Tahlequah Daily Press

May 13, 2013

Bombs and bears put a dent in slow news days

Managing Editor

TAHLEQUAH — The way folks were congregating by NSU the other day, you’d have thought Sodexo was giving away free hot dogs, or campus police had cornered a Bigfoot and were trying to lure it into a cage with some beef jerky.

Something was cornered, all right, but it turned out to be a black bear cub that, according to Game Warden Brady May, had likely just been kicked out of the house by its mama. May estimated it weighed about 120 pounds, although several Facebook posters had the little guy tipping the scales at 400. One person who shared our initial photos of the bear identified it authoritatively as a “grizzly,” thereby freaking out a woman who caught a text-message while she was taking her toddler for a stroller ride at Centennial Plaza.

That’s part of the problem with Facebook. People can get away with exaggerating, or even outright lying, and no one calls them into account. Such bold utterances in print or over the airwaves would have an offended party beelining to one of those law offices next to the courthouse to file a libel or slander suit.  At the very least, we’d have to print a correction and endure a few weeks of ridicule; the Facebook poster needs only to hit the delete button and hope no one remembers his foolish claim. Or he can just leave it up there, and half of  his “friends” will believe it, no matter how outlandish.

I took at least two phone calls from folks claiming a 400-pound bear was rampaging through campus. One caller reported the beast had taken a hunk out of the leg of a bicyclist, who was apparently drunk at the time. The caller – who sounded drunk himself – said if we printed that detail, he didn’t want his name used because he and the bite victim were “on the outs.”

While folks in Colorado, or even southeastern Oklahoma, may scoff about this much commotion over an encroaching bear, they have to realize the incident was somewhat unusual. It was newsworthy enough to get crews from a couple of TV stations on the highway. One talking head called our office first to ask how many tickets Hulbert cops were handing out these days. I advised him to take the turnpike if he planned to have the pedal to the metal. As it turned out, they needn’t have wasted the gasoline. Most TV stations relied on the excellent video provided by NSU’s Pete Henshaw, and so did we, though we had plenty of still shots to go around.

A professor told me Friday that students were cutting class to attend the bear circus. I’m not sure whether they expected the critter to be balanced on a unicycle and wearing a ruffled clown collar, or they were just using a handy pretext to avoid academic endeavors. The prof said any kids who showed up next Tuesday demanding an excused absence were in for a rude surprise.

While all this was going on, animal-loving Facebook posters were lined up like electric pylons to get a word in edgewise. Some felt the chosen method of bear eradication – shooting him with tranquilizer darts, waiting for him to pass out, and catching him in a net – was cruel and unusual. Others objected to the treatment, but for different reasons: They were afraid he’d fall on top of somebody’s car or  poodle. When I saw that comment, I wondered about the three tiny but mouthy Malteses owned by our sports editor, Ben Johnson, and his wife, Alicia, who live near the bear tree.

Later, people wanted to know what happened to the bear. He was released back into the wild with a radio collar, and will become part of a study on bear populations. That didn’t set well with some posters, who opined that as the bear grew larger, the collar would get too tight and choke him to death. Others wanted to known why the bear hadn’t been reuinted with its mother. The fact that no one knew the identity of the mother was only the first of many obstacles. When the cub was first seen, he was out on the bypass by the theater, and no bigger bear was spotted ransacking the Dumpsters, so we have to assume he was on his own.

The speculation, curiosity and righteous indignation of Wednesday escalated into full-blown panic Thursday, when another whack-job dashed any hopes of a slow news day. Whoever left the explosive devices in the ruck sack at AmeriGas on South Muskogee, then suggested he may have planted a bomb, was following what’s coming to be a disturbing pattern in Cherokee County. First the courthouse, then the high school, and then, the guy with the explosive device at a house here and in Stilwell. Now, a propane vendor. Thursday’s perp was whisked away with “unidentified injuries” to a “hospital.” This information was imparted with a certain tone, which suggested to us the perp might have committed himself to a facility for treatment wholly unrelated to physical injuries.

For law enforcement officials, it was what, these days, has become just another day on the job. For terrified parents and shock-attuned citizens, it was a cue to seek information – and to pass it along, regardless of accuracy. Calls came into our office, but their numbers couldn’t compare to the Facebook queries. Someone messaged us that there was a bomb at T-Bones’, and then another poster said the bomb had detonated and taken out a couple of U-Hauls. But the person who said the bomb was at Heritage Elementary is the one who really sparked the panic. Dozens of parents were freaking out at the keyboard because they couldn’t get through on the phone lines. Others hit the road and became part of the traffic melee on South Muskogee. We tried to tell people to “remain calm,” that the threat wasn’t at the school, but our words had about the same effect as the same ones uttered by the Kevin Bacon character in “Animal House.” At least none of us were flattened into the sidewalk by the stampeding mob.

Now that the proverbial smoke has cleared and the perp is presumably under the watch of authorities, questions are still being asked, and rumors are still flying. One woman told me she heard it was a “disgruntled teacher” who did the deed. Another man, who himself is a disgruntled teacher, told me he heard it was a “retired politician.” There are plenty of those around, but I can’t think of any who would muster the ambition for this project. And finally, there was the woman who was certain her ex-husband was the culprit: “That’s jes’ got him wrote all over it,” she said. Time – or perhaps Facebook – will tell.

Needless to say, it’s been a week. Some of us newsies need a nap.

Kim Poindexter is managing editor of the Tahlequah Daily Press.