CODY — “I always thought you had a better chance at winning a big lottery than getting attacked by a bear,” said Deb Freele, 58, of London, Ontario.
Unfortunately for Freele, the odds were not in her favor around 2 a.m. Wednesday, when she and two others were attacked by an adult female grizzly bear at a Gallatin National Forest campground near Cooke City, just east of Yellowstone National Park’s northeast corner.
Kevin Kammer, 48, of Grand Rapids, Mich. was killed by the bear, and Ronald Singer, 21, of Alamosa, Colo., was bitten on the leg.
Freele, who was visiting Yellowstone with her husband, said she saw a grizzly with cubs a few days earlier, between Silver Gate and Cooke City, raising the possibility that she may have come across her attacker just days before.
Wildlife officials have since trapped a female grizzly bear with cubs they believe is the attacker.
“I knew there was a possibility that bears were there, and camped with that in mind,” said Freele, a frequent camper who keeps a clean tent and has always been aware of bears, but not unduly worried about them.
She said Thursday from her room at West Park Hospital in Cody that she doesn’t expect that to change.
Depending on how she feels about it, her next night in the woods may be in a hard-sided camper, Freele said, “but I still won’t give up camping. I love it.”
Freele was alone in a one-person backpacking tent when the bear attacked. Her husband was in another tent in the same campground.
“I had a sense that something wasn’t right, but I hadn’t heard anything. I had just woken up and felt a bit of pressure on the tent, and he closed his jaws right down on my arm. Then I screamed. Then he bit harder and I screamed more,” she said.
“It was a brutal attack. It wasn’t like, ‘Oops, I made a mistake.’ He was out to get me and the other people,” Freele said. She described the bear’s attack as silent and methodical, giving her the feeling that she was being hunted.
“It hurt. I can’t describe the pain. I couldn’t control the screaming, and I knew what was happening. I thought I was dead, and couldn’t believe it was happening. I thought, ‘This doesn’t compute, it just doesn’t jive, with what I understand about bears,’” she said.
The bear bit Freele’s left arm with incredible force, she said.
“The screaming seemed to aggravate him, and I couldn’t punch him. I wasn’t in the right position to do that,” she said.
“I realized I was in big doo-doo,” Freele said.
“So I totally relaxed, went totally limp, like a rag doll. He hung on for maybe 10 seconds, and then he let go and walked away,” she said.
The 10 seconds of playing dead wasn’t the worst part. It was the initial attack, Freele said.
“The chewing part was the worst. He was chewing on me for a bit. He bit onto me, shook me around and ripped right through the tent and pulled me out. He was still on top of me,” she said.
“All I could feel was the teeth clenching in, and I could feel the unbelievable crushing strength of those jaws. I could feel that tearing into me and the shaking,” Freele said. “I was just seeing stars from the pain.”
Freele said the bear “chewed all the way up and down” her left arm, fracturing a bone in her lower arm and leaving puncture wounds and deep cuts in several places.
Though she kept bear spray in the tent, Freele was unable to reach it while trapped in the bear’s jaws.
“I knew what he was, but I didn’t see him,” she said. “I had rolled over onto my side, and the (tent) door was to my back. The spray was there, but I couldn’t reach it,” she said.
Freele had heard that a bear suspected of the attack had been captured, and would probably be killed by wildlife officials.
“In a situation where, if I had walked up to a bear and it felt threatened and attacked, I could understand that reaction, and I would feel bad in that case” if the bear were killed as a result, she said.
“But this bear, it was totally unprovoked, and there was no reason I could think of for that attack,” she said.
“I hate to see something that magnificent get destroyed, but in this case, that animal needs to be destroyed,” she said.
Freele said she was making an effort to talk to reporters about the attack in hopes that others might learn from it.
“I survived, and I know somebody else didn’t. I don’t know if what I did made a difference — that choice I made to just go with my gut and play dead,” she said.
“I want people to realize, don’t give up. Try everything. It’s amazing how dead you can act when your life depends on it,” she said.
Freele said she expects to remain hospitalized until at least Saturday, because doctors want to continue to monitor and clean her wounds until then.
She and her husband had planned to continue camping in North Dakota, Minnesota and Michigan on their way back to Canada, Freele said. But they now plan to “take the easiest, shortest way home we can.”
Contact Ruffin Prevost at email@example.com or 307-527-7250.