The male American black bear, whose injured front legs prevent him from walking on all fours, has been spotted again, garnering a new outpouring of sympathy from people who want him taken to a sanctuary.
However, despite his handicap, "the bear is active, appears healthy, a little larger than last year, and is thriving on its own having adapted to its condition," the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife said in a recent statement. The agency said it will intervene if the animal begins to show signs of weakening health.
Though most don't realize it, bears can recover well from extreme injuries, says bear expert Dave Garshelis, who has witnessed several remarkable ursine survival stories.
One bear hit by a car lost both a front leg and a hind leg. “You can imagine, first the trauma involved and then having to recover while those two legs basically [rotted] off. Then he had to learn to walk again diagonally, on just those two legs, and that bear seemed to do fine,” says Garshelis, of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. (See "Black Bears Are Rebounding—What Does That Mean for People?")
Another bear lost its entire lower jaw to an injury. Without its bottom teeth, “it learned to kind of mash berries with its paws and then lick them off,” Garshelis recalls.
Then there was a two-year-old bear attacked in his den by wolves, which chewed off his ears and entire nose pad. “He had so much scar tissue that he couldn't breathe through his nose—and a bear is totally focused on finding food through a sense of smell that's far better than the best hound dog's.”
Somehow the bear survived, only to be shot by a human in an apiary, a place where bees—and honey—are kept. "But he wasn't there by accident,” Garshelis says. “Somehow he was still able to find food.” (Also see "Dead Cubs, Illegal Baiting Lead to Bear Hunt Suspension.")
Getting Into a Bear's Skin
So how can bears overcome such grisly injuries? For starters, they're simply a lot tougher than we are, he says.
“It's hard to put yourself in the skin of these animals and what they go through day after day."
To those who fear the animals are suffering, Garshelis says that "they don't have nearly the pain sensitivity that we do. A person with that much pain really wouldn't be able to keep going and survive.”
What's more, bears seem to heal more quickly than people, and “we don't see extreme infections going on, even with some really bad wounds in these animals," he says. (See "What the World's Toughest Animal Is Really Made Of.")
Of course, there are limits, Garshelis notes, particularly in bears with birth defects. “We've seen very few bears that have been born with serious deformities survive after their mothers stop feeding them.”
That's because it's not beneficial for the species if genetic defects are passed on to another generation, Garshelis explains.
Instead, evolution favors resilience.
“It's not atypical for a cub to fall out of a tree and maybe break a leg,” he says. “Those that can survive are going to have valuable traits to pass on compared to those cubs who just died because they couldn't overcome having a broken leg.” (See National Geographic's bear pictures.)
As for Pedals, he's proven himself to be a survivor. And the suburban stomping grounds that have made him a social-media star may also help to keep him that way.
“He's probably getting a lot of food around people's houses, and he seems to walk really well on flat surfaces," Garshelis says.
"If he was in the woods and had to negotiate a lot of uneven ground, steep hills, and obstacles, I think it would be tougher for him.”