Ani Haas grew up exploring the outdoors in an area filled with wildlife — but she’s always been afraid of one day coming face to face with an aggressive animal.
That fear came to life for the former U.S. ski team member as she jogged on the Crazy Canyon Trail in Missoula, Mont., on the morning of July 29, in the form of a female black bear charging at her with claws and teeth bared. Fortunately, Haas’ phobia may have saved her life — because when her nightmare became real, she knew what to do.
“A wild animal attack has been one of my biggest fears,’’ the Missoula native admitted to TODAY’s Ann Curry in an exclusive interview on Monday. “It’s something I’ve always talked about and been worried about. Growing up in Montana, [you’re] always hearing what you’re supposed to do in different instances with different animals. All the protocols are different, so I just remembered while everything was happening.’’
Haas had initially tried to sprint away from the angry mother bear after accidentally coming between the animal and her two cubs while jogging the trail. But she soon realized that was the wrong tactic. “I looked behind me, and she was right behind me,’’ Haas said. “I realized running from wild animals is the worst thing you can do.’’
The bear chased her down from behind, slashing her chest and left arm with its claws when Haas turned around. No one on the trail heard her screams, so it was up to Haas to extricate herself from the situation.
It was at that point that Haas quickly recalled how to handle a black bear. When a grizzly bear attacks, lying down and playing dead may be the best strategy. But with black bears, it’s the opposite.
“That’s exactly what I remembered — just try to be as large and aggressive as you can be,’’ Haas said. “That’s what I tried to do.’’
So Haas counterattacked, punching the bear repeatedly in the head. On her second attempt, she landed a solid blow that forced the creature to drop down on all fours.
Haas then picked up a rock and hurled it at the bear, but it only served to enrage the animal and provoke another attack. So after picking up another rock, Haas began backing up slowly.
“I noticed the more quiet and calm I became, the more quiet she was,’’ she told Curry.
After some growling and snorting, the bear lost interest and returned to her cubs. Haas walked backward for about another 5 minutes just to make sure the bear didn’t try to attack again. Bleeding from her scratches but not seriously hurt, Haas was able to jog the nearly three miles back to her car and drive herself to nearby St. Patrick Hospital, having survived an incident she had always feared.
“I’m just so lucky it turned out the way that it did, because it might not have,’’ she said.
Haas had been musing about the preciousness and fragility of life shortly before the attack, in the wake of the suicide only a few days earlier of Jeret “Speedy’’ Peterson, her former U.S. ski teammate and friend. Haas was a member of the U.S. ski team up until 2010, but did not qualify for the Olympics because of an injury. She trained with Peterson for seven years and was his teammate for three years.
“My condolences go out to everybody who knew him,’’ Haas said. “He was an amazing human being and amazed so many people.’’
Haas said the attack also drove home to her the importance of self-confidence in any situation.
“I think this experience really has taught me that it’s so important to believe in yourself and be confident,’’ she said. “This is definitely a life lesson that I’ve learned, to really just show that you can get through most everything if you believe in yourself.’’
But along with being confident, it doesn’t hurt to take precautions. Haas said that her one-round boxing victory over the bear earned her a gift from her father.
“I got an industrial-sized can of bear spray,’’ she said, smiling.