WINHALL — It was just before 10 p.m. on Wednesday night when Sarah Dietl let her Shih Tzu, Bodhi, out of the house to see to his duties before retiring for the night.
Within seconds, Bodhi had treed a bear cub, and Dietl was fighting for her life, her head in the jaws of a mother bear.
“She came running out of the dark. She ran right to me,” Dietl told the Reformer early Thursday evening after returning from the hospital to the home she shares with Robert Montuoro. “It was terrifying.”
Montuoro said they were maybe a foot from their door when the attack happened. As soon as the bear was upon Dietl, he ran up to it and smacked it in the head with a heavy duty flashlight he had been carrying.
The smack was enough for the bear to let go of Dietl, and she and Montouro scrambled back into the house.
However, the bear was still not done with them.
“Once I pulled Sarah into the house, the bear charged the door,” said Montouro.
They were able to slam the door in its face and get a call to 911.
“I was [expletive] terrified,” said Montouro.
Dietl was treated at Southern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington and is recovering with 15 staples in her scalp. Her injuries also include “a mangled” hand, cuts to her face and a gash in her side.
Dietl and Montouro have lived in a condominium in Fox Chapel Condos & Townhouses for the past seven years.
“The response from the Police Department, the game wardens, and the EMTs ... they’re all angels,” he said, adding he was proud to be a member of such a caring community.
Col. Justin Stedman, warden director for the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, said bear encounters in Vermont this year are at “the highest level than we’ve ever had.”
Stedman said the increase in encounters is attributable to a number of factors, including an increase in both bear and human populations, a dearth of natural foods for bears this season because of a lack of rain, and the unseasonable temperatures throughout the region this fall.
He also said people need to do a better job securing food sources, such as dumpsters. Bears also have been spotted in this neighborhood eating ornamental pumpkins.
“Bears are intelligent creatures,” said Stedman. “They learn to associate people with food, because folks want to feed the birds, or they they want to put their garbage out. They don’t want to worry about it. These sort of things habituate bears to people, and it compounds over time.”
Stedman was quick to add it didn’t appear Dietl and Montouro did anything to provoke the attack; that they and their dog were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
People also need to understand that just because they don’t see bears in the neighborhood, that doesn’t mean they’re not out there, he said.
“When you go in your house at night, they’re coming out saying, ‘Where can I find easy food before I go to sleep?’” said Stedman.
Game wardens searched the neighborhood for the bear, its cubs and the couple’s dog after arriving at the scene. They concluded their initial search at 1:20 a.m. on Thursday without success.
Bodhi did not come home until later Thursday morning, but he is OK, said Montouro.
“Before letting pets out at night, I would urge Vermonters to light their yards and make plenty of noise to allow wildlife in the area time to move on,” said Game Warden Kyle Isherwood in a statement. “Along with securing food that could attract wildlife into a developed area, steps like this are important for the safety of people and wildlife.”
Game wardens and biologists returned to the scene at 10 a.m. on Thursday to continue their search.
They learned a bird feeder had been present outside the condominium complex until mid-October, that a bear-proof dumpster on the property was damaged and not being used properly, and that a female bear with cubs had been seen regularly in the area throughout the summer and fall.
They also found multiple decorative pumpkins outside of the complex that showed signs of having been fed on by bears.
“Increasingly bold and high-risk behavior from bears is due to Vermonters’ failure to take the proactive steps needed for safely coexisting alongside a healthy black bear population,” said wildlife biologist and Black Bear Project leader Jaclyn Comeau, in the statement. “This failure puts both people and bears in danger.”
Comeau also stated that bear attacks in Vermont are “extremely rare.”
Montouro also thanked family members and neighbors for their compassion, as well as the hospital staff at SVMC, and Homestead Landscaping of Bondville for their quick response in cleaning up around the complex.
“We really feel lucky to live where live here in Vermont,” he said.
Despite the horror of their close encounter, neither one is blaming the mother bear.
“We build condos in places where bears used to live, and we’re kicking them out,” said Montouro. “It’s not their fault.”
A statement issued Thursday morning incorrectly identified the town of the encounter as Stratton.