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Hiker Attacked by Grizzly Says He Only Survived Because the Sow Bit His Bear Spray Canister

Shayne Burke is a disabled combat veteran who’s been shot at, mortared, and bloodied in battle. But he says the most violent thing he’s ever experienced was being attacked by a grizzly bear in Grand Teton National Park on May 19. Burke was badly wounded in the attack, and he says he likely would have been killed if not for the canister of bear spray he held in his hand, which blew up in the bear’s mouth when it tried biting him in the neck. Burke was released from a hospital in Jackson on Monday, and he’s expected to make a full recovery, according to the National Park Service. (Warning: This story contains graphic images.)

Two days before his release from the hospital, Burke took to Instagram to share a detailed account of what happened that day on Signal Mountain. He thanked his wife and the search-and-rescue professionals who assisted him, and he emphasized the importance of being prepared and knowing how to respond in the case of a grizzly attack.

“The number one thing that kept me alive during the attack was reading and understanding what to do in the event of a bear attack and being prepared with the bear spray,” Burke writes in the Instagram post. “Though I am not sure if I got to spray any at the bear, having it on me and keeping it in my hands while protecting my vitals 100% is the only reason I am telling my story now.”

The 35-year-old Massachusetts resident explains that he’d gone on a hike by himself up the Signal Mountain Trail in hopes of photographing a great gray owl. He’d told his wife he’d be back at his vehicle in an hour but stayed a little longer than planned, so he turned around and bushwhacked his way back to the parking lot following the GPS on his phone. He says he felt uncomfortable walking off trail, so he broke branches and sang to alert any animals to his presence.

As he walked through the thick woods and looked toward a slope on his right, he noticed a cub running up a slope “50-70 yards” in front of him. He then saw the cub’s mother already charging his way, so he unholstered the bear spray canister that was attached to his bino harness. He stood his ground and prepared to spray, but by the time he got the safety off, the grizzly had already closed the gap.

“When she pounced, I opted to turn and give her my back and I laid down in the prone position on my belly and braced for the ride, interlocking my hands behind my neck to protect my vitals,” Burke writes. “The first bite and slash was on my back [and] right shoulder.”

Burke shows the large gash he received in his right hand during the attack. Photos via Instagram

The sow continued her attack, biting into each of Burke’s legs, and then lifting him up and slamming him into the ground repeatedly. With the UDAP bear spray canister still clutched in one of his hands, a screaming Burke kept both hands interlocked behind his neck and head as the grizzly turned its attention from his legs to the back of his head.

“I believe she went in for a kill bite on my neck,” Burke writes. “As she bit my hands [on] the back of my neck, she simultaneously bit the bear spray can and it exploded in her mouth. This is what saved my life from the initial attack.”

After watching the bear run away, Burke limped downhill and sent a one-word text to his wife: “attacked.” When his wife called, he relayed what happened while he fashioned makeshift tourniquets using the straps from his backpack and fanny pack. Unable to walk any further on his damaged legs, he sat against a tree and gripped his knife while he waited for rescuers to arrive.

“In this moment, I accepted on that small hilltop that I very well could die,” Burke writes. “I recorded a short video telling my people that I loved them.”

Fortunately, Burke’s loved ones would never have to watch that video, and he was still alert and conscious by the time the first park ranger arrived in a helicopter. After being airlifted down to the parking lot, Burke was transported by ambulance to St. John’s Hospital in Jackson for treatment.

Looking back on the incident, Burke says he should have had his first-aid kit that day, but that he only carried a small daypack, fanny pack, and bino harness because it “was meant to be a short walk in the roadside woods.” And although he had kept his bear spray accessible on his bino harness, he says the importance of being able to draw a canister and deploy it quickly cannot be understated.

“A very important aspect is to practice taking the safety off. I did this but not enough,” Burke writes in a comment. “Being able to take it off and not have to look at the safety is paramount and could make all the difference.”

As for the grizzly sow, Burke says that one of the first things he asked park rangers was to please not kill the bear, which was only protecting its cubs. Park officials have since announced that no further “management action” is required for the bear, according to the New York Times.

“What happened up on Signal Mountain,” Burke writes, “was a case of wrong place wrong time.”


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