Bear Cub Mystery in NYC: Explaining Recent Black Bear News

Black bears have been making headlines lately in the eastern U.S.—but it’s not good news.

This week, a young black bear was found dead in New York City’s Central Park. The six-month-old female had been likely killed by a car, though how she got into the heart of the biggest city in the United States is still a mystery, according to news reports.

A photo of police officers standing near the area in Central Park where a black bear cub was found dead.
Police officers gather near West 69th Street and West Drive in Central Park, where a dead bear cub was discovered on October 6. The black bear cub was spotted by an early morning dog walker. Photograph by Richard Perry, The New York Times/Redux

And in September, a black bear killed a hiker in a New Jersey nature preserve about 40 miles (64 kilometers) from New York City—the first fatal bear attack in the state in 150 years.

The incidents come as the black bear population has steadily grown throughout the U.S. Northeast. National Geographic spoke with Brooke Maslo, a wildlife specialist at Rutgers University with extensive knowledge of black bears, about the recent events and what to do if you encounter a bear. 

How many bears are there in New York and New Jersey, by your estimate?

[In New Jersey], it really ranges anywhere from 2,800 and 3,200 individuals. They’ve been steadily increasing since we’ve been monitoring their population [over the past decade]. Back in 2003 there [were] about 1,500 estimated, and it’s been increasing since then. (See National Geographic’s bear videos.)

Can you speculate on the likelihood that the bear found in Central Park may have somehow been able to get there on its own? 

It is highly unlikely—near impossible—that a bear of any age would wind up in Central Park on its own. Bears are capable of traveling great distances—we’ve seen up to 50 miles [80 kilometers]—but there are no corridors through which a bear could travel into Central Park.

Black bears do not like leaving the cover of dense vegetation, and they certainly wouldn’t be attracted to the noise, lights, and chaos of NYC. Further, a bear of that size would not be without its mother.

How unusual is the bear attack in New Jersey?

A bear fatality is exceptionally rare. I would argue that you still have a much higher chance of being struck by a car or any of the other common fatalities. (Also see “Bear Mauling in Wyoming: Why Do They Attack?”)

For the most part, bears view us as predators, and they have a fear of humans. In general when a human encounters a bear or a bear encounters a human the bear is going to flee.

Is there any reason to believe that there was something wrong with the bear in New Jersey medically, or can you speculate what happened here?

[Considering] the evidence surrounding this fatality it’s pretty clear that this was a predatory attack. Bears are expanding their range, and somewhat rapidly, so just by probability, if you have increased encounters by humans and bears, then you’ll have an increased likelihood of negative interactions.

What advice would you give to anyone who encounters a black bear in nature?

If you’re out and there [are] bears around, you want to make your presence known. You want the bear to detect you and move away from you. As long as they have an escape route they’re fine. (See “Maulings by Bears: What’s Behind the Recent Attacks?“)

It is rare that [an attack like this] would occur, but it is true that the population is expanding and I think that the more people understand about species behavior and biology [the better].

When you get in a car you know what the dangers are and you’re prepared for them. If you walk in the woods in known bear areas you need to be aware of your surroundings and need to be informed.

For more information on black bears in New Jersey and bear-human interactions, see Maslo’s page “Living With Black Bears in New Jersey.”

This Q&A has been edited and condensed.

Follow Stefan Sirucek on Twitter.    

Stefan Sirucek is a writer and journalist who reports from both sides of the Atlantic. He's written for the Huffington Post and Wall Street Journal. Follow him on Twitter at @sirstefan.
  • G. Morris

    We see black bears here ,50 miles from GWB, on a regular basis (weekly). They seem to have acclimated to our suburban surroundings. They walk into the Burger King parking lot and help themselves to the dumpster. Our high school cross country team no longer practices in the woods but runs through town. I was outside cleaning my garbage cans with a bleach/soap solution when I looked up to see a Mama bear inspecting me while her 3 cubs walked past. She was about 2 ft from me. I was very close to my house so I quickly retreated inside and hyperventilated. The bears didn’t seem to care.

    There are so many bears in Northern NJ that at some point they will find their way across the Hudson into NYC. This Central Park bear would look like a dog to the urban dweller from a distance due to her size. If she made it, others will follow.

    Perhaps she was hit by a car in NJ and transported by someone with odd sensibilities. But I have my money on the CentralPark bear being a long distance night time walker.

  • Ima Ryma

    In Central Park, New York City
    A young female, her body found,
    A hit and run, what a pity,
    No sign of family around.
    Discovered in the early morn,
    Authorities investigate,
    And to the public duly warn
    That more of her kind might await..
    Nannies, joggers and walkers will
    For a while heed what they’ve been told.
    She’ll become but memory still,
    The victim only 6 months old.

    How and why was that young girl there,
    Not a place for any black bear!

  • S Berg

    Since there a significant increase in the black bear population. The bears are forced to travel to find new food sources including areas around metropolitan areas. This is the time of year when are scavenging for food before hibernation.

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