BY JANET CAGGIANO
TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER
Feb 28, 2006
|<IMG height=250 alt="The boy bitten by a Maymont Park bear expressed his regret with a note and drawing. (His name is hidden to protect his identity.)|
JOE MAHONEY/TIMES-DISPATCH” src=”http://www.timesdispatch.com/servlet/Satellite?blobcol=urlmainpicture&blobheader=image/jpeg&blobkey=id&blobtable=MGImage&blobwhere=1137834400620&ssbinary=true” width=164 border=1>
The mother of a boy bitten by a bear at Maymont said yesterday that she assured health officials that she was willing for her child to undergo rabies shots.
“I didn’t want anything to happen to the bears. That was first and foremost,” said Julia, a 30-year-old single mother of the 4-year-old. “We had decided to go ahead and do the rabies treatment.”
But when she called city health officials on Thursday to tell them of her decision, they informed her that the two male black bears, ages 9 and 12, had been killed an hour or two before.
Mark Holmberg column:
Mark Holmberg column:
BEAR MEMORIAL FUND
To contribute: Donations may be made at the Maymont Nature Center, online at www.maymont.org or by sending a check to the Maymont Foundation, 1700 Hampton St., Richmond, VA 23220
“When they told me, I cried,” Julia said. “I was devastated.”
While local officials maintain that euthanization was the only option, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta confirmed yesterday that it offered two — euthanize the bears or treat the child for rabies. City health officials did not return phone calls yesterday to discuss the second option.
Julia, who agreed to an interview with The Times-Dispatch on the condition that only her first name be used, denied that she helped her son feed the bears when the two visited the park on Feb. 18. They were sharing an apple while walking behind the 2-acre bear habitat about 3 p.m., she said, when she turned her head for a few seconds.
When she turned back around, her son had cleared the habitat’s preliminary barrier, a 4-foot wooden slat fence, and was standing outside the 10-foot chain-link fence, she said. One of the bears was sitting just on the other side.
“The bear was sitting there quiet and calm,” Julia said. “The bear was not acting aggressive in any way.”
Before Julia could reach her child, she said, he had put his right hand through the fence and was bitten.
“He was reaching in to pet the bear,” said Julia, who visits Maymont with her son weekly. “I jumped over the fence and grabbed him as he was pulling his hand out. He said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry.'”
His hand was bleeding, Julia said, so she took off one of her two shirts and used it as a bandage. She carried him to her truck and drove him immediately to St. Mary’s Hospital.
Doctors there cleaned out the single puncture wound and treated it with antibiotics. She said she doesn’t remember anyone there mentioning treating him for rabies.
“I’m sure they did, but I don’t recall,” she said. “I was worried about what was going on with my son.”
When she got home about 8 p.m., she noticed a message on her cell phone from the city health department. She called back but did not reach anyone.
Monday was the Presidents Day holiday. She and health officials didn’t talk until Tuesday, and the first time the rabies treatment process was explained to her was on Wednesday, she said.
Officials also told her that in order to test the bears for the disease, they would have to be euthanized. There is no rabies test that can be administered to live animals.
On Thursday, officials from Maymont, the Virginia Department of Health, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries met to determine the fate of the bears. Julia said she called the city health department that day to tell them she wanted her son to undergo the rabies treatment.
SATURDAY, FEB. 18:
3:30 p.m.: A 4-year-old boy is bitten by one of Maymont’s black bears. 3:30-4 p.m.: His mother arrives at St. Mary’s Hospital with her son, who is treated for single puncture wound. 8 p.m. The mother arrives home and hears a message from the city’s health department but does not receive an answer when she returns the call.
MONDAY, FEB. 20: Presidents Day holiday.
TUESDAY, FEB. 21: The city health department makes contact with the mother, confirms the incident and contacts the state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. 4:30 p.m. Maymont is notified of the incident.
WEDNESDAY: The city health department contacts the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, which offers two options — euthanize the bears or administer rabies shots to child. City health officials discuss the rabies-prevention process with the mother, she says.
THURSDAY: 9 a.m.: Fourteen people from Maymont, Game and Inland Fisheries and the health department meet for nearly three hours. Noon: The bears are euthanized. 1 or 2 p.m.: The mother says she calls the city health department to tell them she wants her son to get rabies shots.
FRIDAY: 10 a.m. Test results show the bears did not have rabies.
“I called around lunchtime,” she said. “They told me the bears had already been euthanized.”
Euthanizing the bears was the only definitive way to know if the child was exposed to rabies, said Julia Dixon, spokeswoman for Game and Inland Fisheries.
“It was not the mother’s call,” Dixon said yesterday. “The professionals around the room consulted together. It was our call. We had to go with what was best for the child.”
Julia, a trainer at an area collection service, hasn’t been watching or reading the local news reports about the bears. But she is aware that many people are demanding justice. The Times-Dispatch has received hundreds of calls and e-mails from readers.
“I’m aware of the outcry,” she said. “It’s normal. It’s what people should do for anything they are passionate about.”
But she draws the line at people calling her an unfit mother. When she heard last week that Richmond Mayor L. Douglas Wilder called for an investigation into the incident and into whether she was negligent, she hired an attorney.
“This was an accident,” said Michael Morchower, Julia’s lawyer. “Everyone has to live with it and accept it and not point fingers. If this is negligence on her part, then 80 percent of mothers and fathers in Richmond better take notice.”
Julia, who grew up in Richmond, has visited Maymont since she was a child. People who think she has any intention of suing the park are wrong, she said. She places no blame on Maymont for her son’s minor injury and doesn’t think the nonprofit organization should change its fencing strategy.
“Maymont needs what’s been working for 25 years,” she said. “And that’s exactly what it has now. I don’t see this as Maymont’s fault or my fault. It was an accident.”
She plans to continue her visits to Maymont with her son, an only child, and looks forward to the day the park has more bears. The child knows the two they visited 10 days ago are now dead.
“He’s devastated,” Julia said. “But he had a right to know.”
He understands he should not have climbed the fence, she said, and has made an “I am sorry” card for the bears. Drawn in crayon, it sits on a bookshelf in his bedroom.
“We are brokenhearted,” Julia said. “My feelings are no different than what other people are going through. We are all mourning. We all want the bears back.”
Contact staff writer Janet Caggiano at firstname.lastname@example.org or (804) 649-6157.