- The Washington Times - Friday, April 21, 2006

The mother of a child bitten by a bear at a Richmond wildlife park has been cleared by authorities of any wrongdoing in the incident.

Richmond Department of Child Protection Services this week mailed a letter to the 30-year-old single mother, identified only as Julie, saying the facts did not show that neglect or abuse had occurred.

“They could have put the mother on a probationary period for about 18 months … she didn’t want that,” Michael Morchower, the mother’s attorney, said in a telephone interview yesterday. “The mother was becoming more distraught with each day of the drama.”

The case was opened after the 4-year-old child was bitten, but not seriously injured, by a black bear on Feb. 18 at Maymont Park, a 100-acre Victorian estate that features more than 700 native wildlife exhibits.

There were two black bears residing at Maymont, but officials could not determine which one of them bit the boy. As a result, both bears were destroyed and tested for rabies. Upon analysis, neither bear tested positive for the disease.

Thousands of people expressed outrage in the days following the incident — calling radio stations, posting to online bulletin boards and calling the park to complain about the deaths of the bears.

Richmond Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, a Democrat, responded to the outcry and had the bears’ bodies exhumed from the private landfill where they had been buried. The remains of the animals were cremated and a March 4 memorial service at the park attracted nearly 500 people.

The Child Protection Services ruling came after an investigator interviewed the child on April 3 with the mother’s approval, even though a judge ruled last month that the child could not be compelled to talk.

“They agreed to ask the child only 10 questions, at my law office, with only the investigator and child in the room,” Mr. Morchower said.

A preliminary city report on the incident said the mother did not cooperate with authorities during the inquiry process, and the final city report, released March 29, claimed that the mother did not respect the safety precautions in the park or exercise “cautious judgment” for the well-being of her son.

The mother told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that she turned her head for a few seconds. When she turned back around, her son was beyond a wooden fence and was standing nearer to the 10-foot fence that surrounds the bear habitat, she told the newspaper.

“It was a tragic situation all the way around,” said Linwood Norman, a city spokesman.

He said the mayor refused to comment because of strict state privacy rules concerning children.

Julia Dixon, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, said that the search for replacement bears continues.

The Maymont Foundation has set up a memorial fund in memory of the bears that will be used to care for the other animals.

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