New Jersey’s wandering, upright bear has inspired a fierce debate, between those who would put him in a wildlife sanctuary and those who would leave him be.
OAK RIDGE, N.J. — The first time Greg Macgowan’s wife saw the bear near their home, the upper half of the animal’s body was obscured by a neighbor’s deck. “She said, ‘Come here; there’s a guy in a bear suit,’ ” he recalled.
It turned out to be a real bear, but one that differed from the typical backyard visitor. This one walked almost entirely upright.
Two summers later, many more residents in this largely rural swath of northern New Jersey have seen the Garden State Sasquatch, a bipedal bear nicknamed Pedals who has his own Facebook fan page. It has, of course, made him a global sensation.
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With two maimed front legs, Pedals, an American black bear who displays remarkably good posture, manages to get around on his hind legs. His unusual condition has spawned coveted sightings and viral videos. “Pedals is my spirit animal,” one person wrote on Facebook.
But the wandering bear has also inspired a fierce debate, between those who would put him in a wildlife sanctuary and those who would leave him be.
The fascination with the bipedal bear comes as New Jersey deals with a large bear population, which has grown steadily since the 1980s. There are an estimated 2,500 bears north of Interstate 80, and the state introduced a hunting season several years ago to manage the ursine population.
For the most part, bears and humans coexist without problems. But two years ago, a 22-year-old Rutgers student hiking with friends in nearby West Milford was killed by a 300-pound black bear. This summer, residents have reported a number of run-ins, including a bear that swam laps in a backyard pool and a bear that charged at a woman outside her house.
While most bears roaming through the area are met with fear or indifference, the bipedal bear has provoked the opposite reaction, with local residents and a worldwide internet audience becoming passionate, protective and, most of all, opinionated.
The group that wants to intervene on the bear’s behalf started a petition, collecting 309,000 signatures from places as varied as Indiana and Italy. The petition called on state wildlife officials to capture the bear and send him to a sanctuary in New York state that was ready to take him.
Supporters also raised more than $25,000 to help pay for a new enclosure there. They commiserated on the Facebook page “Pedals the Injured Bipedal Bear.” A typical plea came this summer from Angie Mason, of North Yorkshire, in England: “I feel sick every time I see a picture,” she said. “He must be in agony. How would we feel walking on all fours for 3 years?”
Others feel just as strongly that humans should keep their hands off. According to state wildlife biologists, the bear is doing fine on his own; they estimated his weight at 300 to 350 pounds, though they do not know his age. They believe the bear is a male based on his size and images captured on video.
After a new video of the bear surfaced in June, showing him walking purposefully but cautiously between houses in Oak Ridge, the state’s Division of Fish and Wildlife explained its position in an update on its website.
“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,” the post said. The post concluded: “Therefore, there is no need for intervention at this time.”
It is unclear how the bear was injured. A former state wildlife biologist speculated in 2014, when the bear was first seen, that it was hit by a car. But the bear may also have a congenital defect; in various videos, the right front leg appears truncated, while the left paw dangles.
“Other than the videos, we haven’t been able to get a close look at him,” said Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, adding that biologists did not see a need to examine the bear.
In an interview posted on YouTube last month, Tracy Leaver, founder and executive director of Woodlands Wildlife Refuge in Alexandria Township, N.J., said the desire to help the bear was understandable, but misguided.
“Life is wonderful for this animal right now,” she said. “To take that bear out of that beautiful home range that he’s been living successfully in, and put him in an enclosure anywhere, would be like imprisoning him.”
Macgowan, a database administrator and father of four, first captured the bear in a grainy video in 2014. This summer, his family watched as the bear collected berries from a swampy area behind his property and then shook some crabapples from a tree.
“He’s doing fine in the wild,” Macgowan said. “He just does it on two legs. I think nature is best left where it is.”