The story of a black bear attacking a dog in the woods behind a Towson elementary school sounds like a neighborhood rumor run amok — until you see the photos of the dog’s shaved torso.
A long, swerving scar stretches from the top of Bella — a Lab-corgi mix — to her stomach, as if she had been ripped apart and zipped back together.
That’s about what happened, says Bella’s owner, Coreen McGovern of Towson’s Stoneleigh neighborhood.
McGovern has no doubt what caused the wound: a small black bear.
Maryland wildlife investigators could not confirm her sighting.
“It’s probably one of those wildlife mysteries,” said Candy Thomson, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Natural Resources Police. “No one else has seen it, but she clearly saw something and it rattled her, and we took it very seriously.
“If someone else reports seeing [a bear], we’ll be back.”
For McGovern, 49, and Bella, 6, the nightmare began on the morning of Sept. 23, a pleasant Saturday. McGovern walked her two dogs in the patch of woods between Stoneleigh Elementary School and the Country Club of Maryland.
Shortly after letting the dogs loose to run through a small creek, she heard a wail that still haunts her.
“Bella made a horrific noise,” she said. “It was a sound I had never heard before.”
When she discovered Bella, McGovern said, “she was skinned like a piece of fried chicken on one side.”
“It was such a horrible-looking wound,” she said. “I thought there was no way she can survive. I was thinking there was a jagged stick or a thorn bush.”
She screamed for nearly a minute as loud as she could, she said, “to see if anyone would come.”
But she was on her own to figure out how best to get Bella back to her house, about half a mile away. The dog would not let her near the wound. So she began to walk beside her as Bella limped her way out of the woods.
As they approached the trail entrance, near a pair of tennis courts, McGovern froze in shock.
“As we turned to leave the woods I saw a medium-sized black bear,” she said. “It stood up and then it ran.”
Her husband was out of town, so McGovern’s neighbor drove McGovern and Bella to Beltway Animal Hospital. McGovern called the police.
The Natural Resources Police logged the call in a dispatch report: “Baltimore County police said they got a call for a subject who was walking her dog at the Stoneleigh Elementary School and a baby black bear attacked it.”
A state wildlife investigator was dispatched and searched the woods, but did not find a bear.
“She did, however, find a large black cat,” the report states.
McGovern praised the investigator for quickly responding, visiting with Bella at the vet’s office and accompanying her into the woods. But when the investigator mentioned the cat, McGovern said she quickly shot down that idea.
“It was 1,000 percent a bear,” she said.
Bella has since had three surgeries and was “doing great” physically as of Sunday, although she refused to go near the area on a recent walk, McGovern said. The dog is expected to recover, saved by her baggy skin, she said.
There was not a lot of blood because the scratch did not go into her arteries, she said. “She was very lucky.”
The report of Bella’s injuries on a neighborhood Facebook page led to family discussions about the possibility of a bear in an area that has so many children.
Thomson said it is possible that a bear passed through the area without anyone else spotting it.
“But the officer who responded could not find any indication that a bear had been there,” she said. “We take this seriously. If there is a bear in a residential area, we want to keep an eye on it.”
There have been no other reports of bears this year in “Area 5” — Baltimore City and Baltimore, Carroll, Howard and Montgomery counties.
That was a big drop from last year, when there were 11 sightings of a bear in Columbia, Ellicott City, Silver Spring, College Park and Hyattsville. The bear was moving along streambeds and low-lying wooded areas.
Finally, Thomson said, “it disappeared because it found its way out of the area.”
“Generally speaking, bears are shy critters,” she said. “They don't want to see you. They’re opportunistic feeders.”
Smaller, 1-year-old bears are more likely to be spotted because their mothers have tossed them out of the den to make room for a new litter, Thomson said.
“These small bears have to go find new habitat,” Thomson said. “They’re going out looking for rental property.”
McGovern said she is happy her children are grown. She said she is unlikely to ever return to the woods or the tennis courts that she enjoyed with them and her dogs for years.
“It was terrifying.”