After the mother grizzly bear finished mauling him, after he rubbed the bear spray from his eyes and hiked a half-mile cradling a broken arm, Bob Legasa found himself under attack from a meaner, more unpredictable and entirely more vicious animal: online commenters.
“I have never been so threatened in my life,” Legasa said. “There are literally hundreds of threats wishing that I would die. Wishing that I would die a slow, painful death. It came, from all people, the peaceful grass-eating vegan community.”
Legasa was attacked by a mother grizzly bear Oct. 13 while bowhunting for elk in Montana. As he and his partner walked through tall sagebrush – between 6 and 8 feet – they startled a grizzly bear cub and its mother.
The mother bear charged Legasa. His hunting partner, Greg Gibson, of Sandpoint, sprayed them both with bear spray, but not before the bear tackled Legasa.
The bear grabbed Legasa’s arm with her mouth and clawed at his face. But the bear spray deployed by Gibson drove the animal away.
Covered in blood and nearly blind from the spray, which had blown back into their faces, both men hiked out. While recovering in a Bozeman hospital, Legasa, who owns an outdoor media company, posted to Facebook about the attack.
His post went viral, accumulating more than 9,000 comments and 17,000 shares. That’s when Legasa found himself in a second meat grinder. Sunday, right before he went into surgery, a friend messaged him a warning that an animal rights group in England had reposted his post.
The flood gates opened.
Many of the comments Legasa received were supportive. Friends, family and strangers wished him a speedy recovery.
But there were many critical, mean and violent comments, too.
“Karma. Can you post your address so that someone can finish the job and feed the remains to the bears in winter,” posted a Facebook user from France.
“Come on guys, don’t be so mean. This is incredibly tragic,” wrote someone from Canada.
“Tragic that Momma Bear didn’t get a chance to finish the job of taking out the trash.”
An American wrote, “Bet you’re not the apex predator you thought you were. Let’s hope the next time the bear finished what it started.”
Those three commenters didn’t respond to an interview request. One of the more even-keeled comments came from an American named Dawn Yonce.
“Glad you’re okay. I’m hoping maybe this changes your heart and you give up hunting innocent animals,” Yonce wrote. “They want to live just like we do and their fight for survival is just as strong as ours. If you don’t have to hunt out of necessity, you shouldn’t be hunting for sport.”
In a follow-up interview, Yonce said she came across Legasa’s post on a Facebook page called “Justice for Cecil the Lion.”
Yonce said she hoped to change Legasa’s mind and that, “if you’re not starving, you shouldn’t be killing wild animals for food and most definitely, not for trophy.”
Legasa said he didn’t feel physically threatened by the comments because they were, mostly, coming from outside the United States. However, it was wearing him down, he said.
Legasa changed his privacy settings and blocked many of the commenters. Things have started to settle down. One of the difficult factors of the situation is that Legasa opted to use bear spray, rather than a gun, and he doesn’t think the grizzly should be killed.
But this is hardly the first time a hunter has been attacked online.
“Their outrage is insane,” said Brian Lynn, vice president of marketing and communication for Sportsmen Alliance. “It’s so contradictory to what they say they stand for.”
Lynn points to celebrities like comedian Ricky Gervais calling out trophy hunter Rebecca Francis on Twitter.
Some saw Gervais’ comments as sexist.
Hunting can be an emotional topic, Lynn said. For people who don’t hunt or don’t know any hunters, seeing an animal killed can provoke a visceral anger response.
Lynn believes that attacks against hunters aren’t condoned as quickly, if at all, by the general public or media.
“You put this in to any other context, the people doing this would be called out, shut down, treated as hate speech,” he said.
One reason is there just aren’t many hunters. Only 5 percent of Americans 16 years and older hunt, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study published in 2017. Fifty years ago, 10 percent of Americans 16 years and older hunted.
Still, online vitriol is hardly limited hunters. According to a 2017 Pew Research survey, roughly four out of 10 Americans experience online harassment. Meanwhile, 18 percent of Americans experienced extreme online harassment such as physical threats of violence, stalking and sexual harassment.
But the outrage and online attacks can be particularly bad for female hunters. In 2015, when Gervais attacked Francis, Kelly Oliver, a philosophy professor at Vanderbilt University who has studied the increase of women hunters, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, “We expect men to be hunters, but we’re surprised when girls are hunting. Whatever we think about hunting, the ‘Big Five’ in Africa, it’s clear that we still have issues with women and girls carrying guns and using them.”
Jamie Belknap, an Extreme Huntress competitor and Spokane Valley resident, has seen her fair share of online hatred. Since she was 19, she’s received death threats, online and in letter form.
“The first time that people really started to see my posts, I was 19 and I remember getting death threat after death threat,” she said. “People would write me handwritten letters.”
Belknap said she’s grown accustomed to it. Now she gets one or two online threats a month. As for Legasa, his wounds are healing and the shock of the online hate is wearing off. Still, he said the whole experience has been eye-opening.
“It’s out of hand with what social media can do to devastate or uproot someone’s life,” he said.