- The Washington Times - Monday, June 9, 2003

At the close of a school year marked by sniper-prompted lockdowns and biochemical weapons drills, the announcement at James Madison High School in Vienna yesterday directing students to remain calm and make their way indoors was not considered unusual. Even if the cause was.

School Principal Mark A. Merrell took to the public address system at the end of the lunch period about noon yesterday to notify students a bear was on the loose in the vicinity.

“I think a number of students thought it was a senior prank,” Mr. Merrell said. “I’ve been in education for 20 years, and it might be the most bizarre incident I’ve been around.”

Fairfax County police said an 80-pound black bear wandered to within 20 yards of the school yesterday before fleeing into a neighborhood.

“We’ve got drills for everything, I’ve got to admit, but we didn’t have a bear drill,” Mr. Merrell said.

After making the announcement to students, Mr. Merrell said he went outside and caught sight of the bear as it wandered up a road bordered by two 8-foot-high fences that leads to the high school.

“At first I thought it was a big dog,” Mr. Merrell said. “I’m thinking, ‘The bear’s got no place to go.’” But without warning, it scaled one of the 8-foot chain-link fences and ran toward an apartment complex adjacent to the school.

Police caught up to the bear in a homeowner’s back yard, tranquilized it, and took it away on a stretcher.

“It was tranquilized because it was very close to traffic,” said Lt. Amy Lubas, a spokeswoman for the Fairfax County Police Department. “We were very concerned that the bear might be hit by a car or something.”

Earl Hodnett, a county police wildlife biologist, said that the population of black bears statewide has been growing during the past few years and that bear sightings are becoming more common, even in more urban areas of Fairfax County.

“It is becoming less unusual,” Mr. Hodnett said. “This is the part of the year when bears normally disperse and look for new territory.”

He estimated six black bears have taken up residence in the county.

“They’re not passing through,” he said. “They live here.”

He said the best thing to do if a person sees a bear is to call the police, but that it is unlikely the bears pose any threat.

“Just seeing a bear isn’t necessarily a problem,” Mr. Hodnett said. “The bear itself is not really a threat to public safety.”

He said that there are no recorded incidents of a black bear attacking a person in Virginia and that the bear yesterday would have posed more of a danger if it had wandered into traffic.

Mr. Hodnett said the bear will be transferred to the custody of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Jerry Sims, a regional wildlife biologist for the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, said bears captured in urban settings are typically transported and released into the wild.

“We take him off into the country, where we can find wild bear habitat and where he can be left alone,” Mr. Sims said.

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