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Bear attacks dog at feet of man in Evergreen Township

John Wacker looks out his kitchen window to where his dog, Toby, is buried in his backyard. Toby died due to injuries suffered in a fight with a bear about 250 yards into the woods. DL NEWSPAPERS/Brian Basham2 / 2

Toby the black Labrador retriever probably didn’t have to lay down his life the day he was chased by a big black bear, but if he hadn’t, a human member of his family might be dead now.

Toby, an 8-year-old, 95-pound black lab owned by John Wacker of Evergreen Township, was a friendly, smart dog.

He loved to sneak off and play with the neighbor kids a half-mile away.

And Wacker swears he could speak English, at least two words. “He could say ‘water’ and ‘hello.’ I taught him,” Wacker said with a laugh.

“Speak up,” he’d say to Toby, and the dog would get noticeably louder.

Toby wasn’t trained to hunt, but the first time he went out with one of Wacker’s sons, he swam out and retrieved several birds.

And after being told just once to leave them alone, Toby never bothered the sandhill cranes that nested near Wacker’s house about 11 miles east of Frazee.

“You don’t know how much I miss that dog,” the 67-year-old said.

Toby was killed by a black bear about 5 p.m. on May 21, close to his own backyard, after he accompanied Wacker’s son, Chris, 45, on a mushrooming expedition.

The two were only a few hundred yards from the house, after following a trail that led partially into a 25-acre woods and out again to an open meadow that is visible from the house.

“There’s lots of mushrooms there,” Wacker said. “Morels, we eat nothing but morels.”

Chris said he had gathered a respectable batch of mushrooms when the trouble started.

“I was getting them pretty good, I had a bagful,” he said. “Then I heard something in the woods in front of us. I thought it was a man, standing by a tree, looking at us.”

Then he noticed two bear cubs in another tree scooting up a little higher.

“At the same time, an adult male bear moved across one of our one-acre food plots; we have a couple of them,” he said. “I looked back and the one bear was still standing there.”

Then Toby came up, looked at Chris, and disappeared into the brush.

“A few minutes later, Toby was running back to me like a scared dog,” Chris said. “I thought, ‘oh, no…’”

The bear, which Chris estimated at about 300 pounds, was after the dog, and was moving at least 25 miles per hour, Chris said.

“Toby stopped when he got to me and turned and faced right into the bear, it actually overran him and just kind of caught him in the hind end,” Chris said.

Then it got really ugly, really fast.

Chris ended up on his butt, scrambling backwards about 10 yards as the bear savagely attacked the dog.

“Chris said he’d never seen anything so violent in his life,” Wacker said. “The bear took Toby and (smashed him from side to side) wham, wham, wham – it was sheer muscle and violence,” Wacker said.

Chris said he wasn’t even sure how he made it the 250 yards to the house.

“I’m not much of a running guy anymore,” he said. “I was just shot by the time I got to the house, I was seeing stars. I lost my hat, my mushrooms, my jacket – the next day I pulled a half-inch-long thorn out of my head… It was just Mother Nature at her cruelest, it was really something else.”

Wacker said Chris was shocked by the attack. “My son was really shaken. I’ve never seen him that shaken, and he’s been in the woods a lot,” he said.       

“The bear I’ve seen with the cubs is huge,” Wacker said. “I’ve seen her going across the road.”

He believes the same bear has been causing problems in the neighborhood for several years. It has raided his bird feeders and shed, may have killed a neighbor’s steer and was perhaps the reason a neighbor girl’s normally gentle horse threw her and bolted.

“This bear has become brazen, she’s aggressive, she would have killed Chris … Toby saved his life, I’m convinced of that,” he said.

Chris himself is not so certain.

“I’m pretty sure the bear didn’t have any interest in me,” he said. “We just got in the wrong situation, with the cubs and a male bear and a female bear, it was not a good place for a dog, especially a big black one.”

Still, he hasn’t gone back to retrieve his hat, and nobody has gone out mushrooming since the attack.

“I’m staying out of the woods,” Chris said. “She’s probably still out there.”

Wacker said the DNR gave him the OK to shoot the bear if it resurfaces on his property.

Toby made it home about 10 minutes after the attack.

“He took a real ass-kicking, he was in tough shape,” Wacker said.

He said Toby had claw injuries 4 to 6 inches deep, and bite marks on a shoulder.

“The bear evidently knocked him out and was dragging him to her lair or whatever,” he added.

“I should have put him down. I was brought up that way on the farm, but because of what he did to save Chris, Toby just needed to have a chance,” he said.

So they loaded Toby up and took him to the closest veterinarian, Dr. Randall Lindemann.

“I didn’t know him, but by 11 p.m. that night, I had a whole lot of respect for him. He did everything he could to save Toby’s life,” Wacker said.

The dog was there from Wednesday night to Saturday evening, when he was brought home.

“He was drinking, but not eating,” Wacker said. “On Sunday evening, he took a turn for the worse.”

On Monday, Wacker had to work. He drives bus for the Frazee-Vergas School District and had to transport students for Memorial Day services.

When he got home, he said, “I could tell Toby was going downhill. Every time he drank water, he was throwing up white foam. The vet dropped everything and met me at the clinic, on Memorial Day, too.”

Toby was put on an IV and given fluids to re-hydrate him and was kept at the vet’s overnight.

“I told my wife, I don’t think Toby’s gonna make it,” Wacker said. “I could tell the spirit and life was going out of him when I left.”

He died the next morning.

The Wackers buried him in the backyard. John says he plans to put a concrete marker over the grave that reads; “Here lies Toby, the dog who saved my son.”