Elderly woman attacked by mother bear after encounter with cubs

Elderly woman attacked by mother bear after encounter with cubs
Toni Rhegness, 75, is recovering from serious injuries, including claw scratches to her shoulder, knee, head and calves. (Source: WLOS/CNN)

SWANNANOA, NC (WLOS/CNN) - A 75-year-old woman sustained serious injuries after she was bitten and scratched by a black bear while walking her dog in her neighborhood.

Toni Rhegness, 75, was treated at a local hospital and released. Her injuries, including claw scratches to her shoulder, knee, head and calves, were not life-threatening but were still easily visible days after the attack.

Elderly woman attacked by mother bear after encounter with cubs

At 10:30 p.m. on Sept. 18, Rhegness was walking her dog in front of her house when she saw three bear cubs in a neighbor’s trash, which was scheduled for pick up the following morning.

The dog started barking, and Rhegness picked it up to head inside, knowing the cubs’ mother had to be close by.

"The cubs took off, and I thought, 'I got to get inside,’” Rhegness said. “So, I started yelling as loud as I could.”

But as the 75-year-old headed inside, the adult female bear attacked from behind.

“I never really ever saw her," Rhegness said. “She bit me on the head, and I didn’t realize it was happening until I heard this ferocious growling and snarling.”

The bear continued to bite and scratch the 75-year-old.

“She knocked me down, and I thought, ‘If I don’t get up, my dog and I are going to die.’ That’s what I thought because, it’s a mother bear thing. I mean, I can’t even hate her because I’m a mom myself. So, you know, you mess with my kids, I’d probably be doing the same thing,” Rhegness said.

Thankfully, she and her dog eventually made it inside the house.

"The bear is chasing me the whole time, biting my legs, biting me on the hind end," Rhegness said.

Once inside, Rhegness’ husband drove her to the hospital for treatment.

After the incident, state wildlife officials set traps for the bears and canvassed the neighborhood to alert residents. All three cubs and their mother were caught.

The cubs were relocated to a wilderness area, and the adult bear was euthanized because of her behavior towards Rhegness. Officials say the decision was made to protect human safety and to keep the cubs from learning her behavior.

Despite the attack, officials say black bears rarely become aggressive when encountering humans, and it’s likely the dog’s barking and the nighttime and dark conditions precipitated the incident.

As encounters between humans and bears are becoming more numerous, anyone who encounters a bear is encouraged to quietly move away and leave the area, make loud noises to scare it away once at a safe distance and give it a clear escape route.

Because of heavy rains in North Carolina this year, bear encounters are expected to be more common due to a lack of natural food for the creatures, officials say.

Copyright 2018 WLOS via CNN. All rights reserved.