Wild bear cornered near UW, dies during capture

Maybe it was the sweet smell of garbage. The scent of a half-eaten apple or moldy cheese — the odor of cheap and easy food — might have set the young bear down the road.

Whatever enticed him to enter civilization, it ended badly for him early Sunday on a Seattle sidewalk.

There, just blocks from the college fraternity and sorority houses that dot the neighborhood north of the University of Washington, the male black bear died after leading more than two dozen Seattle police officers, state wildlife agents and university police on a wild chase through backyards, over fences and down driveways.

"This was not Winnie the Pooh looking for a way back to the three-acre wood," said veteran state Fish and Wildlife Sgt. Kim Chandler. "This was a 150-pound, wild black bear. And trying to find his way out of the U District, I guess. I don't think he even knew how he got there. I certainly don't."

It's also not clear what killed the bear.

No one shot the animal, at least with a bullet. Chandler believes it was the mixture of adrenaline, a tranquilizer dart and the electric shock of a police Taser used as officers tried to subdue the bear along Ravenna Boulevard.

"I think everyone was extremely disappointed at the particular outcome, that we weren't able to have the bear relocated. But our mission is safety, public safety," said Seattle police spokesman Sean Whitcomb. "A bear out in Seattle, it's just not a good combination."

It's not a common one, either. Chandler recalled a cougar getting caught in Discovery Park in the 1980s. But the 30-year veteran of Fish and Wildlife couldn't remember a bear in Seattle.

"You hear about bears in Issaquah; that's where they live. But this close into the city, you don't expect it," said Gary Jackson, who lives a half-block from where the bear was finally flushed out.

Bears in Seattle's outer suburbs aren't uncommon this time of year as they scavenge for springtime food in what once was their habitat, said Chandler. Last week, one bear was wounded and another captured at an apartment complex in the Issaquah Highlands. Police believe the Seattle bear is one spotted Friday in Shoreline.

The first sighting in the University District on Saturday morning couldn't be substantiated, said Whitcomb. Then, shortly before 10:30 p.m., the 911 calls started coming in.

What ensued was one part comedy, two parts anxiety-ridden chaos, as sightings reported from all over the neighborhood north of the university sent police dashing from one spot to the next. Seattle called out 26 officers in all, including the police SWAT team.

When Chandler arrived on the scene shortly after 11:30, the trail had gone cold. So he loaded up his tranquilizer gun and walked around the area where the bear was last seen, as college students filtered in and out of nearby frat houses.

Then someone spotted it in a backyard. Chandler walked down one side of the house and came face to muzzle with the bear, separated by about 5 feet, he said. The bear climbed over a fence into another yard and scooted under a deck. After a brief standoff, the bear shot out from another side of the deck, then turned and headed back toward Chandler.

Chandler got off a shot, hitting the bear in the shoulder with a tranquilizer dart. The bear immediately vaulted onto a fence and proceeded to speed across the tops of garages and fences, said Chandler.

"He wasn't out to eat everybody; he was just trying to get away," he said.

Eventually, the bear reached the backyard of a house on the corner of Ravenna Boulevard and Northeast 56th Street, a block with homes perched on a steep hillside shrouded in rhododendrons.

One Seattle police officer jolted the bear with a Taser, a gunlike device that delivers a paralyzing dose of electricity, said Chandler. But the effect wore off before Chandler could get another tranquilizer dart prepared. When the bear revived, he moved toward police officers, who came pouring off the hillside "like rats from a sinking ship," Chandler recalled. "It was really quite comical."

They corralled the bear on the sidewalk, where it received another blast from a Taser, and Chandler gave it a tranquilizer shot by hand. A few seconds later, he said, the bear stopped breathing.

Will Teal, a UW sophomore, watched the final scene from the porch of his house across the street. He saw the bear captured and then hauled away, but he didn't know it had died. The excitement was "one of the highlights of my night," he said.

Later Sunday, Chandler drove down a road east of Duvall in his pickup with the dead bear in the back. He hauled the body into the woods and left it there to let nature take its course.

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or wcornwall@seattletimes.com