It was just before dawn when 66-year-old Vietnam veteran Larry Yepez locked eyes with a 200-pound black bear outside his home near California’s Yosemite National Park and knew it meant war. Within seconds, the animal was on him, crushing his hand in its teeth and ripping his face and abdomen with its claws.
“I could feel the blood running out of me,” Yepez told The Washington Post. “That’s when I decided, ‘I’ve got to fight, man.'”
Standing 5-foot-9 and about 165 pounds, Yepez took on the bear late last week at his home in Midpines, a small mountain town in Mariposa County where bears have recently become a problem, according to KABC-TV. Residents have discovered their trashcans overturned and found bear droppings on their land. But, until now, no one had been attacked by one.
California Department of Fish and Wildlife authorities told the Los Angeles Times they are searching the area and setting bear traps for the beast that mauled Yepez. If caught, the animal will most likely be euthanized.
“I’m not a bear hater,” Yepez said. “I believe we live in the bears’ habitat up here in the mountains. But like the game warden says, if it had been a little kid who got attacked, he’d be dead right now.”
There were no witnesses but, as Yepez tells his story, it was still dark when he stepped onto his porch about 4 a.m. on Aug. 13. He said he was headed to the bathroom, which is disconnected from his house. He has seen bears on his property at a distance, he said, but when his outdoor motion detector lights switched on, he was staring at one less than 10 feet away. Authorities believe it was scavenging for food in Yepez’s trash and got spooked.
Then, Yepez said, the bear charged at him.
Yepez grabbed a large, plastic flower pot from his porch and swung it, hitting the bear in the head. Dirt flew. The pot shattered. Yepez was left holding only the pot’s rims. “With pieces I had left in my hand I hit him again,” he said.
Then the bear pounced on him and knocked him down, he said.
“I hit him on the head with my right hand,” he said. “Then I tried to hit him with my left and he locked his jaws on it. I hit him again with my right and he hit me back. At that moment, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to punch my way out.
“I was in disbelief. I didn’t know what was going on, but when he had my hand in his mouth and I could see his eyes just inches away from mine, I thought, ‘This bear is trying to kill you. You’ve got to fight.’
“I got my feet underneath the bear and pushed as hard as I could. He stumbled back, looked at me and then he started to come at me again.”
That’s when, Yepez said, his 10-pound Yorkshire terrier, Benji, ran around the bear and approached him from behind, barking and nipping at his fur.
“The bear turned around and swatted at the dog,” he said, “and that gave us just enough time to get back in and slam the door.”
Yepez said he bolted the door and, with his hand still on the doorknob, he felt the bear pushing against him. “I started yelling, ‘Get out of here!'”
Yepez said he picked up his samurai sword and waited for several minutes.
“I was covered in blood,” he said. “He had bit up my hand, ripped my chest and abdomen, scratched my legs and thighs. He had tried to get to my throat. I still have bruises on my neck. … Blood was coming from my face and my ear.
“I had survived the bear attack, but now knew I needed to stop the bleeding.”
Yepez said he cracked opened the door and peered around the corner. He yelled. Nothing. When he didn’t see the bear, he said, he made a break for his van and drove himself to the nearest hospital.
“My adrenaline was flowing,” he said. “I didn’t feel any pain at all.” But he said doctors later told him he had been nearly disemboweled.
Yepez, a former Marine, was awarded a Purple Heart after he was shot twice and wounded by shrapnel during the Vietnam War, according to the Fresno Bee. After the war, he went to work for the Forest Service, where he worked more than 20 years, mostly as a wildland firefighter. During that time, he said he saw many bears and lions. He retired in 2002.
His son, Wayne Yepez, 43, said the family spent a lot of time around wildlife.
“He always took us out in the backcountry,” Wayne Yepez told The Post. “We’ve never been afraid of wildlife, especially not black bears. Even now, I’m not afraid of bears; I just know to be more aware of them.”
“I always tell people, ‘Don’t worry about bears,'” Yepez added. “‘They won’t bother you. They’re more afraid of you than you are of them.’ That was true until now.”
Authorities took a DNA sample from Yepez’s wounds and created a DNA profile of the bear. “Due to the severity of the attack, and the need to collect forensic evidence from the bear, it will be humanely destroyed when found,” according to a statement from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Despite several recent incidents, black bears are considered more docile than grizzlies. According to the National Park Service: “Black bears may show dominance by bluff charging, especially when guarding food or cubs. Attacks are rare, and no one has been killed or seriously injured by a black bear in Yosemite.”
However, California Department of Fish and Wildlife authorities warn that “all rural residents and recreationists should be mindful of nearby wildlife and potential risks of this type,” according to the statement. “Attacks on humans by wildlife remain uncommon but do occur on occasion.”
Last year, Lorna Weafer, a 36-year-old instrument technician, was killed by a black bear in Alberta, Canada. Months later, 22-year-old Rutgers University student Darsh Patel was killed by one while he was hiking with friends in Apshawa Preserve in New Jersey. Earlier this month, a woman was attacked by a black bear — and survived — while with family in Virginia.
Yepez said he’s just “grateful to be alive.”
“I realize I’m a lucky human being,” he said.