For Zela Elementary School principal James Marsh, Monday morning was one he won’t soon forget. At 7:15 a.m. on May 1, Marsh was going through his normal routine and opening the school’s dumpster out back. As he unlocked and lifted the metal bar that held the plastic lid down, he found himself face to face with a roaring black bear.
Security cameras outside the West Virginia elementary school captured the arm’s-length encounter. The video has since gone viral as it’s been picked up by news outlets around the country. It shows the principal’s startled reaction to the bruin, which had been inside the dumpster for roughly five hours by the time Marsh opened the lid. The bear looks equally frightened as it jumps down and runs away in the opposite direction.
What the viral video clip doesn’t show is the behind-the-scenes footage that principal Marsh captured on his personal trail cam. In an interview with Outdoor Life, Marsh explained that he installed the trail camera to try to get a close-up shot of the dumpster-diving bear in action. The series of clips that he captured are pure gold, and they show how easily the scavenging bear was able to climb in and out of the “locked” dumpster.
“He was so strong that he’d just flip that metal lock bar, bend it up, and squirm right in,” Marsh says. “Then he’d wriggle out. He was never locked or trapped in there.”
A lifelong outdoorsman, Marsh says the black bear started coming around the elementary school the week prior. It was first caught on the school’s security camera on April 23.
“He’d been in there about a week before, and he left a mess,” he explains. “We looked at him on the nighttime surveillance video, and then we called the sanitation department. They came out and put that lock on it, and then I never saw him again.”
The bear would come back days later, according to the timestamps on Marsh’s trail cam footage. A clip that was recorded around 4 a.m. on April 30 shows the bear scaling and falling into the dumpster. (Another clip shows it climbing back out and walking away.) Recognizing the giant trash receptacle as a new favorite food source, the black bear returned to the dumpster again on May 1 during the wee hours of the morning. Only this time, it never left.
“That Monday morning, he crawled in right before 2 a.m. and never came out,” Marsh says. “My guess is he was full, his belly was satisfied, and he just plopped down and took a nap. And I probably woke him up, I’d say.”
Marsh explains that he contacted the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources after their close encounter. The agency reinforced the metal bar with a two-by-four, but he says it wasn’t enough to keep the bear out of there. Unsurprisingly, it came back late at night on May 2 for another helping of discarded cafeteria food.
“I scared him for about a day, but it wasn’t enough,” Marsh says. “He didn’t stay this time, but I called the sanitation department today and they’re welding some metal lids that won’t bend. I think once we do that, we’ll be able to keep him out of there.”
If necessary, Marsh says the DNR will trap and relocate the bear. He’s hoping to avoid that, since most black bears will return to a known food source, and when that happens, wildlife officers typically have no choice but to euthanize the animal. Marsh hopes that by reinforcing the dumpster and keeping the bear out, it will eventually give up and move on from the school.