Standing Bear Trio Recalls Rescue of Family Dog Mauled by Bear on AT
On the 14th of May of this year, what started out as a routine day hike on the AT in Tennessee soon to turned into a scene of carnage and terror when a hiker’s dog ran afoul of a black bear and was severely mauled. But several forces came together that would transform a traumatic hike into a dramatic race to save the life of a special pet.
Warning: Before you continue to scroll, please note that this article contains graphic images. Viewer discretion is advised.
Linda’s Story: A Lesson in Handling Panic
It was a beautiful Saturday morning at Standing Bear Hostel, and Linda Guzman, sister of hostel owner Maria Guzman, decided to take Maria’s dog for a short walk.
Linda, trail name “Robin” (after how she hops effortlessly like a bird down long, knee-punishing steep grades), had been visiting from her home in southern Michigan, like she does every year, to help Maria handle the large “Bubble” of hikers who pile into the hostel every spring.
Amid the chaos of hundreds of hikers coming and going every day, nobody had time to take Maria’s dog, Houston, for his daily walks. Seeing Houston moping around during this time, Linda resolved to take him for a walk as soon as the Bubble passed.
This was that day.
Since Linda had heard from hikers that a large bear was spotted roaming the short, one-mile section of trail that goes down to I-40, she decided to walk down Green Corner Road to the interstate instead.
As she was getting dressed to take Houston for his walk, her cousin, Michael “Mr. Shuttles” Cuellar returned from a long shuttle run. Linda invited him along for the walk, but he hesitated because he was hungry. For some reason, Linda strongly felt the need to have him go with her this day, so to get him to hike with her, she promised to make him a meat and bean nacho, one of her specialties, when they got back.
Enticed by Linda’s excellent reputation as a cook, Michael agreed to go, and soon the three of them were walking down the road with Houston leading the way at the end of a leash that Michael was holding. But they were not alone. Soon, a chubby little beagle-mix dog dashed down the road to follow them. The pair recognized the dog as Moon, belonging to a woman who lives near the hostel, and saw no harm in letting the cheerful pup tag along.
Michael had told Linda earlier that he hated road walking, so the foursome veered onto the AT when they reached the trailhead.
From there, it would only take about 10 minutes to ascend to the crest of the ridge, from where they could coast downhill the rest of the way to I-40.
They soon were enjoying a peaceful stroll under the bright green canopy of newly grown leaves. But as they neared the apex of the hill, Linda said that without warning, Moon silently dashed up a steep bank, disappearing through the seemingly impenetrable underbrush.
Within seconds, Linda said she heard a frighteningly loud shriek—a sound unlike anything she’d heard before—and as her head snapped in the direction of that horrific scream, she said she saw the figure of a large black bear arise from the thicket above them. The bear was at least 6 ft tall, and, as she described, “He looked like King Kong.”
She said that the sound of that unearthly scream, along with the dark vision of that enormous bear, sent her mind into a full-blown panic. She knew Moon was getting savagely mauled, which shocked her to the core of her being. The first thing she said to Michael was, “Michael let’s go, let’s get out of here!” Michael responded, “I can’t, I’ve got to help Moon,” and then told her to run and get help.
Without a second thought, she said, “I started running faster than I’ve ever ran in my life.” Fortunately, decades of regular walking, jogging, and hiking had left Linda, 70 years young, with a youthful appearance and a strong body that wouldn’t fail her this day.
As she sprinted away from danger, she heard Michael’s voice in the distance. “I’m going to try to help Moon, then I’m going the other way home. I’ll meet you there.”
At the end of this semi-steep downhill section of trail, right before it emerges onto the road, is an extremely steep and dangerous set of handmade rock stairs that the locals call The Cat Stairs. When Linda reached these shifty stairs, mind still in a panic, she said, “I flew down those cat stairs,” although she added later that she had no memory of going down them.
Breathing heavily and out of her mind with fear for Moon, Linda ran wildly in the direction of the interstate. In her panicked state, she said at one point she was actually considering running up the exit ramp and flagging down a car from the interstate. But when she saw a truck ahead approaching from under the bridge, Linda decided to run to it instead.
As Linda approached the truck, she told me, “It was like Providence.” The woman in it just happened to be Robin Ballard, known around here as the Possum Lady, a wildlife rehabilitator who focuses mainly on opossum rescues, and who, coincidentally, was on her way to visit Maria at Standing Bear.
After climbing into Ballard’s truck, Linda calmed down enough to explain what had happened as they drove up Green Corner Road to the hostel.
Michael’s Story: The Accidental Hero
It was Saturday morning, and Michael had just returned from a wearying four-hour round trip to Fontana—one of his most requested hiker shuttles. He was tired, hungry, and in no mood to go for a hike. However, he relented when Linda persuaded him with the promise of a good meal.
Because he was afraid of encountering other hikers, or possibly crossing paths with the bear some hikers had mentioned seeing in the area, he offered to take Maria’s dog, Houston, on a leash to better control him.
When they reached the section of trail where Moon dashed off into the thicket and he heard her blood-curdling scream, followed by the vision of that enormous bear rearing up on its hind legs, he said he had to struggle to hold Houston back.
While he was so amped up with adrenaline, Michael said he didn’t even give a second thought when he suddenly found his legs in motion, scrambling up the bank and around the thicket in the direction of the bear, who was still mauling Moon. While advancing on the bear, he remembers screaming for the dog, then watching the bear suddenly let go of its grasp on Moon, who instantly dashed away into the woods.
In hindsight, he realizes that moving toward an attacking bear was a foolish thing to do. In the heat of the moment, he said, “I simply acted without thinking.” However, this ended up being a good thing for Moon as it distracted the bear long enough to allow the dog to escape.
Right after Moon escaped, Michael said he remembers standing on that steep bank, trying to maintain his grip on Houston while he kept an eye on the bear. The bear immediately advanced on him, but then all at once,it stopped and reared up again, pressing its paws against a tree and doing pushup-like movements: a warning gesture. Even though he was 35 feet away from the bear, Michael wisely decided to slowly back away and take Houston in the direction of the hostel.
Robin’s Story: The Right Person, the Right Place, the Right Time
It was the Saturday of Trail Days, and Robin Ballard, a local wildlife rehabilitator with a soft spot for opossums, was on her way to Standing Bear Hostel to visit her longtime friend, Maria. It was around 4:30 in the afternoon, and as she exited the interstate, she saw Linda running up with a frightened look on her face. She said she rolled down the window and said, “You’re Linda, right?” Linda replied, “No, I’m Maria,” before getting a hold of herself and restating, “I’m Maria’s sister, Linda.”
Warning: Before you continue to scroll, please note that there are graphic images just ahead. Viewer discretion is advised.
“I could tell right away she was in shock and asked, ‘do you need a ride?'” Linda climbed in without hesitation. As they drove up the road, Linda explained what happened. As they neared the trailhead, they both kept an eye out for Moon, Michael, or the bear (not necessarily in that order).
When they arrived at the hostel, neither Moon nor Michael had gotten there yet. However, after about five tense minutes of waiting, they saw Moon run up, followed by Michael and Houston.
For Robin, seeing Moon approach was surreal. At first, the dog looked like she was wearing a bright red scarf or a cummerbund, but Robin’s keen eye for animals caused her to notice the furry flap of skin that was dragging the ground. Linda, still in a hysterical state of mind, saw Moon running up, laughed, and said, “She’s not hurt, she’s just wearing a little red vest!” Soberly, Robin turned to Linda and said, “That’s not a vest, that’s blood”!
“The weird part is that it wasn’t bleeding,” Robin recalled. She marveled at “how clean the cut was; that it wasn’t serrated.” She had no idea that a bear’s claws could be sharp enough to cut that cleanly.
Once she realized just how serious the injury was, Robin was pretty shaken up and had to fight down her nerves, focus on her training, and concentrate on how to save the dog. “I had to get my shit together and focus on my training.” Fortunately for Moon, Robin has a lot of experience dealing with wildlife injuries, which aided in her assessment.
As she began to focus on the situation, Robin said everything just started to fall in place. She quickly reached out and grabbed Moon as she ran up, while a hiker staying at the hostel, who just happened to be a dog trainer, helped calm the dog. Robin said she pulled the loose skin back around the dog’s body to close the area of exposed flesh, but she desperately needed some clean gauze to hold it all together and asked if there was any gauze in the hostel.
Nobody in the hostel knew where to find gauze, but McKenzie, Maria’s daughter who was visiting from college, sprang into action and went looking for some. Unable to find any downstairs, as a last-ditch effort, she climbed the ladder going into the attic, and just as she cleared the hatch, McKenzie laid eyes on a brand-new roll of gauze!
Meanwhile, Robin knew she was up against the clock: if the skin dried up, they might not be able to save it. Robin set Moon down on a clean towel while she examined and evaluated the wound. The claw marks came down the back and split into a V, opening up into a flap. When she got the gauze, she pulled up the flap and had Michael hold it tightly together while she started rounding the roll of gauze around Moon’s torso to keep the loose skin in place. It took the entire roll of gauze to wrap the wound. After that, she went to the bunkhouse and grabbed a clean sheet to wrap over the gauze to help hold it all tightly in place, then put her in her car and drove 22 miles down the road to Newport to rendezvous with the dog’s owner, who had previously left work 50 miles away in Sevierville as soon as she heard the news about her dog.
When Robin got to Newport, the owner, Vairame, scooped up her dog and rushed it to the emergency vet in nearby Morristown, TN, where they had to put 56 staples in. After an overnight stay, Moon came home to heal.
The good part of this story is that Moon has since healed from her wounds and seems to have made a good recovery. No doubt she will always feel a little pain from her injuries, but she is alive, and happy, and enjoying life.
In one way or another, everyone involved in this incident has learned a valuable lesson from the experience.
Michael learned that an adult male bear is a powerful and dangerous creature, easily capable of inflicting maximum damage on anything or anyone it comes in contact with and that approaching one is a dangerous thing to do. Unfortunately, after all this stress, Michael was so shaken up, he was sick to his stomach and didn’t feel like eating his beef and bean nacho.*
Moon’s owner learned the hard lesson about being a responsible pet owner because she had to pay $700 just for the emergency vet visit, as well as more money for a few other follow-up visits with her local veterinarian, where they had to redo some of Moon’s stitches.
Through this incident, Maria has learned the importance of first aid and has gathered a collection of gauze, bandages, disinfectant, and other first aid supplies to help Standing Bear Hostel better handle injuries in the future.
Linda has since returned to Michigan (where there are also bears!) and gotten over the trauma of that day while learning a valuable lesson about the importance of keeping ALL dogs on a leash at all times while on the Appalachian Trail. She also learned something important about herself: though she was seized by panic, she didn’t freeze, nor did she fall apart. Instead, she transformed her fear into conscious, deliberate action that helped speed the process of saving a life of a special friend.
The bear at the heart of this story seems to have moved on, and no sightings have been reported by anyone hiking in the area since this incident.
*Note: Michael finally got hungry an hour later and did, in fact, eat that beef and bean nacho!
Featured image composite: (Left to right) Linda Guzman (courtesy of Linda Guzman), Michael Cueller (courtesy of Arnold Guzman), and Robin Ballard (courtesy of Arnold Guzman).
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