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Survivor of Mont. bear attack says she played dead
Bear Mauling Death Heal
A FWP employee patrols the area where a man was killed by a bear in the Soda Butte campground early Wednesday in Cooke City, Mont. Officials set five culvert traps in the campground. At least one bear rampaged through a heavily occupied campground Wednesday near Yellowstone National Park. - photo by Associated Press

COOKE CITY, Mont. - A woman who was attacked by a bear in the middle of the night at a busy campground was bitten on her arm and leg before she instinctively played dead so the animal would leave her alone, she said Thursday.

At least one bear rampaged through the campground near Yellowstone National Park in the middle of the night Wednesday, killing one man and injuring Deb Freele of Ontario and another man.

Appearing on the network morning talk shows from a Wyoming hospital, Freele said she woke up just before the bear bit her arm.

"I screamed, he bit harder, I screamed harder, he continued to bite," she said.

Her survival instinct kicked in, and she realized that the screaming wasn't working.

"I told myself, play dead," she said. "I went totally limp. As soon as I went limp, I could feel his jaws get loose and then he let me go."

She said the bear was silent.

"I felt like he was hunting me."

A frequent camper, Freele said that she was already prepared to go camping again hours after the attack, though she acknowledged that it will take time to recover both physically and emotionally.

She suffered severe lacerations and crushed bones from bites on her arms. The male survivor suffered puncture wounds on his calf.

The names and ages of the male victims have not been released.

The bear attack was the most brazen in the Yellowstone area since the 1980s, wildlife officials said. Wildlife officials still were trying to capture the bear - or bears - late Wednesday with five baited traps. The campground was closed.

One camper at the Soda Butte Campground said he heard the screams from two of the attacks.

Don Wilhelm, a wildlife biologist from Texas, thought the first scream was just teenagers, maybe a domestic dispute in the middle of the night. He tried to go back to sleep, stifling thoughts that a beast might be lurking outside his family's tent.

Minutes later, another scream - this one coming from the next campsite over, where a bear had torn through a tent and sunk its teeth into Freele's.

"First she said, "No!' Then we heard her say, 'It's a bear! I've been attacked by a bear!" said Wilhelm's wife, Paige.

By that point, the bear already had ripped into another tent a few campsites away, chomping into the leg of a teenager who had been sleeping with his family. The solo camper who was killed was at the other end of the campground.

Then, the screams stopped.

After a quick parental back-and-forth over whether to shield their 9- and 12-year-old sons with their bodies or make a break for it, the Wilhelms took advantage of the silence and darted to their SUV.

They drove around the campground, honking their horns and yelling out the windows to alert other campers. Along the way, the met with a truck leaving the campground with the second victim - a teenager who apparently tried in vain to fight off the bear by punching it in the nose.

"It was like a nightmare, couldn't possibly happen," Paige Wilhelm said later.

In 2008 at the same campground, a grizzly bear bit and injured a man sleeping in a tent. A young adult female grizzly was captured in a trap four days later and transported to a bear research center in Washington state.

The latest attack had residents and visitors to this national park satellite community on edge. Many were carrying bear spray - a pepper-based deterrent more commonly seen in Yellowstone's backcountry than on the streets of Cooke City.

"The suspicion among a lot of the residents is that the bear they caught (in 2008) was not the right one," said Gary Vincelette, who has a cabin in nearby Silver Gate.

Last year, another grizzly broke into three cabins in Silver Gate, said Vincelette. That bear was shot and killed by a resident when it returned to the area.

"Three attacks in three years - we haven't ever had anything like that and I've been coming up here since I was a kid," Vincelette said.

About 600 grizzly bears and hundreds of less-aggressive black bears live in the Yellowstone area.

The region is pasted with hundreds of signs warning visitors to keep food out of the bruins' reach. Experts say that bears who eat human food quickly become habituated to people, increasing the danger of an attack.

Yet in the case of the Soda Butte Campground attack, all the victims had put their food into metal food canisters installed at campsite, said Fish, Wildlife and Parks Warden Capt. Sam Sheppard.

"They were doing things right," Sheppard said. "It was random. I have no idea why this bear picked these three tents out of all the tents there."

The 10-acre Soda Butte campground in Gallatin National Forest has 27 sites. Sparsely populated and hemmed in by mountains, the Yellowstone wilderness surrounding Cooke City is home to numerous bears. A creek that passes through the Soda Butte Campground is frequently used as a travel corridor by wildlife, Sheppard said.

Two other campgrounds were also closed while the attacking bear or bears remained at large. U.S. Forest Service officials said they would consider closing more campgrounds after consulting with state wildlife officials leading the investigation.


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