Pedals, New Jersey’s beloved upright-walking black bear, appears to have been a casualty of this year’s bear hunt.
The wild animal had been captured on film ambulating in a distinctly human fashion — hence his name, short for “bipedal.” Pedals had a visible disability in his front forepaws, though he appeared to be in good health surviving in the wild.
He was first filmed in 2014 and quickly accumulated a fan following. Whenever a few months passed without a sighting, his triumphant return to the public eye would make local headlines. Several of the videos went viral, making Pedals not only a local celebrity but a national one.
Most recently, Pedals was documented this June strolling around a golf course in Oak Ridge, N.J. More than 1 million people viewed the video, which offered a clear look at the bear (unlike some grainier footage, where he might be mistaken for a person in a bear costume).
This fall, there were whispers of trouble. Since 2010, New Jersey has held an annual bear hunt; this year, it was expanded for the first time. The hunt ended on Saturday.
Before the end of the bear hunting season, there were rumors that Pedals had been among the bears taken down by hunters.
A Facebook page dedicated to Pedals sightings — which has since been deactivated — reportedly posted on the alleged death with all-caps distress: “PEDALS IS DEAD,” the posting read, according to the PhillyVoice.
The posting reportedly said the hunter who took him down with an arrow “wanted him dead for nearly 3 years” and bragged about the kill.
The state’s Department of Environmental Protection initially declined to comment on the allegations, saying in a statement it has “no way of verifying the identity of any bear that has not been previously tagged or had a DNA sample previously taken.”
But now the department has released photos of a bear with Pedals’ distinctive disability, The Associated Press reports. An official said the agency does believe that Pedals was killed in the hunt, the AP says, while reiterating that there’s no DNA evidence or bear tag to rely on.
Pedals had previously been the topic of debate in New Jersey, between people who believed he should be taken to a wildlife sanctuary and those who pointed out he seemed to be thriving and should be allowed to continue to live in the wild.
A GoFundMe page raised more than $22,000 to build Pedals his own enclosure. But New Jersey officials were not convinced that Pedals needed rescuing; some donations were refunded and others went to an enclosure for orphaned bear cubs instead, the organizers say.
Now that it’s seemingly too late to send Pedals to safety, some people have adopted a new mission: ending the bear hunts.
NJ.com reports that a state senator is pushing a bill that would ban the black bear hunting season and replace it with a nonlethal population control system.
A total of 562 bears were killed in this year’s hunt, according to the state’s Fish and Wildlife division.