A man hiking in a nature preserve in New Jersey is believed by authorities to have been fatally attacked by a black bear weighing 300 pounds. The attack occurred on Sunday in the Apshawa Preserve, located approximately 45 miles north and west of New York City. Covering 576 acres, the natural area is a popular spot for bird watching and hiking.
According to police in West Milford, a group of five friends, all of whom are from Edison, N.J., were hiking in the preserve on Sunday. Upon encountering the bear at approximately 3:44 p.m., the friends, who police say were inexperienced in hiking, became fearful and ran off separately in different directions, a move that experts believe put the individual members at greater risk of being attacked by the bear. When they joined back together, one of the group, Darsh Patel, was missing. The remaining hikers phoned authorities.
Searchers discovered the body of Patel, 22, at 5:54 p.m. According to the police chief of West Milford, Timothy Storbeck, Patel’s body contained evidence of claw and bite marks.
Police Captain Richard Fiorilla said that when Patel’s body was found, the bear was making a circle around the area approximately 35 yards away. Storbeck said that searchers clapped loudly in order to try to scare the bear away, but it would not leave and instead remained as if to protect the body. The bear was estimated to be around four years old and according to Fiorilla, was euthanized near the scene of the attack by an officer with a shotgun.
Due to the ongoing investigation by the N.J. State Medical Examiner, the Fish and Wildlife Division of the N.J. State Department of Environmental Protection and West Milford police, the identities of the hikers with Patel on Sunday are not being released. As part of the investigation, the stomach contents of the bear will be examined by the DEP in order to determine if the bear was injured or sick at the time of the attack.
Patel attended the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University. He was a senior majoring in informatics and information technology. Chancellor Richard L. Edwards of Rutgers released a statement today expressing support for Patel’s family, friends and fellow students.
Although bears are a common sight in West Milford, this is only the second time that Fiorilla has heard a report of a human/bear interaction during his 23 years with the West Milford Police Department. The only problems presented by the bears usually are limited to their search for food in houses, yards and garbage. A spokesman for the DEP, Lawrence Hajna, said that the last report in New Jersey of a fatal attack by a black bear was in 1852.
The director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, Jeffrey Tittel, said bears are afraid of people and will try to avoid interaction. Any bear attacks that do occur are usually related to certain bears having been fed by humans or exposed to humans with food enough times to have learned to associate people with food. According to Storbeck, the hikers were carrying water and granola bears, but it is difficult to say if that amount and type of food would be enough to attract the bear. The food inside of Patel’s pack was undisturbed.
Tittel believes that measures such as bear-proof trash receptacles and strict rules against feeding bears would help to prevent bear attacks. In addition, he would like to see signage to warn people that they are in “bear country and have educational materials listed at all trail heads.” Larry Ragonese with the DEP advises hikers to avoid running from or making eye contact with a bear. He suggests that people who encounter a bear should speak assertively and make slow, gradual movements.
By Jennifer Pfalz