Boy Scout leader held captive by frightened bear in N.J. Avoidable?

Scoutmaster vs bear: After a New Jersey Boy Scout leader was held captive by a black bear for over an hour, some say the attack could have been avoided all together. 

Bob Karp/The Asbury Park Press via AP
A black bear rests in a tree at the Morristown Green public park in Morristown, N.J., Monday, Oct. 26, 2015. The bear was tranquilized, tagged and loaded into a bear trap and was set to be released into the Black River Wildlife Management Area.

A Boy Scout leader was attacked by a bear at Split Rock Reservoir in New Jersey Sunday afternoon while trying to show three of his scouts inside a cave.

After the bear grabbed Christopher Petronino, 50, by the foot, the scout leader hit the bear twice with a rock hammer before pulling his sweatshirt over his head and curling into a fetal position on the floor of the cave. Petronino then yelled to his scouts to go get help.

Unsure about their precise location in the woods, the scouts remembered their training and decided to help Petronino themselves. First, the scouts made a trail of food to coax the bear out of the cave.

When their food efforts failed, the scouts remembered their training and built a fire to smoke the bear out of its cave. The smoke eventually lured the bear out while helping rescue teams locate the scene.

“Fortunately the scouts had enough presence of mind that they were actually able, besides calling us on their cellphone, they were actually able to build a signal fire to aid the ground and aerial units,” said Rockaway Township Police Chief Martin McParland.

Along with the smoke, a dog that came along with the group began barking and sent the bear running up a nearby hill.

After spending almost 80 minutes inside the cave, Petronino was airlifted to Morristown Medical Center to be treated for minor scratches and bites on his legs and shoulders. The scouts who helped their leader during the attack were taken to the Rockaway police department and then released to family members. 

So did Petronino and his scouts follow bear encounter protocol?

If surprising the bear, as Petronino did, the best approach is to fall to the ground and play dead explains The Get Bear Smart Society, an organization that works to "ensure people and bears safely and respectfully coexist."  But if the bear begins to scratch or bite, then it's time to change plans.

"If a bear attacks, use your deterrent and fight for your life," says Bear Smart. "Kick, punch or hit the bear with whatever weapon is available." 

But this approach is rare and should only be used in certain encounters. The best way to handle a bear encounter is to avoid them all together. "Remember, most bears prefer to avoid contact with humans, and any bear you do see is probably just as frightened as you are!" says Bear Smart. 

Some members of the Rockaway community say the attack could have been avoided if Petronino had respected the bear’s territory.

“They don’t bother us, we don’t bother them,” Dave Oakes, a nearby homeowner, told CBS New York. Oakes says he grew up in these woods, and he has never seen a bear be aggressive toward humans. “If you see a cave, you should think twice maybe before going in there. You realize that [there] could be a bear in there and the last thing you want to do is poke your nose into a cave where there’s a bear trying to hibernate.” 

And while this encounter may be a first for the young Boy Scouts, New Jersey has long been known for its active bear population.

As the Monitor reported in August, The Basso Family of Rockaway Township, N.J., had a mama black bear and her five cubs throw themselves a pool party in the Basso's backyard. For over an hour, the Basso family filmed while the bears cooled off in their above-ground pool and played with the children’s toys in the yard.

The confrontation Sunday afternoon comes less than 24 hours after the end of New Jersey’s controversial December bear hunt. With 472 bears killed between Dec. 7 and Dec. 12, officials from the N.J. Department of Environment Protection’s Division of Fish and Wildlife extended the hunt for four days. When the extension ended Saturday, hunters had harvested a total of 510 black bears.

“We have the densest black bear population in the nation and we also have the most dense human populated state in the nation,” Carole Stamko, of the Bureau of Wildlife Management, said earlier this month. “So when you have those two, it’s a perfect recipe for a human bear conflict, and we’re trying to reduce that as much as we can.”

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