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Story of bear rescued from a metal cream can with jaws of life has happy ending

DNR conservation officer Eric Benjamin (right) and firefighters from the Roseau Fire Department explore options for freeing a bear with its head stuck in a cream can Friday afternoon, Sept. 7, northwest of Roseau, Minn. (Photo/ Dawn Knutson via Minnesota DNR)1 / 3
Neal Vatnsdal of the Roseau Fire Department uses jaws of life to free a black bear that got its head stuck in a 10-gallon cream can Friday afternoon, Sept. 7, northwest of Roseau, Minn. (Photo/ Dawn Knutson via Minnesota DNR)2 / 3
All's well that ends well, and the bear makes a beeline for freedom Friday, Sept. 7, after being freed from a 10-gallon metal cream can northwest of Roseau, Minn. (Photo/ Dawn Knutson via Minnesota DNR)3 / 3

Bears are nosy critters by nature, and a 150-pound black bear last week found out the hard way what happens when it sticks its nose into a 10-gallon metal cream can.

Fortunately, thanks to the MInnesota Department of Natural Resources and Roseau (Minn.) Fire Department, this story has a happy ending.

It all started Friday afternoon, Sept. 7, when DNR conservation officer Eric Benjamin responded to a call of a bear with its head stuck in an old 10-gallon metal cream can at a residence about 4 miles northwest of Roseau.

Benjamin, who was about an hour away, said the bear’s head still was firmly wedged in the can when he got there.

“That bear’s head was way too big to get inside that thing,” Benjamin said Tuesday in a phone interview. “I don’t even know how he did it.

“I’m not sure how long it had been on the bear’s head before the farmer noticed it,” Benjamin said. “He called me -- he had already tried to get it off, because the can was wedged between a tree and a shed  -- and he had tried to pull on the can to see if it would come loose off the bear’s head, and he was getting nowhere.”

The bear was still in the same place the homeowner had encountered it when Benjamin arrived.

“The bear was not, I would say, at 100 percent by the time I got out there, but it still had more than enough energy to take swipes and push and pull,” Benjamin said. “It was weird. I’ve come across bears before but not one that was stuck in a can.”

Despite their best efforts, which included using cooking oil in hopes of sliding the can off the bear’s head, they had made little progress after two hours of struggling.

“That didn’t work, and then the bear was panting pretty hard, starting to hyperventilate so we drilled three holes in the can so it could get some oxygen while we tried to figure out what we were going to do next,” Benjamin said.

They got the bear unwedged from between the tree and the shed and tied a ratchet strap from the can to Benjamin’s truck so the bear couldn’t run off with the can on its head.

Benjamin, the farmer and another man then tried to wrap the bear in a blanket to get some control and work at getting the can off.

“It didn’t matter what we did, it was not coming off,” Benjamin said.

Running out of options, Benjamin then called the Roseau Fire Department to see if they could come out and help free the bear.

“Probably 15 minutes later, the truck showed up and three guys in full gear jumped out of the truck,” Benjamin said.

They pulled an old boat tarp over the bear and tried to wrap it to get better control.

That was easier said than done, even with a tired bear, and it was quite a wrestling match, said Neal Vatnsdal, one of the firefighters along with Aaron Rose and Leon Huot responding to the call.

Rose is a wrestling coach at Roseau, but the bear proved to be a tough opponent, Vatnsdal said.

“He took one shot at the bear, and he got it tipped over, but the bear kept rolling and just pushed him right off,” Vatnsdal said with a laugh.

While his partners and Benjamin worked to subdue the bear, Vatnsdal used the jaws of life to cut the can open enough to insert a spreaders to free the bear's head. It took two full cuts and three smaller cuts to open the can, he said.

“By that time, he could see me, and he wasn’t really happy to see me,” Vatnsdal said.

Time tends to stand still when you’re trying to get a metal cream can off a bear’s head, but the whole process took about 20 minutes from the time the firefighters arrived, Benjamin estimates.

“As soon  as the can came off its head, it took a couple of big breaths and then it just kind of took a look around at everybody that was standing there and then made a beeline for the woods,” he said.

There wasn’t anything in the can except water and a few leaves, Benjamin said. Only the bear knows for sure, but northwest Minnesota is extremely dry, and Benjamin speculates the bear was just trying to get a drink.

As bear tales always do, the story has generated quite a buzz on social media. More than 1,400 people had given the story on the DNR’s Facebook page a “like” or other positive reaction as of Tuesday morning, and more than 500 people had shared the story.

The happy ending came together quickly once the firefighters arrived, Benjamin said.

“The last thing i wanted to do was put that bear down, but there wouldn’t have been any other options if we couldn’t get that can off its head,” he said. “When we pulled the can off its head and saw how big its head was, it doesn’t even seem like it would even be possible to get its head in there.”

Dokken reports on outdoors. Call him at (701) 780-1148, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1148 or send email to bdokken@gfherald.com.

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998.  A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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