Are Animals Paying Too High A Price For Attacks On People?

Marathoner trying to change state law imposing death penalty on animals despite own bear mauling

Photo: Courtesy Karen Williams

Karen Williams was running a marathon in a New Mexico national park when suddenly a black bear charged her, scratching, biting and pummeling her body. Despite a mauling so severe she thought she might die, Williams was disturbed to learn that authorities tracked down and killed the bear. She’s now fighting to overturn the law that requires that fatal step.

The question of whether an animal should be put to death after attacking a person is surfacing again after the incident with Williams and a spate of others in which bears, big cats, alligators and other wild animals attacked people.

In most of the cases, the animals have been killed, a practice some people support in the interest of human safety but others deem too harsh of a penalty for what they say are animals behaving according to their natural instincts.

“I was in her house. She shouldn’t be penalized,” Williams tells PEOPLE. She’s still recovering after the June 18 episode in the Valles Caldera Nature Preserve near Los Alamos, where she came upon a mother bear and two cubs while in the midst of a trail marathon.

The bear charged, knocking Williams down and inflicting injuries, including puncture wounds to her arms and neck, and facial damage so acute that her eye socket was broken and her eyebrow was ripped off, she says.

Still, Williams says, “She was behaving normally as a bear. She was protecting her cubs.”

The bear was killed in accordance with state law specifying that a wild animal that bites or otherwise harms a human must be euthanized so its brain can be tested for rabies.

Williams, 53, was so saddened over the bear’s fate that she wrote the governor asking that wildlife authorities be granted more leeway; if they are found to be acting not as a predator but instead as a defensive reaction, “leave them alone,” she says.

Williams’s plea follows other recent human-animal encounters which proved fatal for the person, the animal, or both including:

1. A grizzly bear that will be killed after biting and scratching hiker Fangyuan Zhou in Alaska’s Denali National Park on July 1. The bear had also charged other hikers and “its general interest in people represents an unacceptable risk to safety in the highly visited front country of the park,” the National Park Service said.

2. ​Brad Treat, 38, a U.S. Forest Service officer who was killed by a bear June 29 in Montana. Treat was riding a mountain bicycle on a trail near West Glacier National Park when he turned a blind corner and apparently collided with a bear, Ron Aasheim, spokesman for the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, tells PEOPLE.

The bear, presumed to be a grizzly, then fatally attacked Treat. “It was purely a defensive response from the bear,” Aasheim says. Searchers tried to find the bear and planned to use DNA to confirm a match, but never located it, he said.

“It’s a case by case evaluation,” he said of how authorities determine an animal’s fate. “It it’s an unprovoked attack, those animals are taken out of the population. We’re not in interested in having predators take out human beings.”

However, he said, “typically if there was no predation, no consumption, then the bears are released.”

3. Lane Graves, the 2-year-old boy fatally dragged off June 16 by an alligator at a Disney World resort. The gator as well as others captured in the same waters was euthanized.

4. A 5-year-old Colorado boy who was attacked by a mountain lion in June, but saved by his mother. Two mountain lions found nearby were later euthanized.

5. Harambe the gorilla, shot dead in May by zookeepers at the Cincinnati Zoo, after he dragged around a 4-year-old boy who had crawled into his exhibit.

6. Stacey Konwiser, a 38-year-old zookeeper, who was bitten and killed by a tiger in April while performing routine tasks inside the Malayan tiger habitat at the Palm Beach Zoo in Florida. Zoo officials said the tiger would remain at the zoo.

Policies on how to handle animals that harm people vary but wildlife experts say people’s safety is the top priority.

“We care deeply about the wildlife and the entire ecosystem, (but) we put human safety above saving one animal,” Dave Schirokauer, science and resource team leader at Denali National Park, tells PEOPLE.

The park tries to determine what prompted an animal to attack and generally moves to kill it only if it presents a further risk, says Schirokauer, a wildlife biologist.

“If they think people provide food, or are food, they’re dangerous,” he said.

Marc Bekoff, a former professor of Ecology and Evolutional Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, says the potential for danger exists when people enter an animal’s home.

“There could be a price to pay,” he says.

While attacks are tragic, animals shouldn’t be penalized because “there’s zero evidence that if they’ve already harmed a human that they’re more likely to attack again,” he says. “Sometimes it just satisfies people that something has been done to punish the animal. But it doesn’t really solve the problem.”

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