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Veteran played dead as grizzly mauled him in Grand Teton National Park, officials say

By Brooke Baitinger, The Charlotte Observer
Published: June 3, 2024, 5:58am

New details have emerged that reveal how an army veteran who surprised two grizzlies in Grand Teton National Park walked away from the attack — seriously injured, but alive.

He played dead as the bear mauled him, the Associated Press reported.

“Just as the larger bear made contact with him, he intentionally fell to the ground on his stomach to attempt to play dead,” park chief of staff Jeremy Barnum told Buckrail.

The bear bit him several times and ran off after it chomped down on a canister of bear spray that burst in its face, the AP reported.

The 35-year-old man was visiting the Wyoming park from Massachusetts the afternoon of Sunday, May 19, when the “surprise encounter” occurred near Signal Mountain Summit Road, McClatchy News previously reported.

The wildlife photographer was looking to photograph a Great Grey Owl on Signal Mountain, which he had heard was a “hot spot for the species,” Shayne Burke said in an Instagram post describing the encounter.

He was running behind on meeting his wife back at the parking lot and was rushing back when he started to get “a really uncomfortable feeling,” he said in the post.

“I was breaking branches, singing and talking to myself aloud. These are something’s that can help prevent a ‘surprise encounter’ with a brown bear,” he said.

He was “walking through a thick wooded area in a valley” when he noticed a bear cub running up a hill in front of him, he said.

“I knew this wasn’t good, I unholstered my bear spray and saw the mother bear charging,” he said. “I stood my ground, shouted and attempted to deploy the bear spray but as I did she already closed the gap.”

When the mother bear pounced, Burke said he turned around so his back would take the brunt of the attack, he said. He got down on his stomach in the prone position and “braced for the ride, interlocking my hands behind my neck to protect my vitals.”

Burke screamed when she bit into his right shoulder, he said. She stepped on his back, bit one of his legs and picked him up and slammed him onto the ground several times, he said.

She continued biting his legs until he screamed again, which turned her attention to his head, he said.

“I believe she went in for a kill bite on my neck,” he said. “As she bit my hands (on) the back of my neck she simultaneously bit the bear spray can and it exploded in her mouth. This is what saved my life from the initial attack.”

The bear ran off, and Burke took the opportunity to escape, he said. He spoke with his wife as he applied “improvised tourniquets,” which he made by cutting his back pack straps, camera straps and fanny pack straps, to his legs. Then he laid down — with his knife and his back to a tree — to wait for the rescue helicopter, “just hoping the bear wasn’t to return.”

“In this moment, I accepted on that small hill top that I very well could die,” he said. “I recorded a short video telling my people that I loved them.”

The bear didn’t return, and rescuers took him to a hospital in Jackson.

“The number one thing that kept me alive during the attack was reading and understanding what to do in the event of a bear attack and being prepared with the bear spray,” he said. “Though I am not sure if I got to spray any at the bear, having it on me and keeping it in my hands while protecting my vitals 100% is the only reason I am telling my story now.”

Later, Burke said he begged park rangers not to kill the bear since she was defending her cub.

“What happened up on Signal Mountain was a case of wrong place wrong time,” he said.

As a disabled veteran in the Army Reserve, Burke said he’s been shot at, mortared and has experienced improvised explosive device explosions. But the bear attack “was the most violent thing” he has ever experienced, he said.

Wildlife officials will not take any action against the bear, which was acting normally in defense of her cub, Jackson Hole News & Guide reported.

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“We are not considering any management actions,” Barnum told the outlet. “It’s pretty clear in talking to the person who was injured and based on the site investigation that this was a surprise encounter and that the bear, likely a sow, responded defensively because she had at least one cub.”

The attack was the first grizzly attack reported in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem so far this year, the outlet reported.

Attacks in Grand Teton are especially rare, and this was the first since 2011, when a grizzly attacked a hunter in the park’s fall elk hunt, the outlet reported.