All she wanted to do was take a nice walk on a paved path along a creek near her Colorado Springs home. Now, Ashley Swendsen is still trying to figure out how her walk became a national story — and how she came to be portrayed as a villain responsible for the death of an innocent bear.
The 26-year-old Swendsen was closing in on her sixth month of pregnancy last Thursday when she decided to take what would become The Walk Heard ’Round the Internet. As she explained to TODAY’s Meredith Vieira Wednesday in New York, she was walking along when she saw a 225-pound, cinnamon-colored black bear climb out of a ravine and begin following her.
“At first I pretended like it was a dog — a big dog — because it was a cute bear,” Swendsen said.
First walking ... then running
She continued to walk for another 100 yards, and the bear continued to trail a few yards behind her. “It followed me,” Swendsen said. “It galloped along a little bit, then it left me alone after a couple blocks — after I started running.”
In a separate interview prerecorded with NBC News at the site of her encounter, Swendsen said she finally became frightened. “It was like a fight or flight, but I didn’t have anything to fight with. So I flew.”
She started running and screaming for help, but there was no one around to hear her. After running through an underpass, she scrambled up an embankment onto the gravel shoulder of the road leading to her home.
That’s when what was already a bad day got even worse.
With no sidewalk on the road, Swendsen started to run across it to escape. An older woman in a car was approaching, but Swendsen said that people regularly crossed the street in front of traffic and the cars always stop to let them pass.
Except this car didn’t. Instead, the driver hit Swendsen, who bounced onto the hood of the slow-moving vehicle before catching herself and landing on her feet.
The driver’s window was rolled down. “She told me that she slowed down,” Swendsen said. Swendsen told the driver, “I’m being chased by a bear.”
The woman didn’t apologize or ask if she was hurt. She just drove off.
“No one stopped,” Swendsen said.
Bearing the blame
Thoroughly shaken, Swendsen went back to the home she shares with her fiance, Jesse Daly, who joined her on the TODAY show. She told him what happened and they called local police to report the incident. She also went to the hospital to confirm that neither she nor her baby were injured.
“I couldn’t believe either part of either aspect of the story,” Daly told Vieira. “Within minutes the police and cameras and news people showed up, and it’s just been insane ever since.”
The bear later showed up in a neighbor’s yard, where it was apparently a regular visitor. Animal control officers tranquilized the bear and then euthanized it.
The neighbor whose yard the bear frequented blamed Swendsen for what she called the unnecessary death of the bear. A local newspaper printed the story, and the hate messages directed at Swendsen started pouring into chat rooms and message boards.
“It was all a misunderstanding by one of our local newspapers,” Swendsen said. “They said that I ran right away, but they never actually interviewed me.”
She said she had no idea the bear would be killed. That wasn’t her intention when she reported the incident.
“Whose fault is it?” Swendsen asked. “Some people want to blame others. If I had known that’s what was going to happen, maybe I wouldn’t have indentified the bear. But I wondered: If the bear had attacked a little kid, then of course it would have been euthanized.”
The woman who hit Swendsen turned herself into police on Saturday. It’s not known whether she will be charged with any violations, and Swendsen isn’t sure if she wants to file a complaint.
“I wasn’t hurt, but at the same time, why didn’t she stop? I would have done that. What if I was a teenager or a kid? You would have just kept going? That doesn’t make sense,” she said.
Bad day or not, Swendsen and Daly have decided that they will honor the memory of the bear. When her baby is born, its middle name will be “Little Bear.”