The furry black mass lay hidden under a bush near Central Park’s main loop, unnoticed, unmoving and partially concealed by an abandoned bicycle. A dog rustling in the brush drew the first eyes to the bush and a sight rarely, if ever, found in modern Manhattan: a baby black bear, dead.
A call to 911 followed and soon yellow police tape cordoned off the area near West 69th Street as detectives found themselves facing a mysterious crime scene on a sunny Monday morning.
How the animal, a three-foot-long female, got to that spot remained a mystery at day’s end: a cub, probably born this year, somehow separated from her mother and from anything resembling a natural habitat.
Bears have not been seen outside captivity in the park in recent memory. History records the shooting of a wild black bear in Manhattan, but it was several centuries ago. “This is a highly unusual situation,” said Elizabeth Kaledin, a spokeswoman for the Central Park Conservancy. “It’s awful.”
The police described the bear as having had trauma to her body, but it was not immediately clear how she had died.
“The mouth was open and it looked bloody,” said Florence Slatkin, 79, who found the bear while walking her dog, a Chihuahua mix named Paco, with a friend near her Upper West Side home. “At first, I thought it was a raccoon.” She said her friend’s dog first drew their attention to the bicycle before they noticed the dead animal by one wheel.
Nearby, New Yorkers increasingly familiar with wildlife sightings — a coyote in the park, a dolphin off Throgs Neck in the Bronx — offered theories of their own. Some suspected foul play. Others guessed an accident with a car. One man confidently pronounced the bear old enough to have wandered over from Morris County, N.J.
For several hours, detectives with the Police Department’s Animal Cruelty Investigation Squad pored over the grass and bushes near the bustling central drive, searching for clues and trying to determine how the bear had ended up in the park and whether she could have been alive when she arrived.
Lucas Altman told the police that he believed one of his two black Labradors had sniffed the bear during their walk Sunday night. An officer told him the bear appeared to have been dragged to the spot where she was found. “They don’t at this moment think the bear wandered there on its own,” Mr. Altman said, suggesting nefarious human involvement.
Perhaps that is how the bear evaded notice — in life and in death — as it came to rest in a section of the park usually packed with tourists, bicycle riders and pedestrians but barren of large wildlife. After finding the body around 9:30 a.m., Ms. Slatkin alerted members of the park’s staff, who called the police.
Black bear populations have grown in recent years around the city, particularly in New Jersey, where they have no natural predators, said Patrick R. Thomas, associate director of the Bronx Zoo, run by the Wildlife Conservation Society. Bears once roamed the city, but had not done so for quite some time, he said. “There’s a record of one being shot in Manhattan in 1630,” he said.
By late afternoon, a park ranger in orange gloves and a detective secured the bear’s body in a tarp and placed it in a car bound for a suburb of Albany where the State Department of Environmental Conservation’s wildlife pathology unit was to determine the cause of death.
State law prohibits bears from being kept as pets, and Ms. Kaledin said there were currently no bears in the Central Park Zoo, though an exhibit with two grizzly bears is to open there soon.
Giovanna Di Bernardo, who lives nearby, described the bear’s appearance, not to mention her death, as “puzzling.”
She had seen plenty of weird things on her regular walks in the park. A rabid raccoon for instance. But this, she said, this she would put at the top of the list.