Woman shares harrowing bear attack story
Not even the adrenaline rush of skydiving can compare to what Laura Darby felt on Oct. 4, 2011 when she was attacked by a large black bear while working as a wildlife analyst for the Ministry of Natural Resources in Thunder Bay.
The Devlin native shared her horrific tale with local residents Monday night, who packed the Shaw Room for Part II of the Fort Frances Public Library Technology Centre’s Human Experience Series.
On that fateful day, the then 24-year-old and her co-worker, Dan Morrison, were conducting field work north of Wabikon Lake near Armstrong. They prepared their gear, discussed their route, and set off in separate directions.
Darby was walking her tangent through dense bush, looking for signs of wildlife, when out of the corner of her eye she noticed a bear running towards her.
Her first thought was that it was being chased. But as it got closer, she yelled out, “Whoa, bear,” as she was taught in bear training she had taken.
“I didn’t startle it,” Darby recalled, noting the bear ran beyond her about two or three metres and then stopped.
That’s when it slowly started to approach her.
“I was facing the bear. It was silent, watching me,” Darby said, noting it had the look that she was potential prey.
Darby picked up the radio to let Morrison know she had encountered a bear—still thinking there may be a second bear in the vicinity.
Morrison received the message but due to a problem with the radio, she couldn’t hear his response.
“[The bear] started to stalk me,” Darby said.
As it continued slowly towards her, she tried to keep as many trees as she could between them. The bear then stood up on his hind legs, knocking chunks from a four-foot high stump.
That’s when she realized it was coming for her.
Then far off in the distance, a twig snapped, which distracted the bear for a moment. Darby took the opportunity to step behind more trees.
But the movement must have excited the bear because he charged towards her, hitting her in the chest, then grabbing her right thigh.
“It was amazing how clear my mind was,” she recounted. “Living on a farm, I’d worked with animals before.
“I know I had to appear dominant and in control.”
Darby did everything she could to fight off the bear—kicking, screaming, punching, trying to jab her fingers into his eyes.
She remembers thinking, “I’ve just been bitten by a bear and it really hurts.” But she also knew she had to protect the front of her body, her organs, as well as her spine.
When the bear lifted off her for a moment, Darby flipped over on her stomach and threw her arms over her neck. The bear then went back to mauling her, grabbing her right arm and shaking her violently.
“He was playing with me. I was his toy,” she remarked, saying that’s when she thought she could very well die here.
The bear then grabbed her right shoulder and started dragging her into the bush, but Darby grabbed onto a stick to stop him.
“It must have made him mad because he went back to [attacking] my right side,” she noted.
Finally, she heard her co-worker off to her left side and she called out to him. Morrison soon was running up behind the bear and somehow managed to get himself between it and Darby.
“The bear charged Dan three times,” she said, noting he had a four-inch knife drawn and each time the bear charged him, he jabbed him—making contact under the chin, in his mouth, and behind his shoulder blade.
“The bear wasn’t affected but he backed off,” Darby recalled, noting the bear moved about 20 feet away, sat down, and then watched the pair for about 45 minutes.
Morrison radioed for more help, requesting air evacuation, while doing some basic first aid, such as applying pressure to the wounds.
“I felt calm and so relieved,” Darby said. “I felt safe even though the bear was still nearby.”
Darby said they heard a helicopter about an hour-and-a-half later. It landed some 200 feet away and they started to cut a trail.
But Darby didn’t think she could make it that far, so they cut a helicopter pad closer to her location.
They gave them 20 minutes to do it and they completed it in 18.
Meanwhile, more help was arriving on the scene, such as an OPP officer, a bear technician, a conservation officer, and paramedics.
“I was getting exhausted at this point,” Darby remembered. “Even with my eyes closed, I was starting to get dizzy.”
She requested some pain-killers and the paramedics noted she had very little blood pressure. She soon was strapped onto a stretcher but started to go into shock.
People were giving their shirts and a tinfoil blanket to try to keep Darby warm and she was shaking violently.
It took three tries to land the helicopter—there wasn’t much clearance. Then as soon as she was inside, they realized the doors wouldn’t close due to the length of the stretcher.
But they made do and where able to get Darby to where an air ambulance was waiting.
It was a 20-minute flight to the Health Sciences Centre in Thunder Bay, where she was rushed into the emergency room. They gave her two units of blood and began pumping her full of liquids.
Since Darby still had the sense of feeling in her hands and feet, as well as motor control, the doctors determined her nerve damage wasn’t too bad.
Due to another emergency that came up, Darby’s first surgery was pushed to the following day. It took seven hours and they used about 800 staples.
She had broken bones and torn ligaments, but luckily no major nerves or arteries had been severed.
It took about a week before Darby could reach up a touch her face. The attack had injured both her arms, as well as her right thigh.
She ended up losing about 20 pounds during her 17-day stay in the hospital.
Then after being discharged, Darby still had plenty more work ahead of her to fully recover. She underwent another four surgeries and physiotherapy.
“I was able to heal remarkably,” she noted, although adding it took quite a length of time to work at getting her range of motion back, as well as her strength.
“I might never be as strong as I once was . . . but I’m a very lucky individual,” she conceded. “Everyone who helped me was amazing that day.”
Darby now shares her experience with others and because of the attack, safety measures have changed within the MNR. Field workers now are required to carry bear spray and must work in much closer range to their partners.
Darby returned to work in February, 2012, spending the first few months at a desk. But that summer, she did go out and do some field work.
“Short durations are easier,” she admitted. “The longer I’m out there, the more anxious I am.”
But she’s much more comfortable going out in groups. And she carries more gear with her.
Darby said she’s also thinking about pursuing a career in physiotherapy. In the meantime, she plans to spend the next six months travelling to different locations around the world.
At the end of her presentation, Darby answered many questions from those on hand. But her main focus was to remind people to stay safe in “bear country.”
People also were able to check out the bear that attacked her. It was caught two days after the incident and now is a rug on her floor.
“I have no aggression towards it,” Darby remarked, though adding plenty of other people do.
“It really is just a reminder to be safe.”