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Minn. man recounts how he saved his dog from black bear

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William Vagts of Isabella re-enacts the moment when he got down on one knee and grabbed the bear around the neck moments before it would have eaten his corgie Darla. Darla (far left) watches warily from the steps Wednesday afternoon. Bob King / Forum News Service2 / 5
William Vagts, his wife Gail and their corgie Darla relax at home Wednesday afternoon as they recount the story of William's encounter with the bear. Bob King / Forum News Service3 / 5
Darla, a corgie, looks sheepishly for a moment from the front porch. The dog received three puncture wounds on its backside from the bear. Bob King / Forum News Service4 / 5
William Vagts says he now has a special bond to his corgie Darla after she was attacked by the bear and he came to her rescue. Bob King / Forum News Service5 / 5

ISABELLA, Minn.—Seeing his dog pinned to the ground in a black bear's jaw, William Vagts ran to the bear, threw his arms around its neck and tried to pull the bear backwards.

"I didn't even think. I just reacted. ... I just held him for just a few seconds, which is a long time to hold a bear by the neck," Vagts, 68, said as he kneeled in the snow and circled his arms to re-enact what took place in his front yard on Tuesday morning.

Letting go of Vagts' 2-year-old corgi Darla, the bear turned around to bite Vagts in the abdomen before fleeing from the yard. The entire encounter with the bear was over in a minute, he said.

A day after the bear attacked Vagts and two other men on McDougal Lake, west of Isabella in northeast Minnesota, Vagts had a couple puncture wounds more than an inch deep. He has three more rounds of rabies shots, but he said he's doing OK. Darla has several spots of shaved fur around puncture wounds and bruising around her midsection where the bear had a "pretty good clamp on her with his jaws," Vagts said. Darla is normally a happy-go-lucky, social dog, but since the attack, she has become skittish and hides under tables and chairs.

"She's just a great dog and she's got such personality, I hope it doesn't traumatize her too much," Vagts said.

Bear tracks could still be seen in the snow in Vagts' yard on Wednesday, heading in the direction of a garage under construction nearby where the bear encountered two building contractors. The bear charged at Gary Jerich, 54, and then attacked Daniel Boedeker, 58. Authorities responded to Boedeker's 911 call shortly before 11 a.m. Tuesday and killed the bear due to its aggressive behavior.

Cheri Zeppelin, an information specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said they determined that the bear was "a younger male" and are still investigating what took place on Tuesday. Previous reports had described the bear as female.

It's unclear whether the bear had emerged from hibernation or hadn't yet begun hibernating, she said. The bear was sent to the University of Minnesota on Wednesday for a necropsy, the results of which are expected in the next two weeks.

"This is highly unusual behavior for a wild animal that generally avoids contact with people," Zeppelin said.

Having spent his life enjoying the outdoors, Vagts said he has never had a fear of black bears. On Tuesday, the bear was so determined to kill Darla that William said he believes it was starving. He added that he was surprised to see a bear in his yard this time of year.

"It's life in the woods. You don't expect this, but you're always aware. ... You always have to respect that they're out there," he said.

William and his wife Gail Vagts have always had dogs and consider them part of their family. He said protecting Darla was a reflex.

"The bear was right on top of her and I could see her eyes, they were like saucers. If I had waited even two seconds longer before I ran there, she would have been ripped open. He had her in his jaws. Isn't that right?" he said to Darla.

William brought Darla outside with him when he went out to brush fresh snow off the front steps. He opened the fence gate to let her into the driveway, where his SUV was parked. The bear was likely on the other side of the car because he didn't see it when he let Darla out, he said. Darla ran by him back through the open gate and that's when he saw the bear, running past him into the fenced-in yard after Darla.

"The bear is totally focused on the dog and killing the dog and eating the dog. In about two seconds, the bear had her on her back," he said.

William noted that it was reported that he had jumped on the bear's back. He said he was behind the bear when he grabbed its neck, but didn't actually jump onto the bear.

"I didn't even think. There was no time. Two seconds longer and she would have been killed," Vagts said.

The bear let Darla go when Vagts grabbed its neck, but was still focused on Darla. She ran off to a corner of the yard and started barking at it. His arms still around the bear's neck, he yelled at Darla to go up on the porch, he said.

Then the bear realized that Vagts was holding on to its neck. That's when it turned and bit Vagts in the abdomen. He released the bear's neck and ran after Darla to get her onto the front porch. When he turned around again, the bear was gone.

He didn't call 911 or think much about the encounter because bears regularly frequent the property — a bear once put its paw through the screen on the open kitchen window. When the bear bit him, he thought it was "just a nip or something."

His wife Gail was in the basement, unaware of anything going on in the yard. She heard Darla barking, which wasn't odd, but Darla's barking continued longer than usual. When Gail came upstairs to see what was going on, she saw William standing at the kitchen sink, washing off the puncture wounds, his bloody jacket laying nearby.

"I go 'What on Earth happened?' And Bill just turned to me and said, 'I just wrestled a bear,' " Gail said, adding that she was shocked.

Gail insisted that he go to the doctor and William insisted that he would be fine going by himself. Taking Darla with him, he drove the 30 miles to Ely to drop Darla off at the veterinarian while he was treated. Unaware of what happened to the contractors two houses away, Gail saw a conservation officer walk past the window tracking the bear through their yard and thought law enforcement had been alerted when William went to the doctor.

"I go outside and I just said, 'Oh, are you here because my husband got bit by a bear?' And they go, 'You're husband got attacked too?' " she said. She added that she felt bad because the contractor's injuries were worse than William's bite.

William said he has been on the phone a lot with their friends who think that he nearly died. Gail pointed out, "Well, I think maybe you did, honey," to which William responded that it could have been worse.

"With a split second of something else happening, it could have been really bad, but it wasn't," Gail said. William, alluding to the bear's attack on the contractors, concluded, "He could have turned on me. He obviously turned on them."

William said he didn't get a lot of sleep Tuesday night, mulling over the events that unfolded that morning.

"In hindsight, now I look back, I think when I had him down like that and I was holding him, he could have so easily bit higher," he said, motioning to his neck. "Then when I was running after the dog afterwards, after I released him, he could have chased me down. In light of what he did over at the neighbor's, it could have been different. But fortunately, we're all OK."