In a drama Davy Crockett would be proud to boast about, a 68-year-old man living deep in Minnesota's northwoods wrestled an angry bear off his little dog.
Bill Vagts and Darla, his 30-pound Corgi, survived their bite wounds from the black bear, which then lumbered down the road near McDougal Lake and attacked two other men Tuesday morning. A Lake County sheriff's deputy tracked the animal and fatally shot it soon after, ending the rare bear attack at a time when the animals are supposed to be heeding nature's demand and hibernating.
Vagts had just let Darla out of her pen to "let her run around" and the bear "pounces on her and has her down on her back in two seconds," Vagts recalled Wednesday. "He had his jaws on her stomach and her throat. ... Her eyes were as big as saucers."
Vagts didn't hesitate. "I run toward the bear on his right and grab the bear around the neck with both of my arms and pulled him up off my dog."
The 150-pound adult male bear clamped his teeth down on the stomach of the 178-pound Vagts. That prompted Vagts to release his grip on the bear, which fled.
Two-year-old Darla is recovering from "several little bites and one larger puncture," Vagts said. "And her whole back is bruised."
Vagts keeps a loaded shotgun by his front door and wears a sidearm at times, but "there was absolutely no time to think about" shooting the bear. "If I had thought about it for 2-3 seconds, I would have watched that bear tear my dog apart.
"I love that dog. They are like family."
Vagts, who moved with his wife from Mankato to near Isabella about 18 years ago, said he's encountered black bears many times during canoe trips.
"I've never had a fear of black bears," said Vagts, who is receiving a series of rabies shots as a precaution. "They always run away from me."
Capt. Tom Provost, a regional conservation officer supervisor for the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), said he understands that "emotions can get the best of us" in situations such as Vagts'.
"But you are taking a huge risk," Provost said, reacting like Davy Crockett, the "King of the Wild Frontier" whose heroics in early 1800s America are the stuff of legend. "You need to balance what's important to you."
After he left Vagts, the animal headed to a parcel near McDougal Lake and took on two other humans.
At a residential garage construction site, Ely-based carpenters Daniel Boedeker, 58, and Gary Jerich, 54, tangled with the bear, according to the Lake County Sheriff's Office. The animal attacked Jerich, and Boedeker was bitten on the arm while coming to the rescue of his co-worker.
The bear again took off but was soon located in the vicinity, and a deputy shot it shortly after noon, the Sheriff's Office said.
The animal has undergone a necropsy at the University of Minnesota's Veterinary Diagnositic Lab in St. Paul, said Martin Moen, a College of Veterinary Medicine spokesman. The examination may reveal clues about why the bear was not hibernating. Some of its tissue has been transferred to the state Health Department for rabies testing, Moen said.
Cheri Zeppelin, a DNR spokeswoman based in Grand Rapids, said that "bears can be disrupted from [hibernation] by disturbances near their dens [such as] people, machinery, etc. Bears utilizing a ground nest, rather than an actual den, could be more susceptible to disturbance."
Instances of bears attacking humans in Minnesota are extremely rare, whether during hibernation season or at other times, Provost said.
In early June 2013, a black bear bit and clawed a woman outside her home in McGregor, about 60 miles west of Duluth. At that time, that attack was the first on a human by a black bear in Minnesota in seven years and the fifth reported in the past 25 years.
"They have an innate fear [of humans]," Provost said. "We are considered some type of a predator. It's in their best interest to not be around humans."