It was a beautiful sunny day, mud sun, as the slushy forest trail thawed out after the long winter. Trillium dotted the woods with white and purple, poking out of matted beds of underbrush and shady croppings of snow. Carol was restless to tour her summertime haunts and watch her favorite birds return to the swath of land behind her Ripton, Vermont home. Ambling, Carol reached the small causeway and foot bridge over a soggy runoff bed she herself built the previous summer, giving it a couple good stomps, testing how it had weathered through the winter and smiled proudly as she continued on her way.
She was nearly to the top of the hill, where her property butts up against state forest and the trail bends back towards her apple orchard where she’d often sit and watch deer traipse about in search of fallen fruit. She was heading there now. From the crest of the hill she could see north for miles through the wooded vista towards the opposing ridgeline across the valley. Turning west to where the trail led and raspberry shrusbs were rife, Carol glimpsed a black figure flash before her.
“Was that a dog?” she wondered, imagining hindquarters on the black mark of her memory. “But it was much bigger than a dog.”
Scrambling down trail she struggled to eye what beast evaded her curiosity. Fifteen yards into the woods with only the thicket of berry shrubs between them, Carol found herself staring into the bulbous face of a boar Black Bear staring blankly back at her. She was frozen with awe. She had seen bears on her property before, rummaging through her trash cans on autumn nights from the safety of her porch or kitchen window. Now, sharing this small hilltop grove, the creature was extraordinarily alive.
She mimicked the bear’s stillness, unable to motion in any direction. The shifting weight on her heels, crackling twigs and dead leaves underfoot made her cringe, interrupting any plan of action scheming through her fraught mind. Forgetting whether she decided on any direction to run, or if to run at all, she spun around and bound downhill in the direction she had come. With hands outstretched, as if waiting to break an apparent fall, she wondered if the thudding in her ears was her heart or the bear behind her. She could see the small footbridge ahead of her as the trail leveled off and wished she could at least reach the bridge, if not for her safety, for something familiar, something of her design. Before her next stride she was tackled to the ground.
The bear lay across her, placing all his girth on her body pinned facedown. She lay breathless, waiting for her ribcage to collapse under the weight of the enormous beast. She could hear him grunting, negotiating his new capture and her labored screams were dense against the wet soil smothering her face. She felt stripes of burning heat on her back and legs and could hear the tearing of her blue jeans and nylon jacket. She saw none of this and flailed her arms backwards grabbing at fur on the sinewy arms clawing at her. The bear adjusted his weight and she squirmed. She was nearly naked by this point and her writhing only shook the rags of cloth further from her pale bloodied body. Carol felt something gouging into her back and again on her buttocks. She tried gasping before her face tensed in binding pain, squeezing tears from the crow’s feet of her eyes. The bear was inside of her.
She wailed through the violent rocking, hoping the bear would slide a finishing claw across her neck or eat her whole at that very instant but it kept grunting and she could feel the hot dewy breath against her cold nape. When it ended, she couldn’t fit the ordeal into any figure of time. Only the excruciating pain signaled she was still alive.
She lay broken in the mud and the bear, disinterested in his inanimate spoils, sauntered away reprieved. Carol lay paralyzed with fear. It wasn’t until the muddy soil began to harden and the forest began to dim that she knew she had to move. She rose, tripping on the hula skirt of denim belted around her waist and frantically dashed home, tripping and crawling at least a dozen times before reaching her back door.
She went straight to the shower, discarding the remnants of clothing on the bathroom floor and hung her head under the steaming water as dirt, and blood pooled by the drain at her feet.
The town meeting was scheduled for the following week and Carol had been dreading it. Even under the guise of genuine concern, she was mortified by the attention. It was after all, the privacy of northern Vermont that she fell in love with after relocating from New Jersey in the 80’s. She feared, beneath the veneer of well-wishing and sympathy, the meeting was a free sideshow.
Inside the small meetinghouse, used for church functions, spaghetti dinners and these sort of municipal discussions, the townspeople gathered in. A few were the usual folks, who enjoy the monthly meetings to hear the town mulling and chat with neighbors. Tonight the building was packed. A table was arranged in the front of the room and chairs were spread out in a fan, filling the space. At the table sat a panel assembled by the town to discuss the bear. From left to right sat the town moderator, Andy Boucher, Charlie Gainer and Danny Spitz from fish and wildlife, Archie Green the chief of police, and Mike Whittaker, the town clerk and hunter who Carol first confided in. They were a hearty stock of men with rough faces and hands which had endured a couple hundred Vermont winters between the table of them, the kind of gang one would assemble for matters of this nature. Carol was sitting discreetly in the second row.
“Well obviously number one on our agenda tonight,” the moderator began, “is the bear who injured Ms. Carol Mercer last week. Mike, I believe you’re probably the best one to get this started. Would you mind?”
“So, early last week I received a phone call from Carol asking if I’d be able to shoot a nuisance bear for her that’s been a problem on her property.” Whittaker said. “I explained to her that bear season wasn’t for another six months and that’s when she told me she had been attacked. When I heard the severity of the incident, that’s when I called up Charlie to see what we could do.”
Mike looked over at Charlie to continue.
“When Mike mentioned to me that Ms. Mercer had been attacked, Chief Green and I drove out to see her. She explained she had encountered a bear while walking on her property and when she attempted to run from it, it chased her down and attacked her pretty bad,” Charlie said.
“I thought you weren’t supposed to run away from bears,” Carol heard someone whisper a few rows back.
“She was all cut up on her back and legs and her faced was pretty banged up. She was obviously in quite a bit of pain. ” Charlie continued.
Carol’s doctor, Roland Philo stood up from the crowd to interject.
“I believe Chief Green has the specific report I wrote disclosing Ms. Mercer’s injuries.”
Alerted, the police chief shuffled through some paperwork until he found the medical record, previewing it before he spoke.
“Lacerations to the back, buttocks, legs. Contusions on skull, pelvis and knees. Vaginal tearing and trauma. Extreme anxiety,” the chief read clinically.
The moderator turned to Danny Spitz.
“Now in situation involving a bear that has a run in with a person, a non-lethal encounter, what would be the protocol when handling the animal?”
“With the animal, well not much,” Danny said. “In a situation where a person is injured by a bear, unless we have documentation that the bear has a history of aggressiveness or is being a habitual nuisance, we wouldn’t do anything about the bear. We’d investigate what precipitated the bear to act, and create a file for the animal in case it were involved in another incident. And Charlie and myself are actively doing both.”
Charlie added, “The problem is, even if we were considering terminating this bear, it belongs to a sleuth that lives on State Forest land. These bears are protected and even under the circumstances this is conservation habitat.”
“Danny?” asked the moderator.
“As Charlie mentioned, this bear’s home is on the State land that abuts Ms. Mercer’s property. I suspect that this particular bear was enticed over by the odor of apple blossoms coming from Ms. Mercer’s orchard,” Danny reported.
Whittaker spoke up, “Now is there any situation where the state could be held liable, overruling the law?”
Danny considered this momentarily, “Well the laws would never be overruled, but regardless, a bear is a natural condition of the land. It’s their habitat and we as humans have to take these dangers into consideration when we go out in their territory.”
“Here in Vermont we don’t have the problem with aggressive bears like in other parts of the country. They’re well isolated and we hunt them hard enough that there’s plenty of resources for them. I was surprised to hear all this since bears are usually pretty shy animals, not aggressive by nature. Bears usually only attack people in movies,” Charlie added.
“She was raped for God sakes.” Philo shouted, standing from his seat again.
The tall doctor beamed with embarrassment as Carol turned to him in shock. A prying hum filled the room as the word satiated the townspeople with the morsel they had come for.
“Excuse me Dr. Philo,” Chief Green scolded, “Ms. Mercer, I’m very sorry for your ordeal but I ask the members of this meeting to not anthropom…antrhomorphosize the animal. I think the language we’re using here, specifically ‘rape’ is extremely dangerous and counterproductive to why we’re here.”
“Let’s settle down everyone,” the moderator suggested nervously.
“A bear has instincts,” a man shouted from the seats.
“Did she have her period?” the jeers continued.
“I said calm down!” the moderator began to lose his temper.
“There was this one instance in Florida where a woman swimming with dolphins was attacked, sexually, and it was determined the animal acted in such a way because the woman was on her menstrual cycle,” Danny noted anecdotally.
“I believe that is irrelevant here Dan, and really inappropriate” Whittaker defended. “I came here tonight to discuss whether or not we’re permitted to kill a bear that hurt a woman of our community.”
“I disagree with you Mike,” Charlie barked in defense, “We’re debating whether this animal can even be classified as abnormally dangerous, what we call a level three nuisance animal, or if it’s simply a bear being a bear in his environment. Frankly, I’m not familiar with any bear being so bizarrely hostile unless otherwise provoked. Ms. Mercer’s actions and condition could just as easily be the contributing factors to the unfortunate event.”
“Was she feeding the bear?” a man shouted.
“Did she approach the bear first?” another echoed.
“I’ve known Carol Mercer for some time now. I can say she is extremely well versed in wildlife and a valued environmentalist at our Audubon chapter,” Mike said. “Now I don’t care whether we call this rape or not but she’s been terrorized by a bear who we now know is capable of gruesome acts. She can’t go out in her woods after this.”
“We can’t round up every species that poses a threat to humans, Mike,” Danny dismissed snidely. “If you or Ms. Mercer have a vendetta against this bear, I recommend you wait until November when it is legal to hunt it.”
“I can’t believe this.” Mike exclaimed.
Charlie looked at Mike with a ball broken stare.
“Look, Mike, Carol, everyone, this has gotten way too emotional. A bear attacked a citizen of ours, and I feel quite bad for her and I imagine it must be a terrifying thing to go through much less live through. But Ms. Mercer did live through this and it is my job to, unless otherwise deemed by law, to protect fish and wildlife and the lands they occupy, that’s it.”
Chief Green cleared his throat alerting the room to watch as he pondered his thoughts and rubbed his wrinkled brown with the wisdom of the law.
“Now Carol, I hate to see you in this discomfort. I think we all do and I think that’s why we’re all here tonight. You’re a good gal and I’ll agree with Mike, a valued member of this community. I know you’re fond of these woods and your birds and all, and I’ll tell you what, natural disasters make me livid. It’s not right in our hearts to have something awful happen to us, and not have anyone to blame for it, for no justice to be served. I became a cop forty years ago because I cared so deeply about justice. But in this case, we cannot place blame on a creature that neither thinks nor acts like us. He is master of his domain and we, as my colleagues pointed out, we’re living in an age where co-existence is our only option. We’ve taken great strides in wildlife education and protection, and developed departments with the help of folks just like you. Birds are one thing but a predator mammal is to be taken much more seriously and I think you should be grateful to be alive. Given that the bear was acting out of instinct in his own natural habitat, my colleagues and I cannot sign off on the termination of this creature.”
The panel, with the exception of Mike nodded in agreement.
“But Mike, I’ll tell you what, I’ll be rooting for you next fall,” Green chortled while the game wardens followed suit.
Snow flitted about the gray day, swirling around the bumbling bear wandering through the orchard with his head low, shielding his eyes from the flakes. The scene was cold and clean with fresh snow covering the ground and topping still hanging apples. Old sugaring pails littered the orchard, filled with rotting fish and meat scraps. Plodding along, the bear stopped periodically, scanning the currents for the most desirable stench, changing direction regularly with indecision. He shoved his head into one of the pails scarfing and snorting the salty flesh with delight, stumbling over it in search of the next.
Carol was bundled in her hat and gloves and two mackinaws, crouched behind a woodpile on the far corner of the orchard, staring down the barrel of a Marlin Centerfire, still greasy from the factory. She watched with wild eyes, fixed on the bear gorging himself no more than forty yards from her post. She stared with obsession as the bear walked out of view behind a row of trees and reappeared beside another shiny aluminum pail. She pulled her attention from the animal to the weapon in her hand, shocked it was finally capable of its purpose. She nervously checked the elementary aspects of the rifle, pressing the safety off and opening the lever of the already cocked gun. The bear ate without haste and she paused to calm her breath and take aim.
“So long,” she said, took a single deep breath, exhaled and squeezed the trigger.
The shot screamed like a wildcat and pierced the bear through his hulking shoulder, forcing it to stumble back away from its meal. Carol yipped with exhilaration as the bear roared with distress, nearly falling to the ground as an apple trunk propped up his hindquarters. The bear regained its footing and lurched upon its hind legs to preview the predatory landscape. And there was Carol, sheltered behind the woodpile, panic emerging from her face. The bear barreled forward in an awkward charge, favoring his unharmed shoulder. Carol quickly aimed and squeezed the trigger once more. Nothing. Horrified, she remembered to cock the gun again as the bear closed in on fifteen yards. She fired and watched as brittle apple bark exploded by the left ear of the charging beast and she cocked once more.
The bear vaulted into the woodpile, dislodging a wide piece of trunk with hits paw and smashing his face against the stack with a hollow knock that send Carol backwards to her rear. The bear came once more, over the top of the pile, snarling with frustration. Carol held the rifle to her hip, closed her eyes and fired a final shot.