DENVER (AP) — Ken Mauldin was jolted awake last weekend with his wife screaming incessantly in their split level home in Colorado's mountain town of Steamboat Springs where their three children were sleeping one floor below. Then she yelled: “There's a bear in the house!”
Kelly Mauldin had just been awakened by the couple's barking dogs that didn't wake up her husband before dawn on Saturday. She walked to the door of the couple's bedroom and found herself staring at a male black bear weighing about 400 pounds (181 kilograms) — about 10 feet (3 meters) away in the dining room.
In an interview, Ken Mauldin said he grabbed his 40-caliber pistol, took his wife’s place at the door and shot once, aiming for the center of the bear’s body. He thinks the first shot hit the bear and it charged him as Mauldin continued firing.
As he was shooting, the bear got as close as 5 feet (1.5 meters) from Mauldin and then turned toward the stairs leading to the home’s front door. The bear crashed through a bannister as Mauldin emptied the gun and slid down the stairs, mortally wounded.
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The couple didn’t know it at the time, but officials believe the bear got inside their home by flipping down the lever of their unlocked front door handle and pushing the door.
After it was shot, the bear lay breathing and heaving between Mauldin and his three sons on the home's lower floor, but he didn't think the bear would get back up. He called 911 and one of his sons called him on his cellphone and Mauldin told the son to stay put in his room.
“My only thought was protecting my family and putting that bear down,” said Mauldin.
The bear had moved an unopened bag of dog food across the dining room. Police and state wildlife officers arrived a short time later and determined that the bear was dead. They used a winch to pull it into a truck and were impressed by its size, said Justin Pollock, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife officer for 21-years.
“I deal with bears a lot and I’d say this was a big bear,” he said.
Colorado has about 12,000 bears and break-ins aren’t uncommon in Rocky Mountain towns, but homeowners shooting bears in their homes is rare, said Rachael Gonzales, spokesperson for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. State law allows people to shoot bears if the people feel threatened, she said.
The lush mountain area where the Mauldin family lives is home to many bears because of its habitat, which includes oak brush that they use to hide, a river and vegetation that they eat.
In the days before the bear opened the door to the Maudlin's home, neighbors had talked about a bear getting into their garages and other homeowners had reported bear break-ins. Mauldin said the family always does a nightly check to close windows and lock doors, but that night the front door had been left unlocked.
Gonzales said there's no way of knowing if the same bear seeking food at other homes broke into the Mauldin family's home. Black bears avoid humans but once they realize food is behind a window or stuffed inside a bird feeder, they will return, Pollock said.
“Bears are very smart," Gonzales said. "Once they learn that it’s easy to access food in a certain area, they are going to keep doing it.”
The bear's hide and meat will be donated to people who have signed up on a list to receive them and its head will go up for auction, Pollock said.
Mauldin hopes the break-in at his home sparks greater awareness to prompt “something good from something so terrible that happened.”
“We are in a situation now where we have town bears that have lost all of their natural fear of humans," Mauldin said. "In my mind that’s what we have to address."
Jesse Bedayn is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Bedayn on Twitter.