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Old tale has a new twist: Three bears and a beagle

March 16th, 2005, 09:04 PM
This is an old article I had clipped (1997) - because it was so heartwarming and my beagle had yet to go to Rainbow Ridge. I was going through floppy disks (remember those, lol?) and found it. Enjoy!

Old tale has a new twist: Three bears and a beagle

by Lawrence G. Proulx
Washington Post

Once upon a time in the Maine woods - actually, last week in the Maine woods - there lived a mama bear and her two cubs.

One day a beagle came to visit. The weather was cold, and the bears were hospitable; they were reluctant to allow their guest to leave. So reluctant that it took a team from the state's Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to get the dog out.

"This is by no means an everyday story," said Sandy Ritchie, one of the wildlife experts. "I talked to several people who have worked with bears their whole life, and they had never heard of such a thing."

The tale began Feb. 6, when William "Butch" McCormick, of Wilton, Maine, went rabbit hunting with his beagle Dodger, who ran off, as beagles will. McCormick set out after him, aided by the dog's radio collar, which beams a signal to a hand-held receiver. No luck.

McCormick searched till 1 a.m. last Friday, then returned to the area later that day. It hadn't been too cold the night before, not by Maine standards, and he hoped the dog had survived the 5- to 10-degree temperatures. But the unchanging pattern of beeps from the radio collar suggested Dodger had not moved. That was worrisome.

On Saturday, he finally caught Dodger's tracks and followed them to a snow-covered brush pile. When he called to the dog, Dodger appeared, climbing up from under the brush. "He got up half or two-thirds of the way, and that's when I saw the bear's head."

With McCormick just a few feet away, the big black bear "reached up enough to get ahold of the dog's legs (with its mouth) and pulled him down into the den again." McCormick turned and ran.

On Sunday, he returned with Thomas Jacobs, a game warden.

"I called the dog," McCormick recounted. Dodger yelped, but neither man could see him. "It's all dark in there, very, very dark in there. . . . The bear wouldn't let the dog out, as far as we could tell. We could hear the cubs just a-squealing and whining, carrying on."

On Monday, they returned with Ritchie, a bear expert.

At first "we couldn't see the dog," said Ritchie, a biologist. "We could hear the cubs, and the bear seemed to sense our presence, became more active."

When McCormick called, Dodger struggled up and was pulled back by the bear. "She would gently pull him back. . . . It is my opinion that she felt this dog was one of her cubs" and was protectively keeping it close, Ritchie said.

Finally Ritchie was able to grab the dog's collar and pull him out. This caused the bear to climb out of her den, but when she saw the crowd, she gave up on the dog and headed off slowly into the woods.

Two cubs were left in the den, Ritchie said. With the sky clear and a cold night ahead, they would have frozen if left as they were, so the team bundled them up in blankets, hoping for the best.

Which is what seems to have happened. When the team checked Tuesday, mama bear was back in her den. "She wouldn't stay there if they were dead," Jacobs said.

As for Dodger, he was dehydrated, skinnier and hungry, but basically fine. Ritchie said that without the bear's warmth he probably would not have survived.

Why would a bear mistake a dog for a cub? Ritchie offered a guess: "You have to realize that she had her young when she was in a state of semi-hibernation.

"She was very, very gentle with that dog," Ritchie marveled.