TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Pedals the bipedal bear can clearly stand on its own two feet — but activists in his northern New Jersey terrain wonder for how long.
The bear, which gained fame after first being spotted last year ambling around neighborhoods and caught in videos that were posted on social media and played on national television, apparently has some sort of leg or paw injury that won't allow it to spend much time on all fours, experts say.
The question now is, how much should the state do to help one bear as hibernation and hunting seasons near? Animal activists and state officials are at odds.
Activists worry the bear's health has declined since last year and fear it might not survive a harsh winter, though forecasters say this winter will likely not be as cold as last. They doubt the bear can run, climb or defend itself, or even eat properly. They hope it can be moved to a sanctuary in New York, but New Jersey officials say more information is needed before a decision can be made.
"We are not inclined to take (the bear) out of its natural habitat unless there is a compelling reason for it," state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Larry Hajna said. "We need more information. We need to be able to assess its weight and its overall physical condition."
Complicating matters is that Pedals hasn't been heard from in nearly three weeks. State officials say that may mean the bear is off foraging on acorns somewhere — which would be a good thing.
The activists, though, have vowed to continue their fight. They visited the New Jersey Statehouse and the state environmental offices on Tuesday to drop off petitions supporting relocation, and staged a small rally to raise awareness of Pedals' status. They say more than 290,000 people have signed the petitions.
The debate over Pedals' future comes ahead of a statewide bear hunt scheduled for Dec. 7-11 and an expanded hunt in 2016 that was recently approved in an effort to better control the state's large bear population.
Greg Macgowan, who shot a video of the bear, says it's common to see bears in the area, which lies beyond the suburban edge of Newark and New York City in one of the wildest areas of settled northern New Jersey.
But he admits he "freaked out" when he first saw the bear, nicknamed by the community of Oak Ridge, where he has turned up.
"We are used to him now, and he seems to have adapted well to his disability," Macgowan said, adding that the bear was spotted "fairly often" in July and August.
Macgowan's video shows the bear comfortably walking on two feet through yards in a neighborhood and then crossing a road to enter woods. Other videos show similar scenes.
Hajna noted that wild animals frequently overcome injuries and adapt, and that Pedals doesn't always avoid walking on fours.
"Despite its injuries to its front legs, we have seen video of the bear dropping down to three legs," Hajna said. "It doesn't walk only on its hind legs."
Activists hope Pedals can be captured and placed at the Orphaned Wildlife Center in Otisville, New York. Center officials say that they are open to taking the bear in, and that funds have been raised to build a special enclosure for Pedals.
New York and New Jersey officials would both have to approve the placement, however, and it appears New York's regulations will not allow that to happen, even if New Jersey gave approval. New York limits wildlife facilities to one special permit to take in a bear with special needs, and officials have said the Orphaned Wildlife Center already has one such permit.