News / Winnipeg

Bill Ayotte received the Star of Courage for rescuing a woman from a polar bear

Still in pyjamas, Bill Ayotte grabbed a shovel when a bear grabbed a young woman. It promptly bit off his ear.

William (Bill) Ayotte, 73, of Churchill, Man. rescured Erin Greene from being mauled by a polar bear and was subsequently mauled by the bear himself. For his courage he received the Star of Courage - Canada's 2nd highest medal for bravery.

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William (Bill) Ayotte, 73, of Churchill, Man. rescured Erin Greene from being mauled by a polar bear and was subsequently mauled by the bear himself. For his courage he received the Star of Courage - Canada's 2nd highest medal for bravery.

Bill Ayotte is a wisp of a man; a gentle, soft-spoken senior who likes to do word puzzles or ride his three-wheeled bike past the outskirts of his hometown, Churchill, to enjoy the solitude of Manitoba’s Far North.

Not the type instantly pegged as a fearless hero.

But in the early morning darkness after Halloween in 2013, Ayotte risked his life — and suffered serious injuries — to save a stranger from a polar bear attack outside his home.

Ayotte, 69 at the time, is an early riser and had settled in front of his television at 5 a.m. when he heard piercing screams from outside. He opened his door to see a horrifying scene unfolding across his street.

“A bear had a woman by the head and was wagging her around in the air,” he recalls.

Ayotte knew he had to act. He had no shotgun or rifle so he thought briefly about calling the town’s polar bear patrol. But he figured the woman, a 30-year-old named Erin Greene, might be dead by the time help arrived.

Then, he says, he surprised even himself, reaching for a shovel at the end of his porch.

“Once I grabbed the shovel, I was pretty well committed to doing something,” he says. “So down the stairs I went, heading towards them thinking, can I do anything?”

Greene, unaware help was coming, believed she was drawing her last breaths.

“I just became very weak because I was losing a lot of blood and I’d come to terms with the fact that this was going to be how I died,” she says. “If that bear had a minute more, 30 seconds more, if Bill hadn’t come out, I wouldn’t be here.”

Ayotte, wearing only a sweater, pyjama bottoms and slippers, didn’t have an overly sophisticated plan. He figured his best chance, Greene’s only chance, was if he whacked the bear as hard as he could around the eyes.

He saw his opening when the bruin, distracted by his intrusion, momentarily stopped ragdolling its prey. Ayotte raised the shovel over his head and brought it down with a mighty chop. It was a direct hit.

The powerful carnivore released Greene, who fled towards the shelter of his house. Ayotte turned to follow, but the bear lunged and clamped on to the back of his leg behind the left knee.

 “Then the mauling was on for me,” says Ayotte.

At one point, he could hear his right ear being ripped off.

“A bear’s got a lot of teeth,” he said. “A little ear isn’t going to stop him. Then I thought, ‘Where is that son-of-a-bitch going to bite me next?’ He’s starting to eat.”

Ayotte was certain the bear was going to kill him. He believes all that saved him was that he was lying on his stomach. If he’d been on his back, he believes the 180-kilogram bear would have broken his ribs and damaged internal organs as he pounded down repeatedly with its paws.

The commotion brought neighbours out of their homes. They tried to ward off the bear by firing flare guns and “cracker shells” designed to make a loud bang. Some yelled. One even threw his shoes. Finally a man jumped in his truck and drove at the bear honking and flashing the headlights. That caused the animal to flee.

“I was on the ground and all I can remember is feeling how really cold I was,” says Ayotte. “I’m not sure I said anything but if I did utter words, I would have said ‘I don’t want to die on the street like an animal. I’m cold. Get me off the ground. Get me on my feet. I want to die on my feet like a man.’ ”

Ayotte was loaded into a truck but, still conscious, he asked if he had saved the woman.

“I wanted to know she was all right before I died.”

At the local hospital, Ayotte and Greene, who arrived by ambulance, were both stabilized and then airlifted to Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre.

“When I woke up, I was surprised I was alive and I was still wondering about the woman and whether she’d made it or not. The nurse said that woman is in the room right next to you,” recalls Ayotte.

“Around 7 or 8 that night, they discharged her to a friend that lived in Winnipeg. They came over to my room and thanked me for saving her life.”

Says Greene: “Heroes don’t have to look a certain way.”

A large piece of Greene’s scalp was torn off — it required 28 staples to be reattached — and she lost part of her ear. She had bites on an arm and leg and lost so much blood, she needed a transfusion. She’d been walking home from a Halloween party with two friends when they spotted the bear and began running. The bear charged, pounced on Greene and began gnawing at the back of her head.

She remains awestruck that Ayotte, who she calls “an angel in disguise,” leapt to her defence.

“When we think about bravery and people who have courage, there’s also a huge element of softness and compassion that has to be there in order for somebody to make that move. If you don’t have that compassion for another human being then you’re not going to put your life at risk.”

A plastic surgeon sewed Ayotte’s ear back on. He’s not sure how many staples and stitches were required to fix other wounds on his right shoulder and left leg. He spent six and a half days in hospital and then remained in Winnipeg almost three weeks until doctors were confident the ear had healed.

But he happily returned to the town that promotes itself as the polar bear capital of the world. The bears are plentiful, especially in the fall when they are waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze so they can hunt seals. Despite patrols and efforts to control them, they sometimes wander into town.

Greene, a transplanted Montrealer, also went back to Churchill, where she works as a yoga instructor and a paddleboard guide.

Ayotte, a retired water plant operator who worked for the town for 33 years, was awarded the Star of Courage, but he called his actions “involuntary.”

“When you’re confronted with something like this, either you do something or you don’t,” he says. “I didn’t expect that I would do anything but I couldn’t just sit by.”

The bear was later killed by conservation officers.

Ayotte, 73, continues to lead what he calls “a simple life” with his wife, Kathleen Bouvier. The shovel still sits on his porch.

However, he has made one post-mauling concession.

A friend gave him a shotgun that folds up. So now when he goes on bike rides, he keeps it under a jacket in a basket behind the seat, just in case.

“They don’t bother me,” he says of polar bears. “As long as they’re at a distance.”

Brave, braver, bravest: Canada's three decorations

Canada has three decorations for bravery available to civilians or emergency workers. They recognize people, living or dead, who risked their lives to save or protect another.

The decorations were created by the Queen in 1972 and are personally presented by the governor general in a ceremony at either Rideau Hall in Ottawa or La Citadelle in Quebec City.

“In you, I see proof of humanity and decency and courage in the world,” governor general David Johnston told recipients at one recent ceremony. “That is why I still get goosebumps each time I present these awards, every time I hear stories of bravery.”

Anyone can nominate a person to be considered for an award by the Canadian Decorations Advisory Committee. Potential recipients do not have to be Canadian but, if not, that person must have performed an act of bravery in the interest of Canada.

Cross of Valour

The highest honour for bravery available in this country outside the Canadian Armed Forces. It “recognizes acts of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme peril.”

The Cross of Valour has been awarded 20 times and recipients can use the letters C.V. after their name.

Star of Courage

The second highest award “recognizes acts of conspicuous courage in circumstances of peril.”

The Star of Courage has been granted 458 times. Recipients can use the letters S.C. after their name.

Medal of Bravery

The third highest honour, it “recognizes acts of bravery in hazardous circumstances.”

There have been 3,316 Medals of Bravery presented. Recipients can use the letters M.B. after their name.

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