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Woman attacked by bear near Asheville while walking her dog, official says

A black bear crosses a road in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in this 2009 photo. A 75-year-old woman was attacked by a bear near her home in the mountain community of Swannanoa on Tuesday, the North Carolina Wildlife Commission said Sunday.
A black bear crosses a road in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in this 2009 photo. A 75-year-old woman was attacked by a bear near her home in the mountain community of Swannanoa on Tuesday, the North Carolina Wildlife Commission said Sunday. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

A 75-year-old woman was attacked by a bear near her home in the mountain community of Swannanoa on Tuesday, the North Carolina Wildlife Commission said Sunday.

The woman, Toni Rhegness, was treated at a hospital and released, the wildlife commission said in a news release. The release gave this account of what happened:

Rhegness was walking her dog at around 10:30 p.m. Tuesday when she saw three bear cubs in a neighbor’s trash can. Swannonoa is about 10 miles east of Asheville. She shouted at the cubs, trying to scare them off, and her dog started barking. Then Rhegness picked up the dog and started to walk home.

But she hadn’t noticed that a grown female black bear was nearby. The bear “bit and scratched her repeatedly,” the news release said.

Rhegness told Asheville ‘s WLOS that she tried to get into her car to flee the bear, but didn’t make it. She said she ran up the walkway into her home with the animal still after her.

“I surely thought if I didn’t go inside, I would be certainly savaged, if not dead. As it was, you know, I was injured,” Rhegness, who was bloody and lacerated after the incident, told the TV station. “But it could’ve been much worse. I mean, if I had not gotten up and gotten in my house, I think it would’ve been much worse.”

The wildlife commission trapped the bear, along with her cubs, this weekend.

The adult bear was euthanized because of her behavior toward Rhegness, according to the news release. The cubs, who were healthy and old enough to live without their mother, were relocated.

Colleen Olfenbuttel, a bear biologist with the wildlife commission, said Rhegness did several things right — her dog was on a leash, she retreated from the bear cubs and she hadn’t put her own trash out the night before pickup.

“It was like an unfortunate perfect storm of events and ultimately a case of both the bear and the woman being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Olfenbuttel said in a statement released by the commission.

The adult bear’s behavior was defensive, not predatory, Olfenbuttel said. She noted that it was unusual that the bear kept biting Rhegness as she walked to her home.

Heavy rain this year means that bears have had fewer options for food, Olfenbuttel said, so some bears are going into unusual places to look for food.

“Unsecured trash cans left out overnight are one of the biggest attractants to bears,” she said in the statement.

If people don’t have bear-resistant containers for trash and recycling, they should put out trash right before it’s scheduled for pickup, Olfenbuttel said.

Anyone who encounters a bear should try to quietly leave the area, the wildlife commission’s release said. If you’re a safe distance away, you can make loud noises to scare it away, but make sure to give it a clear escape route.

People should be especially careful at night, it added, when bears are most active.

Staff writer Bruce Henderson contributed.

Jane Wester: 704-358-5128, @janewester
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