Black Bear Bites “Cowboy Camper” in the Head

New Mexico rancher Dean Dommer estimates that he’s had over 100 peaceful black bear sightings in the last year on his property near Glorieta Pass in the Santa Fe National Forest.

He chalks it up to a recent wildfire in the area, the largest in state history, that burned over 340,000 acres and displaced swarms of wildlife about 40 miles east of his property. Those circumstances, combined with the pond and hummingbird feeders located right near his house, make Dommer’s 50-acre plot a sort of black bear paradise.

So when acquaintance Paul Georgoulis sprinted into Dommer’s house at 3:30 a.m. on Aug. 11 with a bloody gash across his head, Dommer thought he was dreaming. Georgoulis was shouting through the dripping mess that he’d been bitten by a bear while out “cowboy camping” on the ranch.

Georgoulis, 24, ended up sleeping on Dommer’s property after plans to drive from Santa Fe to Texas’ Palo Duro Canyon State Park fell through. He’d visited Dommer’s place a year prior and called to ask if he could spend the night again. Dommer welcomed him while warning that it was also bear season. He found a spot off the beaten “bear paths” that overlay the property for Georgoulis to lay his sleeping bag on. But after the two chatted late into the night, Georgoulis ended up sleeping in a different spot.

“I didn’t see where he camped until after the attack, but it turns out he ended up accidentally camping right on a bear trail,” Dommer says.

Georgoulis isn’t exactly unprepared to sleep outside. He used to work as a backcountry counselor at the Philmont Scout Ranch, the Boy Scouts of America’s biggest high adventure camp located in the Sangre de Cristo range in northeastern New Mexico. He sleeps outside frequently, but this was the first time a night of open-air camping ended in disaster.

“I could hear it sniffing like a dog, so I kind of froze up and didn’t do anything for a split second, and then it put its teeth around my head and started to bite,” Georgoulis told Outdoor Life. “All I could think was ‘well, I have two options right now: keep letting it do what it’s doing or scream as loud as you can.’ So I tried screaming and it let go of me. It did that lumbering walk away that bears do when they’re scared.”

Once the bear cleared the scene, Georgoulis made a break for Dommer’s house.

“He showed up at my door and he was obviously distraught and kind of bleeding profusely from the head,” Dommer says.

“It was like something out of the movie Deliverance,” Georgoulis chuckles. “I was in my underwear, bleeding like a stuck pig, screaming and running at this log cabin in the middle of nowhere.”

Dommer immediately went to retrieve Georgoulis’ belongings from the scene of the crime only to discover that the bear had dragged the sleeping bag away.

“But we had bigger fish to fry at that time, in terms of assessing the severity of the wound and determining whether he needed to go to the ER,” Dommer says. “We came to the conclusion that because it was a wild animal bite it would need to be cleaned. So we hurried to the ER and he got in pretty quickly.”

The results of the CT scan were miraculously negative. One good cleaning and 16 staples later, Georgoulis was ready for release. They went back to Glorieta, where Georgoulis waited for his mother to arrive from Dallas. Meanwhile, Dommer went back out to the improvised campsite to track down the sleeping bag.

A black bear bit the head of this camper.
The gash before (left) and after 16 staples. Georgoulis says he thinks the bear was mostly interested in his shampoo. Courtesy of Paul Georgoulis

“The bear had carted the empty sleeping bag down the hill and off into a little area where it could do a little deeper investigation into the smells it was smelling,” Dommer says. “I found the sleeping bag maybe 30 yards from the incident site.”

Geourgoulis says the New Mexico Department of Fish and Game reached out to him regarding the attack and that he was willing to provide information for statistical purposes, but that otherwise he and Dommer avoided reaching out to wildlife agents. Neither felt that the bear behaved in an overtly aggressive manner.

Their theory? It smelled Georgoulis’ shampoo wafting from under his Buff gaiter and decided the big lump on the ground was worth investigating. Georgoulis notes that the bear instantly darted when he opened his mouth. Dommer feels at peace with the bears that frequent his property.

‘I’ve always welcomed the wildlife,” Dommer says. “To me, they were here first.”

Cheryl Georgoulis remembers getting the call no mother ever wants to get.

“It was that dreaded phone call in the middle of the night,” she sighs. “To Paul’s credit, he started it off with ‘Mom, I’m okay.’ But then he followed it up with ‘I’ve been bitten in the head by a bear.’ It’s like hearing he was struck by lightning.”

Read Next: Are Grizzly Attacks Really on the Rise?

The staples have since been removed from Georgoulis’ scalp. Now the outdoorsman must figure out how to return to the woods without fear of bear encounters getting in his way.

“If someone were to ask me to go on a camping trip tomorrow, I’d absolutely say ‘yes.’ But I have yet to actually see how I behave in that environment,” Georgoulis says. “I was afraid to go to sleep on Thursday night. If I ever have a dog that wakes me up by sniffing in my ear, I have no clue how I’m going to react to that, given that I was afraid to go to sleep in a hotel room in inner city Santa Fe.”

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