The discovery was unnerving, to say the least. A severed limb found Sunday evening in a yard in Rosedale, Queens, appeared to be the foot of a young child.
A cadaver dog searched the scene. Concern over a missing youth mixed with fears of a child killer.
And then science intervened. Bradley Adams, the chief forensic anthropologist in the New York City medical examiner’s office, inspected the remains on Monday, and decided that the foot most likely belonged to a bear
, said Ellen Borakove, a spokeswoman for the office.
To minimize possible confusion, Ms. Borakove literally spelled it out: “B-E-A-R,”
she said over the telephone.
“How could someone confuse a bear and a human?” Dr. Adams mused in a subsequent phone interview. “It’s more common than you think.”
Indeed, the annals of investigation are replete with tales of severed human appendages that turned out to belong to bears.
“Police: Severed Foot Was Bear’s Paw, Not Child’s,” read the headline on a 2008 dispatch from Alabama. “Mystery Solved: Foot Belonged to Bear,” was the late-breaking word in 2007 from Spotsylvania County, Va. “ ‘Foot’ in NY Recycling Plant Was Bear Paw,” investigators concluded in the Finger Lakes.
After a paw is stripped of fur and some flesh, the main distinguishing characteristics are the claws. But hunters often keep those for souvenirs, leaving behind a jumble of bones similar in appearance to those in the human foot.
The mix-up is so common that lectures and textbooks devoted to forensic anthropology often touch on the similar appearance of bear paws and human feet.
He added, “My hunch is that it’s actually going to be a front paw,” although he noted that a bear’s hind paw could also resemble a human foot.
The paw discovered Sunday night — which was in the early stages of decomposition — was first shipped to the medical examiner’s office in Queens. Dr. Adams said he was confident it belonged to a bear after he viewed an X-ray of the object Monday morning. He later examined the paw itself, which by then had been sent to Manhattan.
The paw, he said, would remain with the medical examiner’s office for teaching purposes.
By late Monday morning, there was only one mystery left: how the bear paw landed on a lawn in Rosedale in the first place.
Dr. Adams ventured a guess: “A hunter shot the bear, and may have cut off the claws for the souvenir.”