don’t have a negative response to that. But Skyrim has dragons and sasquatches and things that come at you—that one kicks off that reaction.

I want to go back to Yellowstone. I don’t think my husband will ever want to go back there, so I’ll have to wait until he croaks. But I think if I went camping back up in those areas, I’d definitely have an electric fence.

This interview has been condensed and edited.