Photo courtesy of Doug Lindstrand
A small group of staff gathered to pay respects to Shaguyik the bear.
By Ken Smith
Shaguyik, a 300 pound female brown bear that had been rescued from Kodiak as a cub and escaped the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center on April 3 was shot and killed on private property in Portage across the street from the center on Thursday, June 4 around 8 p.m.
The bear got loose when the electric fence that encircles the bear enclosure at the center was turned off for maintenance. Since that time, a search has been ongoing to find the bear.
“We’ve probably gone on 25 calls,” said Mike Miller, executive director of the center. “We’ve been searching and looking from Portage to Hope to Cooper Landing waiting for our opportunity to catch it.”
However, the chance never came after Shaguyik crossed the private grounds of a 90-acre property in Portage across the street and a short distance from mile 79 of the Seward Highway.
The man who shot the bear was identified by Miller and neighbors on the property as Daniel Gutierrez. He’s been a long time renter in a cabin on the property owned by Henry Tomingas. Gutierrez told troopers he shot the bear in self-defense. The shooting is still under investigation.
Repeated attempts to reach Gutierrez were unsuccessful, however, Tomingas agreed to meet with this reporter on his property and discuss the shooting, which he did not witness, but he said he talked with Gutierrez and his daughter, who lives across from Gutierrez in a cabin near where the bear was shot.
Tomingas bought the property 10 years ago so his daughter could ride her miniature horse, which is not allowed in Girdwood where they lived before buying the property. Tomingas moved to Girdwood in 1972. Since they moved to Portage, his daughter, Alicia Hall, 19, has become an accomplished equestrian rider. She has four jumping horses held in stables next to her cabin. It was these horses, along with the threat to Hall and her pets that prompted the shooting by Gutierrez, Tomingas said. He said the brown bear was 40 feet from the stables and horses when it was killed.
“This is a brown bear that was after something,” he said referring to the horses, as he walked me over to the spot where Shaguyik was killed. There were four horses outside at the time, enclosed by a gated stable. All of the horses are prized jumpers, he said, worth $50,000 to $100,000. “This was an unknown brown bear. We didn’t know where this bear came from.”
The night the bear was shot, Tomingas said it had circled the cabin and property for some time and Hall actually went to the center to warn people working there to beware that there was a brown bear near the cabins – six employees of the center, all interns, live in cabins on Tomingas’ property and walk to work each day.
Tomingas said nobody came over from the center after Hall warned them to check and see if it was the escaped bear.
Miller admitted it was an oversight by the workers. He added that nobody on either side notified him of the bear encounter. Nonetheless, he said Tomingas and the residents on his property all knew they were looking for Shaguyik and should have waited for the bear to be identified.
“He (Gutierrez) called us up and said he saw the bear at Moose Flats ten days before he killed the bear,” said Miller. Bears all look different, but he totally knew it was our bear, and he shot it.”
Miller has been very emotional about the loss of Shaguyik, a bear he’s raised at the center from a cub for over two years. Shaguyik along with another Kodiak brown bear cub at the center, Taquoka, both about the same age, were to be flown to Sweden at the Orsa Gronklitt zoo where a $20 million dollar facility was built for them. Ironically, Shaguyik was killed the same night Taquoka was transported to the Anchorage airport and flown to Sweden.
After Shaguyik was killed, Gutierrez and Rich Henry, who also lives at one of the Tomingas’ cabins, skinned the bear. Bear kills in defense of life and property are by law suppose to be skinned, and the hide along with the skull are to be turned over to Fish and Game.
That night the six interns came back and heard about the shooting of Shaguyik and saw it hanging after it was skinned, said Miller.
Henry spoke to this reporter on his way back from work at the center where he does general maintenance. He said he didn’t see the shooting, but he said he heard three shots fired and went to find out what happened. He said he assisted Gutierrez with the skinning of the bear and said neither one of them knew it was Shaguyik. He said later that night Fish and Game showed up and scanned the hide and found a microchip identifying it.
When asked what the condition the bear was in, Henry said its stomach looked fairly empty and that it had a lot of grass stains on its teeth.
Tomingas reiterated his position about the killing stating, “You can’t have a brown bear within fifty feet of you when you have animals they can go after. Once it starts, there’s nothing anybody can do…I didn’t want his bear shot, but if it’s something like a brown bear right by the house, you don’t have any choice.”
Bear hunting is not allowed in Portage Valley. Last year a large brown bear was killed near Tomingas’ property in an area popular with duck hunters. Two hunters were in their blind when a brown bear chasing after a moose ran into it. The hunters shot it several times and killed it.
The only other bear killed in the area was a black bear a couple of years ago said both Henry and Tomingas. Other than that, neither one could recall a bear being killed and Henry has lived on the property for 23 years.
For Miller that is no consolation for a bear he has not only raised from a cub, but also spent thousands of dollars on preparing it for life at a zoo.
“The only thing that would have brought Shaggy home was hunger,” he said. “She most certainly was coming back to the center at the time of the shooting. If she had made it, we would have darted her, but because Dan intervened and shot her, we never got that chance.”
The week of this writing, Miller said Gutierrez, Tomingas and Henry took the remains of Shaguyik up to the highway where their road meets the center, and Miller and his staff took the remains without incident. Miller’s wife and kids had the remains cremated.