Dog saves bike rider from grizzly

Posted: Friday, May 25, 2007

FAIRBANKS - A bicycle rider says his golden retriever distracted a charging grizzly bear long enough to let him escape. It was the second time the dog has played hero.

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Kiska, a 6-year-old male dog, distracted the bear by barking, allowing his owner, Todd Fitzgerald, 46, to run to a nearby home.

"If my dog had not tied up that bear for the few seconds, I don't know what would have happened," said Fitzgerald. "I think the dog saved my life."

Several years ago, Kiska intervened when moose threatened to stomp boys playing in the family's yard in rural Fairbanks.

Fitzgerald was riding his new mountain bike at about 11 p.m. Sunday night on a wooded trail about 8 miles northwest of Fairbanks. He heard a crack, like a stick breaking, to his right.

"I didn't even look," said Fitzgerald, suspecting it was a running moose. "I was focused on the trail and I was already almost by it."

Kiska, who running ahead of him, glanced into the woods but kept going.

The next distraction got their attention.

"About 70 feet down the trail in front of me, a sow (grizzly bear) stood up five feet off the trail and gave a really loud roar," he said. "I've never heard anything like it. I've heard them woof and click their jaws but I've never heard them roar like that.

"It was like something you see a trained bear on TV do," he said.

Fitzgerald, an experienced hunter, described the bear as "an average Interior grizzly," 6 to 7 feet tall. He stopped at the sight.

"I hit the brakes and dumped my bike and took off running the other way," he said.

Fitzgerald surmised the noise he had heard was made by a cub and that he had ridden between the animal and its mother.

"The only thing in my mind was, 'I gotta leave and get out of here,"' he said.

By running, he was ignoring the advice of bear experts who say to back away slowly and give grizzlies space.

"I didn't do a lot of thinking in that split second," he said. "I know I did all the wrong things but I was not going to back away slowly."

Kiska took a different tack. She stayed and confronted the bear.

"I could hear my dog going crazy, barking," Fitzgerald said.

At first, Fitzgerald said, it didn't seem like his legs were working. When he finally was able to get moving, he tripped and fell on his face. He could still hear Kiska barking as he got up.

"I thought, 'This is good; the dog's doing his job,' and I kept running as fast as I could," Fitzgerald said.

He sprinted up a hill and knew there was an old rope swing hanging from a tree about 100 feet up. If he could reach that, he figured, he could climb the rope.

"That was my first exit plan," Fitzgerald said.

Then Kiska stopped barking and the woods grew silent.

"I thought, 'Something's changed; this is bad," Fitzgerald said.

Twenty-five feet from the rope swing, he glanced over his shoulder.

"The bear was bounding up the trail after me," he said. "It was a whole different wave of emotion that washed over me. I thought, 'This is going to happen and this is going to hurt."'

But has he reached the swing, he glanced back again. The bear had stopped and was standing on all fours in the trail about 100 feet away, looking at Fitzgerald.

"My neighbor's house was only 100 yards up the hill, and I said, 'I'm going to get to his house,"' Fitzgerald said.

He reached the house and tried to catch his breath.

"I've never been that out of breath," said Fitzgerald. "It felt like my lungs were going to bleed."

He listened for any noise that might indicate the bear was following but heard nothing, so he walked back to his house. He could hear Kiska barking in his driveway before he got there.

The dog acted uncharacteristically timid but was otherwise fine. Even 45 minutes later, when Fitzgerald and his neighbor, Craig Schumacher, armed with shotguns, went to retrieve Fitzgerald's new bike, Kiska stuck close by.

"You had to sort of push her along," Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald's encounter followed another grizzly sighting a few miles away. Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist Don Young said they were probably different bears. He warned residents to remove garbage, dog food, charcoal grills and bird feeders to avoid attracting bears.

Though he never saw a cub, Fitzgerald is sure he came between a sow and her offspring.

"Why wouldn't that bear take one step and disappear?" he said.

Kiska's other wildlife confrontation occurred several years ago. Fitzgerald's son and friends were snowboarding in Fitzgerald's yard when a moose walked into the driveway and charged the three boys, who had snowboards strapped to their feet. As the moose was about to stomp a boy who lay on the ground, a barking Kiska appeared and held the moose at bay. The moose pawed at him before wandering off.

A neighbor witnessed the whole thing, Fitzgerald said.

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