- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 1, 2006

If the District loves its pandas, Richmond adored its black bears.

People across Virginia’s capital feel as if they’ve lost part of their family in the wake of the euthanizing of two black bears who were the top attraction at a wildlife exhibit in the city.

“I have never seen public response to a situation, topic or issue like this besides 9/11,” said Mac Watson, host of an afternoon talk show on Richmond’s WRVA-AM.

The saga began Feb. 18, when a 30-year-old single mother and her 4-year-old son visited Maymont Park, a 100-acre Victorian estate in Richmond that features more than 700 native wildlife exhibits.

As the two were walking near the site’s two-acre bear habitat, the toddler climbed over a wooden barrier and put his hand through a chain link fence toward one of the bears. The animal bit, and both bears had to be killed and tested for rabies.

The deaths have infuriated everyone from the mayor’s office to the barbershop.

“People were saying, ‘They euthanized the bear, they should euthanize the mother,’” said Bill Bevins, who hosts a morning radio show on Richmond’s Lite 98 that has been flooded with calls. “I had to [say], ‘Calm down.’”

The mother, whose last name was withheld in yesterday’s editions of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, told the newspaper that her son cleared the barrier when she turned her head for a few seconds.

“We’re still kind of shaking our heads,” said Jerry Perdue, 54, of Belcher’s Barber Shop on Main Street, where customers have been talking about the incident for days.

“They’re not the happiest campers,” Mr. Perdue said.

Richmond Mayor L. Douglas Wilder called the deaths “senseless.”

“We brought these animals in with the understanding they were to be protected and looked after,” he said. “It’s a very sickening, heart-wrenching thing that the bears paid the ultimate price.”

The bears — one an orphan brought to the park in 1994 and the other a “habitual nuisance bear” before being brought to the park in 1999 — were the only bears at Maymont.

Yesterday, a makeshift memorial of flowers, teddy bears dressed like angels, bear-shaped honey bottles, notes of mourning and childlike sketches blanketed the windowed wall outside the bear habitat.

“We are so sorry you are gone — have fun in heaven,” one note read.

Other letter writers were obviously angry — “Parents [should be] held accountable for the death of our wonderful creatures. What foolish parents. You caused the death of lots of your fellow man’s enjoyment at Maymont.”

Catherine Holswade, 26, and fellow park zoologist Christy Cook, 27, each of whom has worked at the park for five years, knew the animals well.

They said the 9-year-old liked to climb, while the 12-year-old enjoyed the water. To say the news of the deaths was devastating would be “an understatement,” Ms. Cook said.

State officials said there is no way to test a live animal for rabies because the test requires a sample of brain tissue. Both bears had to be euthanized because the child could not identify which one bit him. Neither tested positive for rabies.

“It was the proper public-health response for possible rabies exposure,” said Kelly Lobanov, a Virginia Department of Health spokeswoman.

“We talked and talked and tried to figure out a way to break protocol and spare those animals,” said Julia Dixon, a spokeswoman for Game and Inland Fisheries. “But we had to go with what’s best for the child, because we’re dealing with a fatal disease.”

The child’s mother told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that she was willing to have her son undergo the rabies shots regimen in order to save the bears. But when she called health officials Thursday, she learned the animals already had been euthanized.

“We’ve had 100 murders in the city of Richmond over the last two years, and the two bears have generated more interest and more concern than all of the murders we’ve had combined,” said Michael Morchower, the lawyer representing the mother in a Department of Social Services investigation of the incident.

“For an accident of this nature to generate this level of hostility towards the mother is beyond my wildest imagination.”

Mr. Wilder, a Democrat, ordered the bears exhumed from the landfill where their headless bodies were dumped. He said that the bears will be cremated and that their ashes will be put in some position of honor and recognition on the Maymont grounds.

The mayor said he has heard from residents who are outraged that the boy’s mother “paid so little attention” to her child and then told newspaper reporters that she was grieving for the bears.

“That’s insulting to even read that type of nonsense,” said Mr. Wilder, also a former Virginia governor.

• Christina Bellantoni in Richmond contributed to this report.

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