Woman who survived mauling will take on New Mexico law that required bear be killed

Karen Williams said she feels obligated to push for a change to the New Mexico law that requires wild animals that attack humans be put down. Staci Matlock/The New Mexican

Karen Williams wants to change the regulation that forced the state of New Mexico to kill the bear that almost killed her.

“I’m obligated to do something,” said Williams, a trauma nurse and triathlete from Los Alamos, who became internationally known when New Mexico wildlife officers tracked down and killed the black bear on June 19. A day before, the mother bear had attacked Williams during a marathon in the Valles Caldera National Preserve.

Williams, 53, said it was wrong for the state to kill a bear that acted on its protective instinct. Williams and many others around the country said the bear was defending its two cubs in a wilderness area, not stalking her.

Now Williams wants protections for wild animals caught in similar circumstances.

“I’m probably the only person who can spearhead [a change] because of the momentum, because of the press,” she said.

A 1979 New Mexico regulation requires the state to kill any wild animal that attacks a human. Then the fallen animal is tested for rabies, a disease that is rare in bears. During more than two decades, the New Mexico Department of Health has not found rabies in a single bear.

Similar mandatory kill policies of wild animals that attack humans are in place in Arizona, Utah and Colorado.

But there are other ways. Many states on the East Coast allow wildlife officers to consider the circumstances that led to an attack when deciding whether a bear should live or die. And managers of Yellowstone National Park won’t kill a bear unless it is preying or feeding on a human.

During a run Monday morning through stands of ponderosa pines in a sun-lit canyon near her home, Williams said New Mexico’s regulation is unnecessarily strict. When people enter the wilderness, she said, they assume responsibility for their safety, or they ought to.

Williams ran less than 4 miles, and she was slower than usual because she is still recovering, having lost blood when the mother bear slashed and bit her. The attack is still on her mind, but she says it won’t make her less active.

“I got to get out, and I can’t allow fear to dictate my life,” she said. “You can’t live like that. You don’t have a quality of life that way.”

Before she became the subject of headlines, Williams hadn’t thought much about New Mexico’s role in managing wildlife. But now she plans to attend a Water and Natural Resources Committee meeting in Alamogordo on July 14-15 to petition its members for a change in the regulation.

The committee’s chairwoman, state Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell, told The New Mexican last week that she would consider a change. In an email to her, Williams offered alternatives.

Instead of killing a wild animal that attacks a person to test its brain for rabies, Williams proposed offering vaccines to the person. This would be expensive, though. She received one shot for rabies at no cost before wildlife employees determined that the bear was not rabid.

But had Williams needed four follow-up shots, they would have cost her $1,000, and her insurance wouldn’t have covered the expense.

She said the state could consider paying the cost for people who don’t have the money.

Williams emailed a letter to Gov. Susana Martinez’s office on Friday protesting the current regulation on mandatory killing of wildlife that attacks humans. She said she hadn’t received a response.

But she is picking up support from other high-ranking New Mexico officials.

State Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said New Mexico should re-examine its rigid law on killing bears that attack humans.

“It strikes me as something we should look at. I don’t know that there’s a scientific reason to make it mandatory,” said Egolf, the House minority leader.

A reasonable first step is to review the regulation with the staff responsible for wildlife management in New Mexico, he said. “We have a lot of good professionals that work for the Game and Fish Department, and I’m eager to hear what those folks think,” Egolf said.

He said the timing for reconsideration of the regulation might be right, given that Ezzell, a rancher and former veterinarian, also has expressed an interest in exploring whether a change is in order.

Dr. Kathleen Ramsay, a veterinarian, said in an interview last week that changes in the law are unlikely. One reason is that New Mexico has many problems that would be higher on the priority list than saving wild animals, she said.

Ramsay, now caring for the two cubs of the black bear that attacked Williams, spent 11 years on the state Board of Veterinary Medicine. Trying to make any change in the state was a “nightmare,” she said, “never mind changes in law.”

Still, she said, wildlife officers should have had discretion to consider the circumstances of the bear’s attack on Williams. It was obvious the bear was only defending its cubs, Ramsay said.

But was killing the bear the right call?

“It’s the only call,” she said. “Because it’s our law.”

Dan Schwartz can be reached at 505-428-7626 or dschwartz@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @NMDanSchwartz.

This story has been clarified to state that a New Mexico regulation requires officers to kill wild animals when they attack humans.

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