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Unbearable behavior 

Woman's wildlife encounter summons the worst of Colorado Springs

click to enlarge While revisiting the location of her run-in with a black bear, Ashley Swendsen points to a paw print in the mud. - ANTHONY LANE
  • Anthony Lane
  • While revisiting the location of her run-in with a black bear, Ashley Swendsen points to a paw print in the mud.

Three days after she became famous, Ashley Swendsen tried to get back to what she loves, performing with a blues band at a Manitou Springs community fair.

But recent events caught up with the 26-year-old before she took the stage, when a dog tried to get it on with her foot.

"Hey look, it's Ashley!" she remembers a man yelling. "Watch out, or she'll have your dog shot!"

Swendsen, of course, is the pregnant woman who ran from a bear in the heart of Colorado Springs on April 23, only to be hit by a car. Though she escaped with bruises, she could easily have been killed, making "I hope you're OK!" seem like a reasonable thing to tell her.

Instead, Swendsen has endured ridicule, scorn and hatred since her ordeal was distorted by quick-hit news reporters and tossed around by Web chatterers, many of whom blame her for wildlife officials killing the bear.

"I think she feels guilty for getting this bear killed by lying to the cops that he was chasing her," wrote one anonymous poster on KKTV 11 News' Web site. "I hope she sleeps well at night knowing that her actions cost an innocent Animal his Life."

Others have quipped that Swendsen should have been euthanized, or that the woman who drove into her should have backed up and hit her again to "save the world from one more idiot out there."

The threats and hate mail sent to Swendsen's MySpace page got so bad that she and her fiancé sought refuge in a hotel room the first couple nights.

"Luckily," she notes, "I deleted my Facebook page."

Fast notoriety

Swendsen, whose mother worked for the Independent's sales team years ago, has not been shy talking about what happened. She's appeared on local TV stations and even accepted a trip to New York with her fiancé to appear Wednesday morning on NBC's Today show. Yet the Gazette somehow churned out two sensational stories without so much as calling Swendsen, browbeating her in its April 25 piece like she was some party girl who'd just accused a small-town football hero of attempted rape.

"A day after the Colorado Division of Wildlife put down a bear that reportedly chased a pregnant woman, public sentiment appeared to be backing the bear," the article begins, before going on to refer to the "alleged" chase. It presents the views of a woman who doubts Swendsen's story and who mourns the death of the bear, which apparently was known to enjoy birdseed in her back yard.

Such adorable behavior, actually, constitutes a big part of the problem. The Division of Wildlife typically can tag and relocate bears once, but this one seemed so comfortable around people when officers found it in another back yard that they decided it wouldn't adapt well to the wild again.

Swendsen notes the irony. But Monday afternoon, she's most interested in clearing away some of the garbage that's flowed since her story went global. Some critics have suggested she was in the Rocky Mountains communing with nature, and so should have been ready for a bear encounter. Others have said she goaded the bear on by panicking when she saw it. Maybe she even made up the whole story.

Back at the scene

From a pullout next to Vincent Drive, Swendsen and her fiancé, Jesse Daly, amble down a steep, crumbling trail to a paved footpath alongside Cottonwood Creek. Trees abound, but trash rims the trail and clogs the creek. In about two-tenths of a mile, the trail drops under Interstate 25 and joins up with the Pikes Peak Greenway.

Coming back from her walk that morning, Swendsen says, she turned onto Cottonwood Trail and spotted the bear rummaging through some trash.

Conventional wisdom says you're supposed to face the bear and back away while speaking soothingly. But with the creek on one side and a cement wall on the other, Swendsen's only possible exit was along Cottonwood Trail to Vincent Drive. Plus, noise from the highway and the river would have drowned her voice out. So Swendsen decided to keep walking as calmly as she could.

"What the hell else was I going to do?" she asks.

The bear started following her from about 10 feet away. Daly measures 277 feet to the point where Swendsen remembers the bear shifting to a gentle gallop. She ran the next 300 feet before the bear slowed. Swendsen continued along the path and up the hill to Vincent Drive.

From the far side of Vincent's narrow bridge, Swendsen's apartment was only a few hundred yards away. She waited for a gap and then hurried across, finding herself moments later on the hood of an elderly woman's car.

"I'm being chased by a bear," Swendsen said.

The woman, apparently unimpressed, took off after explaining she'd been good enough to slow down. (Police report they have identified the driver, though they have not yet announced whether she'll face charges.)

The most distressing part of the ordeal, Swendsen says, is that neither the driver nor three others backed up behind her stuck around to see if she was OK.

Swendsen reserves little frustration for the bear itself. She is planning to honor it with a song and by making "Little Bear" her child's middle name.

lane@csindy.com

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