The distance between puncture wounds. The pattern of the scratches. The hair. The blood spatters. The drag marks. The maggots.
All of these clues and many more can go into the often fascinating but also gruesome investigation of an animal attack on a human being, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks game warden and Region 1 Wildlife Human Attack and Response Team leader Brian Sommers said last week.
Sommers has been a game warden with the department for 34 years and has been a criminal investigator since 2006, investigating hundreds of animal attacks on humans over the span of his career.
Sommers doesn’t work alone — if a person is attacked, an entire team of experts will respond, including a wildlife specialist, trackers, evidence collectors, a victim liaison and security to keep the media and the public away from the scene while the investigation is underway.
If the attack is a fatality, the Sheriff Department and coroner’s office will respond first and remove the victim. The team then goes in to try to sort out what happened. If the victim survives, and many do, the team is the lead on the investigation.
“We treat it like a crime scene,” Sommers told a packed room at the Central School Museum last week as part of the Glacier National Park Volunteer Associates winter speaker series. Sommers said attending to the victim is the first priority.
“The minute you find your victim everything stops,” Sommers said. “We always want to take care of our victims first ... We never leave a victim alone”
Sommers noted that in one case in another state, wardens were so intent on killing a black bear, that they walked right by the little girl that it attacked.
A liaison will stay with the victim, get them medical care and later interview them in the hospital. Some victims remember every facet of an attack, others almost nothing, he said.
Animal attacks are often bloody and gruesome affairs. People usually have deep puncture wounds, horrible lacerations and sometimes body parts missing. Black bears and mountain lions will often attack the head of a person.
“A black bear with enough time will pop the head off (a person),” Sommers said. “Sometimes you can’t find it again.”
The crime scenes can be huge — upwards of three-quarters of a mile long if someone has been grabbed by a bear and dragged through the woods. In one case, a 180-pound mountain lion dragged a person more than 200 feet, he noted.
Outside of surprise attacks, animals will often give a victim a warning. When a bear feels threatened, for example, will often hunch its back, lower its head, clack its teeth and drool. Those are all signs to give it space — and quickly.
People often cause their own problems by feeding bears and other wildlife.
“We have tons of problems with (people) feeding bears,” he said.
Fed bears will often attack people looking for food.
In a surprise attack, the standard wisdom is to play dead and Sommers said that bears out — people who resist less usually fare better than those that try to fight back. Even in predatory attacks, where the advice for years has been to fight back, Sommers said the victims that don’t often have less severe injuries.
Not all cases are actually attacks. In the course of his career, Sommers said he’s investigated six cases that ended up being suicides. In another case, a man sat down, put his hat and glasses on the ground and had a heart attack. Then a bear chewed him up. Another guy in a southern state claimed he’d been attacked by a black bear. Turned out the guy used a garden rake on himself to great and bloody effect. Problem was the wounds didn’t match any animal Sommers had ever known.
Sommers also teaches classes on animal attacks across the country to other departments and they often send him photos of their cases if they can’t figure it out.
The work at the scene is meticulous. The team takes hundreds of photos, draws sketches, and has been known to spend hours crawling on the ground examining blood spatters and looking for hair and other clues.
If they find and kill the suspected animal, it will go through a necropsy. The stomach contents often have great evidence, as do the size and shape of the teeth and mouth. A bear skull, for example, can be matched to wounds on a victim.
Unlike popular crime scene investigation shows on TV, Sommers said the cases aren’t cracked in an hour. DNA analysis can take months.
The investigation methods are also used for poaching cases. FWP, for example, has an entire library of tissue samples from animals that have been found headless.
A couple of big poaching cases have been cracked over the years because the poachers had the trophies mounted and wardens were able to match the DNA from the mounts with the headless carcasses.
Social media also comes in handy. Sommers estimates investigators subpoena Facebook 30 to 50 times a year. Poachers like to pose with their trophies and post it on social media, taken illegally or not.