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Predatory attack or ill-fated dinner search?

black bearThe Great Smoky Mountains National Park is terming an incident that left a Las Vegas man with a puncture wound in his leg a predatory bear attack, but Bill Lea, a renowned wildlife photographer who’s spent years observing bears in the wild, says he’s not buying it.

According to Dana Soehn, communications director for the park, it’s pretty clear. Bradley Veeder was sleeping in a tent at a designated shelter, his food hung properly on cables. The bear came to the tent and bit Veeder’s leg through the canvas, returning to the area intermittently throughout the night. 

“It wasn’t a casual, curious nip,” Soehn said, “but it was an aggressive attack where he repeatedly came back to the tent.” 

“It is not normal wild bear behavior to look at humans as prey items,” she added.

But Lea says it’s not that simple. 

“If that hiker had been hiking and all of a sudden the bear came out of nowhere and attacked that human, that would be a totally different story, but it’s a case of mistaken identity,” he said. 

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Maybe Veeder’s food was hung, but it’s not hard to imagine that some smell of food still lingered around his tent. In fact, according to park spokeswoman Jamie Sanders, Veeder did have his pack in the tent with him. 

“Definitely I believe there was some kind of food smell,” Lea said. “It can be something as simple as having chapstick in your possession. Bears have an extremely keen sense of smell.”

And this year, he said, they’re more likely than ever to exercise it. May and June are already the most likely months for human-bear conflicts to occur, as the bears are on the move but the heartier foods like berries and nuts have not yet matured. And the past year hasn’t been a good one for the bears’ food supply. Low rainfall last summer meant a poor crop of berries, and the fall nut crop pretty much failed completely. 

“The bears are up and extremely lean, thin and hungry,” Lea said. “So if they see a potential food source, they’re going to go for it.”

Inside his tent, Veeder’s human form was invisible, so what makes sense to Lea is that the bear smelled something yummy, took a bite, and then was startled to encounter a very much alive Bradley Veeder. To Lea, the bear’s behavior afterward, when campers vacated their tents, confirms that analysis. 

“The fact that the bear came back and tore apart both tents shows to me that he smells food and he was seeking food in the tent and not seeking to prey upon a human,” Lea said. 

The moral of the story, Lea said, is that there are not man-eating bears roaming the woods and that hikers have a responsibility to double and triple-check themselves for possible sources of food smells. He doesn’t necessarily take issue with the decision to euthanize, assuming of course that it was the same bear. 

“We can’t have bears tearing apart tents,” he said. “As much as I hate it, I can understand them needing to take some action.”

As public as these incidents are, they’re still quite rare. The park is home to about 1,600 bears, but over the last 10 years there have been only nine instances of bear bites. 

“In order for us to best provide visitor safety, this decision to euthanize bears responsible for aggressive attacks is the best decision,” Soehn said. 

— By Holly Kays, staff writer

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