It is the mystery that has consumed Bearville for much of the past week.
Is Pedals the Bear dead? If so, who killed him? And why?
Uproar over the fate of the beloved male American black bear, who was something of a fixture in northern New Jersey for casually strolling around neighborhoods in an upright position, reached full boil when a Facebook page devoted to Pedals posted that he had been killed last Monday in a hunt.
“It is with deep sorrow that I am posting this today. . . . PEDALS IS DEAD,” read a Facebook post Friday on a page for the “Pedals The Injured Bipedal Bear” group.
A few days before, the Facebook group began hinting that Pedals had possibly died after reportedly receiving a tip that a hunter had killed him during the state’s week-long bowhunting season for black bears.
New Jersey Fish and Wildlife officials have not confirmed whether Pedals was killed in the hunt. Regardless, breathless headlines popped up: “NJ Group Fears Pedals the Upright-Walking Bear Was Killed During Hunt,” reported ABC News. “Report: Pedals, New Jersey’s Beloved Upright Walking Bear, Assassinated,” proclaimed Gothamist.
Update: The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection released photos that appear to confirm Pedals’ death. But you may not want to look.
Pedals came to fame after residents in Oak Ridge, N.J., began spotting the bear walking on its two hind legs around local neighborhoods in 2014. At first, he was thought to be a hoax or perhaps a man in a bear suit. But soon wildlife experts confirmed the bear’s authenticity, speculating that visible injuries to his two front paws may have been caused by a car that hit him.
The bear was soon nicknamed “Pedals” for his unusual, bipedal way of walking, also attributed to his injuries: Part of his right front leg was missing and his left front paw was wounded. These facts, coupled with the sight of Pedals calmly ambling in and out of people’s back yards like a human, made the bear a sensation. Pedals sightings became anticipated, even celebrated, for local residents. Facebook fan pages were started for him; he was featured on Inside Edition.
“He seems to have adapted well to his disability,” Macgowan told AP.
Still, even Pedals’s most ardent fans cleaved into two camps: those who thought the bear should be placed in a sanctuary and those who said he had adapted just fine in the “wild” (insofar as a part of the New York metropolitan area can be called wild) and should be left alone.
More than 310,000 people signed a petition last year, started by Lisa Rose-Rublack, asking New Jersey officials to capture Pedals and transfer him to the Orphaned Wildlife Center in Otisville, N.Y. Supporters raised nearly $23,000 to help the center build an enclosure, The Washington Post reported.
“What people don’t realize is that the bear needs help. He’s not healthy,” Rose-Rublack told NJ.com. “He can’t defend himself. What’s going to happen when he wanders into the wrong place?”
For three years, New Jersey wildlife officials disagreed with petitions to have Pedals captured, saying they were monitoring the bear but would “intercede only if necessary.”
“Division biologists note that, based on the video, the bear is active, appears healthy, a little larger than last year, and is thriving on its own having adapted to its condition,” a statement from the division last year read in part. “The bear was able to find adequate food resources in an area of high bear density to have successfully denned through at least the past two winters in its current condition. Therefore, there is no need for intervention at this time.”
Tracy Leaver, director of the Woodlands Wildlife Refuge, told NJ.com in July that Pedals had adapted to his new way of life and should not be disturbed.
“There’s plenty of natural food. There’s plenty of other food available and to take that bear out of that beautiful home range that he’s been living successfully in and putting him into an enclosure anywhere would be like imprisoning him,” Leaver told the news site. “And [it] would serve only to make people feel better but not be of any benefit to the animal. . . . Can he survive the hunting season? He’s proven that he can for several hunting seasons.”
The week of agitation over what happened to Pedals coincided with New Jersey’s first bow hunt for black bears in more than 40 years, the Asbury Park Press said. This year, the state’s black bear-hunting season spanned Oct. 10 to 15 for those using bows or muzzleloaders, and will open again from Dec. 5 to 10 for those using firearms. Hunters killed 432 bears in New Jersey last week, according to AP.
Pedals was reportedly last sighted Sept. 17, according to a post on a Facebook page dedicated to the bear. A few weeks later, reports of Pedals’s demise hit the page.
“We have verbal confirmation from hunters that were at the weigh/check in station that he is dead. We believe our sources,” an administrator for the page, who did not give a name, told The Post in a brief exchange of messages over Facebook. “There were only a handful of bears brought to that weight station and only 1 with a missing paw. They examined him and told the group of hunters that it was the bipedal bear. The biologists also took many photos of him. Pedals has distinct markings as well as his front paw issues.”
The administrator did not respond to questions about how or why they believed this to be true.
New Jersey Fish and Wildlife officials put out a brief statement — simply titled “Upright Bear Update” — on Wednesday. In short, the division implied that there was no way to positively identify a hunted bear as Pedals because they had no DNA or dental samples for him:
During the October segment of the black bear season, the NJDEP Division of Fish and Wildlife has received multiple requests for information regarding the status of an upright bear, based on hearsay accounts recently posted on social media.
While the Division appreciates the concern for the bear, it has no way of verifying the identity of any bear that has not been previously tagged or had a DNA sample previously taken.
On Friday, Bob Considine, a spokesman for the division, said officials would make no further comment on the issue. Considine did confirm to the Bergen County Record that state biologists took pictures at the hunters’ check station in question on Monday.
“We believe there were indeed photos taken at the Green Pond station by our biologists, which does happen [on] occasion at weigh in stations,” Considine told the newspaper. “We’re tracking down how many photos there are and when they were taken. Whatever we have, we’ll look to distribute them next week, after the six-day bear hunt is over. Hopefully Monday.”
Meanwhile, numerous other pages memorializing Pedals have cropped up online. At least one worked him into a meme. The pages have attracted thousands of grieving comments, mixed in with the occasional one asking for proof of the bear’s death. It seems Pedals fans are now left with something of a reverse Bigfoot, in which the mythical thing that should have been frightening was instead proven real — and embraced. Now, the lack of proof of Pedals’s nonexistence may be what fuels his myth.
On the “Pedals The Injured Bipedal Bear” Facebook page, hysteria over Pedals reached a fever pitch, with some even posting death threats against whoever supposedly killed Pedals. The page’s ‘PEDALS IS DEAD‘ post on Friday included the names and email addresses of state wildlife officials and encouraging people to contact them.
“The NJDEP and F&W really don’t have a heart. They let this happen,” that post read. “They could have been the good guys by helping him to get to sanctuary. Instead they did nothing.”
By the weekend, faced with hundreds of angry comments, the page’s administrators seemed to try to dial back some of the outrage and warned it would shut the page down entirely.
“This page is not pointing fingers at anyone,” a new post began. “We do not know who killed Pedals, we refuse to post names of people suspected. There is no credible proof of who did it.”