Bear's demise leaves a trail of questions

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Bozo the bear is gone, but that's not half the story.

The man who illegally fed pastries to the bruin for 17 years is in mourning. The hunter who legally shot him is grousing about the questions that have been raised over his potential record kill. And across the country people are debating Bozo's death, the line separating humans and wildlife and the consequences when that line is crossed.

On Nov. 15, crossbow archer David Price of Barrett Township, Monroe County, and five companions shot a massive black bear at Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area in northeastern Pennsylvania. Estimated to weigh 879 pounds it was confirmed the heaviest black bear on record in the state -- 15 pounds heavier than the previous record set in 2003 with another Pike County bear. Word from the Pennsylvania Game Commission weighing station was it could be the heaviest black bear anywhere.

News soon spread through the nearby Fernwood Resort, a 440-acre Pocono Mountain retreat, that the dead bear was Bozo, a neighborhood attraction who had been fed and raised like a pet by former resort groundskeeper Leroy Lewis.

"I'm just devastated," Mr. Lewis, 71, told the Stroudsburg Pocono Record. "I feel like I lost a friend. I fed him for 17 years and I raised him from a cub. He loved doughnuts and anything sweet."

Intentionally feeding bears and elk is illegal in Pennsylvania. Working on a tip from a concerned citizen, the Game Commission issued an official warning to Mr. Lewis to stop feeding the bear on Sept. 23. He complied, but Bozo continued hanging around, knocking on Mr. Lewis' door when he wanted a snack.

On the opening of Pennsylvania's five-day archery bear season, Mr. Price got a tip that the huge bear was seen at Delaware Water Gap, and within hours Bozo was history.

But not the kind of history the hunter expected -- the bear's incredible weight is not a viable criterion for determining the record.

"Record status is determined by skull size," said Game Commission spokesman Jerry Feaser. "Weight can vary according to food availability, but the size of the skull doesn't change. [The skull] will be cleaned, and after a 60-day drying time it will be measured for the record."

The largest black bear skull on record is 23 inches. Bozo was unnaturally rotund, to be sure, but his skull size may not come close to cracking the record.

Mr. Lewis had stopped feeding the bear in September, so there's no accusation that Mr. Price's trophy had been baited, which is illegal in Pennsylvania. But because Bozo had been trained to approach people for food, some hunters on Internet chat sites are cracking wise about Mr. Price's "trophy pet."

"This may be the peak of my hunting career, and it's tainted, it really is," he told the Pocono Record.

Having endured a week of reporters, neither Mr. Price nor Mr. Lewis was taking phone calls as news of the kill spread across the country, and the Web buzz morphed into a larger debate about what biologists call the "habituation" of wild animals.

"We have a saying in wildlife management -- a fed bear is a dead bear," said Mr. Feaser. "When people feed wildlife and treat them like pets, they become habituated to humans. They're less wary and may even approach people, expecting to be fed. That will often put the animal at higher risk of vehicle collision, of becoming a nuisance by getting into people's garbage and bird feeders, or even approaching other humans, assuming they'll find food."

There's little harm in feeding songbirds and squirrels, so long as the feeding never stops and becomes a permanent part of the local ecosystem. But larger animals capable of harming people are different. If they don't get food as expected, habituated animals can become confused and aggressive, frightening or even harming people.

"It's not only bears," said Mr. Feaser. "In 2006 in Clinton County, two older people were gored nearly to death by a white-tailed buck that had been hand-fed as a fawn. It had become habituated to humans. In the rut when it didn't get fed, it reacted."

Mo Brown, an animal keeper and bear expert at Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, said Bozo's habituation contributed to its death.

"Whenever you start feeding wild animals, it's always the animals that pay," he said. "The people get a slap on the wrist."

Mr. Brown said Bozo's situation was bad in more ways than one.

"First, the bear ends up dead. That is not uncommon in habituation situations," he said. "Second, look at what that bear was eating. It wasn't record size because it was naturally large -- this bear got fat and probably lazy. Instead of foraging as it should, he was eating doughnuts all his life. Because it was habituated and trained to expect food from people, this poor bear probably walked right up to the guy who killed it."

No necropsy is planned -- Bozo will probably become a big rug or a giant mount -- but Mr. Brown said the bear's corpulence likely caused health problems and discomfort.

"I didn't see the bear, but it was probably in pretty bad shape," said Brown, who has worked at the zoo in various jobs for 40 years. "Clogged arteries, circulation problems. Being so heavy puts pressure on circulation, puts pressure on joints. Almost 900 pounds? Here's how heavy that bear was: At the zoo we have two black bears, one is a 26-year-old male that's considered pretty big. He's 577 pounds, and I'm bringing him down slowly. He could stand to lose 60 or 70 pounds."

Mr. Brown said Bozo's tragic saga illustrates why wild animals shouldn't be treated like pets.

"The point I'm making is: The guy shouldn't have been feeding him to begin with," he said. "He's been doing something wrong for 17 years, and the animal is dead because of him. People have to understand that."

John Hayes: 412-263-1991, .


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