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September 07, 2023

Man in Poconos clawed by bear after he foolishly tried to corral it away from Labor Day cookout

The Pennsylvania Game Commission made contact with the man, but will not file any charges or seek to euthanize the animal. Sometimes, bears are killed when they become too comfortable around people

Wildlife Bears
Bear Man Poconos Chen Te/

A black bear in the Poconos scratched a man at a Lake Harmony campsite after he attempted to lead the animal out of a cookout area. The encounter was caught on video.

A cookout in the Poconos over Labor Day weekend took a dicey turn when a hungry black bear entered a campsite. One man managed to guide the animal out of the area in Lake Harmony, but not before the bear took a swipe at him.

Video of the encounter shows the bear lumbering through the lakefront campsite, where a group of people had set up a TV and grill to celebrate the holiday. The bear appears to be docile and unafraid of the people around it.

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As the man approaches the bear and tries leading it to a gate at the edge of the cookout, onlookers implore him to be careful. When he points beyond the gate to encourage the bear to leave, it strikes him with one paw before wandering out of the campsite. The man then reveals a pair of nasty scratches along his torso. (The original source of the video is a private Instagram account). 

The Poconos are home to a heavy concentration of Pennsylvania's growing black bear population, which the Game Commission estimates is about 20,000. In some campgrounds and residential areas surrounded by woods, black bears have become more accustomed to the presence of people and often scavenge for their food.

When black bears aren't afraid of people, that often means they have been fed by humans and view them as a source of food instead of a potential threat. Normally, black bears prefer to keep away from people and will only attack if they or their cubs are directly threatened. Male black bears can weigh up to 600 pounds and females average about 200 pounds.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission said Thursday that officials there had viewed the video and made contact with the man who was clawed. 

"We spoke to him and expressed the issues with initiating such close contact with a bear," spokesperson Travis Lau said. 

The man is not believed to have been seriously injured and he will not face any charges. 

Although Lau would not say whether the bear in Lake Harmony was fed by anyone at that particular campsite, he said its willingness to saunter into the party suggests that others may have done so in the past. The bear also may have gotten used to finding human food by rummaging through trash or accessing areas where it hasn't been properly stored. The Game Commission made it illegal to feed bears in 2003. Violations can result in written warnings or fines of up to $200 if a person is convicted.

On social media, some people were unsurprised to see a video of a bear behaving this way in the Poconos. 

"People who have never lived in the Poconos don’t realize that black bears are basically neighborhood animals there," one person wrote on X, the platform formerly called Twitter. 

"If you ever stayed/lived in the Poconos, specifically Lake Harmony/Albrightsville/Jim Thorpe area, the bears (black), are like this, but move like big dogs," another person wrote. "They won’t maul you, or mess with you, as long as you stay out the way. They’re probably just hungry lol."

Wildlife officials are anything but lax about black bears that show too much comfort with humans. They don't want to risk people getting seriously hurt or killed, even if it means taking the bear's life. 

Bears that are conditioned to human food often can't be successfully relocated, since they tend to return to places where they can find it, according to the National Park Service. Wildlife management officials may attempt to retrain these bears by firing rubber pellets at them when they approach areas with human food, but sometimes the decision is made to euthanize them.

"These animals pose a risk to public safety. They can also teach their cohorts this dangerous behavior," the NPS says. "Often, they must be euthanized."

The bear shown in the video above is not being sought by the Game Commission. Lau said the circumstances don't call for it and they wouldn't have a reliable way to identify the bear without a DNA sample, which they don't have. 

"From what is shown in the video, there wouldn't really be a reason from our perspective to euthanize the bear," Lay said. "Human behavior really is what provoked the attack, and it's a swat rather than a real attack."

The Game Commission did euthanize a bear in Luzerne County earlier this year after two children were injured in an attack at a home in Wright Township, about 30 miles south of Scranton. That bear left behind DNA that the Game Commission was able to use to find it. Although the details of that attack were unclear, the bear was euthanized as a precaution. 

In Carbondale, Lackawanna County, the Game Commission euthanized another bear in 2011 after it became habituated to people feeding it. Concerned citizens had sent in pictures of people hand-feeding the bear at Merli-Sarnoski Park. 

Game wardens approached the bear and attempted to chase it out of the park, to no avail. The bear, a young male that weighed 75 pounds, left temporarily after it was struck twice with rubber buckshot, but it ultimately returned and the decision was made to put it down.

"A habituated bear that has lost its natural fear of humans and begins to associate people with providing food is the type of bear we do not want in the resident bear population," a Game Commission official said at the time. "It would be irresponsible not to remove such a bear after we observed the bear repeatedly confronting people to obtain food. That is why wildlife officials across North America warn that 'a fed bear is a dead bear.'"

Like other wildlife, bears that grow accustomed to human food turn into beggars. Food for humans is higher in calories than a bear's natural diet of foraged fruits, plants, insects, small animals and the remains of dead animals. Bears can become incentivized to make human food a priority, and their behavior can become more unpredictable in the presence of people.

The American Bear Association offers a number of tips for campers to diminish the likelihood of attracting bears, as well as guidance on what to do in the event of an encounter.