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Meet the man who just survived a grizzly bear attack: ‘I didn’t have time to be afraid’

Before the attack. (Courtesy of Kenneth Wells)

On Saturday night, Kenneth Wells was sitting around a campfire in Wyoming, complaining.

He was hunting in the Shoshone National Forest, but the trip had been a bit of a dud. For three days straight, he’d returned to camp empty-handed.

“I said, ‘I haven’t see anything, and I sure would like to see something,'” Wells recalled Wednesday.

Be careful what you wish for.

Wells, 54, is now recovering from puncture wounds, suffered when he was bitten by a grizzly bear the day after his campfire kvetching.

“I’m still in shock,” Wells said in a telephone interview. “I still can’t believe that it actually happened. And it’ll take a couple weeks before I’m healed up, I think, and I’m going to have a scar. But other than that, it’s over.”

Wells and his younger brother, Mark, were bow-hunting Sunday, in an area southeast of Yellowstone National Park, when the pair heard a “woof” sound. Then they heard the noise again.

Mark stood up.

Kenneth reached for his bow.

Mark looked at a female grizzly and her two cubs, then called out “IT’S A BEAR” as he backed up. Even with the warning, even as his brother retreated — Kenneth stood up to get a look.

“I wanted to see a bear,” Kenneth said. “And I never in my wildest dreams — even though the sound had been so close, and my brother had already backpedaled past me — I just didn’t process that it was going to be this close.”

Seconds later, the bear was on top of Kenneth, biting down on his ribs.

(Click here to see what his wounds look like, in case you were wondering. Admit the fact that you were wondering.)

He remembers the pressure, and the burning pain, and the bear’s dark eyes locking onto him.

He doesn’t remember the sounds of the bear’s growls. He doesn’t remember what he screamed, either, which we figured was probably for the best, because this is a family newspaper multiplatform media company, after all.

The entire episode lasted less than a minute.

“I didn’t have time to be afraid,” he said. “And I didn’t feel fear until probably 10 minutes after it was over, when we’re gathering up our stuff, grabbing our packs, and getting on the trail to hike back to camp.

“When the adrenaline started to wear off, that’s when I noticed I started to feel afraid for the first time.”

The attack occurred on the same day that a Rutgers University student was killed by a black bear during a hike in New Jersey.

Wells is a pilot for Southwest Airlines, and in that business, there’s always a lot of talk about the little things that go wrong before an accident, he said. But he survived because of the little things that went right.

Wells said he’s alive because he and his brother were carrying bear spray, which Mark, an optometrist, used as soon as the attack began. He’s alive because the brothers are experienced hunters and were cognizant of their surroundings. He’s a former Boy Scout, and he’s spent years reading outdoor magazines and that has to have helped, right?

“I still can’t believe it, when I relive it in my mind,” he said. “When I close my eyes, I can see the bear, and I can feel myself go through the motions again. I’m wondering how long it will take before that memory fades.

“Maybe not for a long time. But it happened so fast. I can’t believe that it happened that fast.”

After Mark hit the animal with bear spray, the brothers picked up their stuff and left, Wells said. They hiked more than a mile back to camp, then another 3 1/2 miles to the trailhead. They drove about 45 minutes to nearby Dubois, but the town clinic was closed. That’s when Wells called 911. Seven hours after the attack, he was finally in an ambulance, en route to the emergency room in nearby Lander.

There, he said, he received antibiotics, a tetanus shot and two rabies shots. His wounds were also cleaned, although the largest puncture wound was left open by doctors, who, he said, were afraid sutures might lead to a secondary infection.

X-rays showed no internal damage, though he was kept in the hospital for observation. Among his more immediate regrets: He couldn’t head back to the forest to break down camp with his brother.

“I think it’s like riding a bike,” Wells said. “It’s not going to keep me out of the woods forever. I’ll go back again. Maybe not right now. Next year, I’ll go back.”

The attack occurred not far from where a man doing U.S. Forest Service research was killed by a bear about a week earlier, Reuters reported.

Wells said he didn’t cry until he called his wife from that emergency room, hours after the attack.

“It’s just one of those things you don’t think it can happen to you,” he said. “And now I have the rest of my life to process what I’m going to do with a second chance.”