A furry corpse on a wooden bench in the center of N.C. State University’s campus made for a tableau that few who saw it Tuesday morning will soon forget.
If the dead black bear was a prop in an end-of-classes joke, it certainly got people’s attention, both on campus and beyond once it hit the media.
“That’s just like committing murder, as far as I’m concerned,” said Johnnie Dale, a professional hunting guide out of Selma who learned about the bear late Tuesday. “It’s out of season, and they killed it for a foolish prank – to kill a bear for a prank, that’s unacceptable.”
Now wildlife investigators are combing through evidence, including surveillance footage, to try to determine who killed the black bear and left it sprawled across a bench, apparently intentionally, near the Brickyard on Tuesday morning.
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A facilities worker found the full-grown bear’s corpse just as classes began at 8 a.m. Photos were online immediately.
“I walked out there to see,” said Joe Oakes, a graduate student in crop science with a nearby office. “There was probably already 30 or 40 folks standing out there.”
Wildlife Resources Commission employees loaded the animal into a pickup truck about an hour later, shipping it first to their headquarters and then to the state’s Rollins Laboratory on Blue Ridge Road. A tooth from the back of the mouth should tell investigators the victim’s age.
“It’s just like counting tree rings,” said Colleen Olfenbuttel, the state’s biologist on bears and fur-bearing animals.
A recent death
A necropsy will confirm whether the bear was shot or perhaps hit by a car. The animal appears relatively whole in photos, but a bear’s boxy frame can conceal fatal injuries from a car, Olfenbuttel said.
The animal apparently died recently. Geoffrey Cantrell, spokesman for the Wildlife Resources Commission, saw no signs of prolonged storage as he and two other men loaded the carcass into the state truck.
Cantrell wouldn’t say how someone may have gotten the bear onto campus.
“There are a lot of parts of evidence that we are examining right now,” he said, including camera footage.
A more elusive truth may be the motive for the deathly bit of campus theater. Oakes figures it was a stupid prank, but that doesn’t explain why someone had 200 pounds of bear available for a practical joke.
Hunting season, after all, ended at least four months ago in North Carolina and surrounding states. And while bear populations have quadrupled since 1980, a full-grown adult is not easy to find.
“A guy can come in and hunt five days and not even catch a glimpse of a bear,” said Dale, who has guided hunts for 32 years. “It’s kind of rare. I can’t imagine where they got it, unless they just stumbled upon it somewhere and shot it.”
Bears come out in daylight and travel into new areas more often during this time of year, as breeding season approaches, Dale said. The animals are an increasingly common sight around the Triangle in recent years, though researchers haven’t identified a stable population here.
North Carolina’s wildlife officers aren’t new to bear-dumping cases.
A bear appeared last June along a road in Buncombe County with the phrase “WHATS BRUIN?” written across its head and the letters w-h-a-t-s b-r-u-i-n across its claws. Investigators think someone defaced the corpse in response to Operation Something Bruin, a multistate crackdown on bear poaching.
The federal government and the N.C. Wildlife Federation have offered a $20,000 reward in that case.
A hefty fine possible
The Raleigh case could bring several charges and a hefty bill for whoever is responsible, assuming the bear was killed intentionally.
“Wildlife in North Carolina is a shared public resource,” said Cantrell, the Wildlife Resources Commission spokesman. “It belongs to you and me and everyone else. They could have to pay for replacement of that animal.”
More specifically, North Carolina values black bears at $2,232 apiece, and the state can fine off-season hunters accordingly. The perpetrators also could face a misdemeanor charge of unlawful taking, along with a fine, and potentially a felony charge of animal cruelty, according to Cantrell.
“If they find out who they are – and they will – they’re looking at about five grand,” said Dale, the hunting guide.
He figures it wasn’t a true hunter, or even a poacher, that left the corpse.
“If a hunter did it, he would do it for the meat and for the hide and the head,” he said. “Any time you leave an animal like this, it’s a bad deal.”
An illegal killing of the bear would represent a violation of rules that have brought the animals’ population from about 4,000 to nearly 20,000 and expanded their presence toward the center of the state from the mountains and the coast.
“We have regulations to make sure we can not only have a sustainable hunting season, but so the bear population continues to thrive,” Olfenbuttel said.
“The regulations have worked well for decades because we now have a thriving bear population – so whenever there’s a violation of those rules, yes, it upsets us all.”