Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

Two people injured in polar bear attack in Churchill

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A lifelong Churchill man suffered serious lacerations early this morning when a polar bear turned on him as he tried to help a woman being attacked in front of his home.

The 69-year-old man, who residents identified as Bill Ayotte, a retired Churchill tour guide, used a shovel to try and fend off the bear but was knocked down and mauled by the animal. He is being flown to a Winnipeg hospital for more treatment.

The woman, 30, was also hurt and has been transported to Winnipeg as well, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority confirmed this afternoon.

Both individuals are in stable condition.

Officers with Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship tracked the polar bear and, ultimately, two bears were shot and killed.

An orphaned cub was captured, said several residents.

Churchill resident Doug Webber said the attack took place right outside his house at 26 Selkirk.

"The bear attacked a girl right outside our house, and our neighbour, Bill Ayotte, came out to try to scare the bear off," Webber said. "He managed to do that long enough for the girl to get into Bill’s house, bleeding from the head, but then Bill got attacked by the bear.

"That’s when I woke up and went to the window and saw the bear kind of chewing on Bill. I went running out to help, and then a bunch of other people ran out, and two boys managed to scare the bear off. Then we put Bill in a pickup truck and took him to the hospital, and the ambulance came and took the girl to the hospital."

Another resident of Selkirk Street, Diane Bellerive, told the Free Press she stood on her deck, no more than 50 feet away from the bear as it stood over Ayotte. Her son Mitch, 21, called 911 and went to grab a shotgun.

"It was horrific… we’re shaken up," she said.

"It was scary to see. I am on my deck, totally helpless, there is no one around and it’s all quiet, and the bear is on top of him."

She said Mitch fired "cracker shells" to scare off the bear. She also had a small pistol and was firing as well.

"They make a loud bang. But the bear kept grabbing at him," Bellerive said. "We kept firing until we rang out of shells."

Churchill Mayor Michael Spence said the community was shaken by this latest attack.

"Thank God they’re going to survive," he said, of Ayotte and the young woman. "It’s very traumatic. The people who witnessed it are having a hard time dealing with it."

"But that’s just how it is in this community. We coexist with bears; they’re coming through the area, waiting for the ice to form. This is one of that challenges that we, as a community, are faced with."

Spence said that until the weather turns cold and the polar bears head off onto the ice pack, residents must be extra vigilant when venturing outdoors.

"There can never be enough education in terms of people being cautious," he said. "We always tell people to be cautious, be alert, and a lot of local people are very careful, because you get bear-smart. But it happens; you can be as smart as you want, and sometimes you’ll come around the corner and there they are."

A spokesman with Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship said natural resources officers got to the scene of the attack within minutes of receiving word it was happening.

Officers shot and injured one bear, and, while tracking it through town, located a second bear near the scene of the attack, shot and killed it. A bear cub was found near the scene and safely transferred to the town’s polar bear holding facility, the spokesman said.

Conservation officers then found the carcass of the first bear that was shot -- believed to be the animal that attacked the woman and man.

"In such an emergency, the safety of people is paramount and when there is an immediate threat, staff are trained to follow carefully developed policies and practices in order to ensure no one else is injured and the animals involved do not escape," said the spokesman.

Natural resources officers had completed a number of patrols throughout Halloween evening prior to the attack because of increased bear activity at this time of year. They said there had been previous bear sightings in town, and those bears had been chased away without incident.

Churchill has a 24-hour hotline (204-675-2327 or 204-675-BEAR) for people to report bears in the area.

Adilia Shields, who works for Canada Post in Churchill, told the Free Press very early Friday she watched the ordeal through the front window of her home on Selkirk Street.

"I actually didn’t realize there was a person underneath the bear until I saw a hand waving," she said. "I panicked and started crying.

"It’s a miracle he’s OK. I’m still in shock."

Shields said a "a kid" did everything he could to try and get the bear away from the man being attacked.

"He had no clothes on, but he got in his car and tried to get it out of the way. He’s a hero."

Shields was initially awakened from a restless sleep by the sound of gunshots. She said her dog was acting odd much of the night and could "smell a scent, I guess."

Webber confirmed that there was only one bear involved in the attack. He said Churchill residents are more aware than ever about the risks posed by polar bears in the community.

"There’s bears around all the time, but it seems to me that the last couple of years there’s been more attacks than normal," he said. "And when you witness something like this, it shakes you up."

Webber added that Halloween came and went without incident, thanks in part to a large number of volunteers who helped patrol the streets during trick-or-treat hours.

"Of course, this (attack) took place at five o’clock in the morning, so all those people who’d been patrolling on Halloween night had gone home," he said. "Most people around here are aware of the bears. I don’t know if the girl who got attacked was local, but Bill Ayotte is a longtime resident of Churchill. He just did what most people would do — he went out to try to help, but unfortunately he wasn’t able to scare the bear off, and the bear attacked him."

Webber also said Ayotte suffered injuries to his head and upper body, but was awake and alert when residents transported him to hospital.

"I don’t know how severe his injuries were; there was some blood around his head," he explained. "He was alert and answering questions."

Churchill takes special precautions on Halloween night. Several conservation officers circle the town in a helicopter to see if there are any bears around. Emergency vehicles are set up around the perimeter with their lights flashing to deter any curious creatures from checking out candy bags.

Churchill is near important polar bear summer habitat. The animals come through the area every year about this time when they move from the tundra back to seal-hunting territory — the pack ice that forms every winter over Hudson Bay.

It is not the first polar bear attack in Churchill this fall.

In September, a bear chased Garett Kolsun -- a Winnipegger working up north -- trapped him on the porch of a bakery and swiped at him with his paw.

Kolsun pulled out his cellphone and the light startled the bear, which backed into a flower pot. That distracted the animal enough to give Kolsun a chance to run away.

Kolsun had only superficial puncture wounds and scratches.

That bear has since been transferred to the Assiniboine Park Zoo after the province deemed the animal suitable for captivity. Kids in Churchill received the honour of naming it Storm.



-- with files from Canadian Press


Updated on Friday, November 1, 2013 at 8:55 AM CDT: Updates with another witness account.

9:46 AM: Updates with information from RCMP.

11:00 AM: Updates with Churchill mayor's office.

11:38 AM: Adds files from Canadian Press.

12:31 PM: Updates with statements from Manitoba Conservation.

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