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Wednesday, 16 November 2011 21:10

Police wrestle bear cub into custody

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A baby bear went on a romp through downtown Waynesville last week before finally being cornered and captured by police officers on a preschool playground on Main Street.

The bear was first spotted on the playground of the First United Methodist Church preschool. Preschool staff called the police department then tracked the bear cub as it moved through downtown, keeping tabs on its whereabouts until police arrived.

Two blocks later, it jumped the fence of another preschool playground, First Baptist Church.

It was a stroke of luck for those trying to catch the bear. The sunken playground is surrounded by a brick wall or fence on all sides. A growing field of spectators pitched in, surrounding the playground and running interference to keep the bear confined while waiting for an animal control officer.

By now, three Waynesville police officers had arrived and orchestrated the efforts to keep the bear inside the playground, shooing and clapping at it each time it attempted to scale the wall or climb the fence. But the cub was growing increasingly agitated, fueled partly by the mounting number of onlookers with cell phone cameras encircling the playground. One spectator fetched a rope from his truck, tied a loop in it and began trying to lasso the bear cub.

With still no sign of animal control officers and no indication of how soon they would arrive, Waynesville Police Officer Kenny Aldridge decided the officers needed to act.

He jumped the fence into the playground and began working the bear cub into a corner.

“I was somewhat concerned about all the people. A small bear can still do major damage,” Aldridge said. “I was also afraid it would get spooked and get out in traffic.”

Meanwhile, Deputy Micah Phillips donned his leather gloves and began moving in on the bear. Aldridge chased the cub toward a brick wall, and as it began to scramble up, Phillips seized the moment. He dashed up behind the bear and quick as a flash grabbed it by the scruff of its neck.

The bear cub turned into a writhing, flailing ball of fur and claws, which were easily two inches long despite his stature of only 20 pounds or so. Letting go wasn’t an option at this point, so Phillips held tight, even as the bear cub extended both his paws, and reached behind his head groping for his captor. The bear’s claws closed in on Phillips’ wrist, but luckily his gloves proved just long enough — the bear’s groping claws came within half an inch of the top of Phillips’ gloves. Phillips strolled out of the playground, opened the back door of his patrol car and flung the bear inside before slamming the car door.

“I’ve never grabbed a bear before,” Phillips said. When asked how he knew his gloves were just long enough to spare his wrist from being torn to shreds, “That was just a gamble,” he said.

The baby bear’s mother was nowhere to be seen — perhaps killed, but most likely out of the picture due to the food shortage facing black bears throughout the mountains this fall. Mothers unable to provide for all their young will abandon some of their cubs. A cub going into the winter without its mother is certain death, however. The cubs don’t yet know how to find food on their own, nor do they understand how to den up and hibernate for the long winter.

Making matters worse, the bear cub had not faired well on its own and was clearly malnourished and underweight for its age, hardly equipped to survive the cold season ahead.

The bear cub was taken to a bear rehabilitation and rescue center where it will spend the winter and then be released into the wild next summer.

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