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Bear encounters . . . conflict in controversy

Black bears are in the center of controversy in Central Florida.
Photo By: China Photos/Getty Images

In Chicago, "Da Bears" are a rallying cry for the city. Animals are iconic images for many sports teams, school nicknames and other venues. They are symbols of pride, competition and admiration. However, in some places like Florida, they are controversial figures embedded in nuisance complaints and sometimes fierce encounters.

In early December a fifty-four year-old Seminole County, Florida woman was mauled by a bear in a residential subdivision in what is being called ". . . the most serious bear attack in Florida history". The attack and the proceeding actions have spurred a hot button issue that has drawn considerable media attention for weeks on end.

For some this is simply a human takes precedence over anything to do with animals issue with the perspective that humans rule and animals merely exist. For others, it is a delicate balance between human safety and the survival of wildlife as each tries to co-exist with the other in an ever disappearing line between the habitat each calls home. This columnist believes strongly in the rights of animals and does not favor the opinion that the human species holds dominion over them. We should protect animals, but not feel we are their superior. However, that said, for each of us there is always a concern about your safety and the safety of your two and four-legged family members should you encounter wildlife or other non-human creatures in your neighborhood or other vulnerable places. Like we said, it is a delicate balance.

The Orlando Sentinel (November 24, 2013) is now calling Central Florida "Bearlando". "They lumber down the street as if they own the place – and who are we to argue? . . . Florida black bears, once a threatened species, seem everywhere these days. In trees. In trash. On porches. In pools . . . They know no boundaries: In the past five years, bear complaints more than doubled statewide to 6,189 in 2012, according to an Orlando Sentinel analysis of a state wildlife database."

So where do we place blame? For whomever is to blame there is no denying a problem exists, but being human we always want someone or something to point to as the guilty party. Sure the animal bears some responsibility in cases like this. After all, the bear launched a seemingly unprovoked attack. However, as the December 5th Orlando Sentinel editorial proclaims in its headline, "Human irresponsibility worsens bear problem".

There is no question that we love bears. We count Duffy, Winnie the Pooh, Fozzie, Yogi, Smokey and countless others as our friends and protectors. We line our shelves with collections of these loveable souls and watch them stir our hearts on television and theme parks throughout the world. However, the bears we see in our neighborhoods and parks are real and ". . . don't behave like Gentle Ben."

In the December attack, it is sad to say that the human victim ". . . appears to be collateral damage, in part to neighbor irresponsibility. Bears can smell a meal from over a mile away. Homeowners who don't properly secure their trash cans or bird feeders, or stock compost piles with tasty treats, might as well send bears a dinner invitation. Through feasting on garbage bears become desensitized to people. And bolder."

Yes, humans are often irresponsible and the animals suffer as a result. The more we develop areas close to the homes of bears and other wildlife, and then practically send them an embossed dinner invitation, the more we put ourselves in jeopardy while placing blame on the animals at large. Then when the inevitable happens and the nuisance complaints or worse begin we rush to take sides on what to do.

In the recently released Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's (FWC) report on the Seminole County incident, the victim said, "That bear was trying to kill me, it just kept coming." As a result of her severe injuries, this ". . . led to the trapping of six bears, two of which were euthanized, and a family of three that was later relocated to a temporary home — a nonpublic area at Busch Gardens in Tampa."

We understand the need to provide human safety. One commenter to the December 31st Orlando Sentinel story stated, ". . . To all of you who question why I dare live in bear country, my house is 25 years old and never had a bear issue until 2 years ago. FWC needs to protect the humans first and bears second." That's probably the popular sentiment, but not everyone necessarily agrees. We would like to see the day when both humans and animals can co-exist without the need for violence to control one side or the other.

For some, however, the killing mentality is the first thing that comes to the forefront when public safety is threatened by animals. Even the innocent animals are tried and sentenced to death without evidence to support this action. In his December 20th commentary, Orlando Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell wrote, "So the state not only killed the wrong bear, it killed two of them. And the one that did maul a Longwood woman was relocated and allowed to live . . . If a relocated life was good enough for the mama bear that injured someone, it would seem good enough for the bears whose only 'crime' was being lured to a doughnut-laced trap. Also, if the state's going to DNA-test bears, let's wait for the test results before killing them . . . Still, the state needs to take a step back and develop more comprehensive solutions for dealing with bear-human interactions. No more ready-fire-aim."

In the aftermath of all of this Thomas Eason, FWC's director of its Division of Habitat and Species Conservation, admitted "we could've done better." That assessment came amid "community outrage" over the killing of the two innocent bears. Furthermore, said Eason, "There are things we could've done better, but we were reacting to a tragic situation. We are dedicated to being better." For the sake of the bears and those who care about them we certainly hope so.

Reading some of the comments that have been written in reaction to FWC's response to this incident tells us that a lot of people are both angry and concerned. In the sample of citizen comments posted by the Orlando Sentinel that follow you can feel the nerve this incident and the response to it have evoked:

"People need to stop feeding the bears . . . This is not the Country Bear Jamboree. This is the real world. A fed bear is a dead bear, and we just sentenced another one to death." (12/4/13)

". . . Why didn't officials take the captured bear that mauled the woman to the Ocala forest or perhaps to a zoo? What happened was tragic, but it wasn't necessary to kill the bear because the public was outraged and the news media made a big deal of it. I am disappointed this bear was murdered by man. What will be killed next? What else is possible?" (12/7/13)

"We must thank state Sen. David Simmons and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation commission for setting us back 150 years . . . I'm ready to strap on my six-gun, pick up some 'Wanted: Dead or Alive' posters at the marshal's office and go after anyone who comes anywhere near the description on them. After all, if it's good enough for the bears, it's good enough for us fine, upstanding humans. I guess it's too bad our first attempt to eliminate the Florida black bear was unsuccessful. According to Simmons, the bears are now doing the encroaching. I guess that means Central Florida is no longer destroying bear habitat in the name of development. How ridiculous. We continue to push the black bear and many other species out of their habitats to satisfy our own selfish needs. They have two choices: Give up and perish, or move – a concept that, apparently, is too simple for a politician to understand. Nature had everything figured out until us humans came along. We're the only species on the planet with the intelligence to understand nature and help make things work. Unfortunately, we're also the only one with the stupidity to upset nature's apple cart." (12/11/13)

". . . Anyone with wildlife experience would know the habitat area is too small or there is an insufficient food supply. With the growing population in Florida, and limited land available for reserves and parks, it is evident that the herd is too large for the land available. Therefore, manage the herd . . . Northern-tier states have had excellent animal-management programs for decades. They regulate their herds through hunting programs that bring revenue into the states' treasuries. This move to capture a bear cub, put it into lockup until the real perpetrator is caught and put the cub back into the reserve is a waste of taxpayers' money. There is not adequate food for the number of bears in the reserve. They will come back to the city to get food for survival. And, because of this, there is a pretty good chance that additional residents will be injured, or worse, killed." (12/11/13)

". . . After reading about the bear attack and subsequent euthanasia of a female bear, I was saddened but not surprised. Now with a second bear euthanized days later, it seems we are frightfully close to using the 'kill 'em all and let God sort it out' tactic. A baited trap will attract any bear – that's the point. Given today's science, it would seem the bears could be captured and held long enough to match DNA to the attack, and innocent bears would not die because people did not follow the state guidelines that are available everywhere." (12/12/13)

". . . Why are we so quick to put an animal down, especially a wild animal? . . . We need to weigh all the options before killing an animal that has never been trained to interact with humans. This planet is as much theirs as it is ours. We are the ones encroaching on their territory. It is no wonder they become dangerous to others – the familiar living areas are fast disappearing. We must find a way to save the animals and learn to live with them or make sure they have a place to live alone. We spend millions in tax money purchasing land – spend some of it to ensure the animals are not displaced because a developer wants to start another housing project." (12/13/13)

"Euthanizing animals without reliable proof that the animal was involved is wrong . . . As we have heard for years, do not feed wild animals (including bears). If there is no food in the area they will not hang out. People must make responsible choices; the animals make survival choices." (12/13/13)

"Bears are unpredictable and dangerous to humans. I don't care if they were here first. Bears do not belong in our cities or neighborhoods. Human security in these areas is more important than bears roaming wherever they please." (12/14/13)

". . . For many years I've hiked the state forests with boy scouts. One thing is certain; there are no more 'remote' areas. All of the forests are accessible to hikers. I worry about the day when a relocated bear puts a young scout in the hospital . . . There are only two realistic choices when dealing with a bear that has become overly aggressive toward humans: keep it in a cage or kill it." (12/14/13)

"I do sympathize with those who are condemning euthanasia of an animal that, after all, was here before us humans. Still, I think people's safety comes first. The fact that six bears have been captured in the Longwood area following a week of trappings confirms there are way too many bears in that community. Euthanizing them is probably the most cost-effective way of solving a dangerous problem. Give the meat to Humane Society shelters, sell the fur (I'm sure bearskin rugs are outrageously expensive), and use the proceeds for some wildlife-benefiting cause. . . ." (12/18/13)

"'Maybe it is man who will eventually perish as he destroys the land and all that it offers, taking the animals down with him.' . . . Perhaps it is time that we leave some land for Florida's wildlife to survive so they won't have to roam into neighborhoods looking for food. We have murderers, child molesters and hardened criminals roaming the streets. They do wrong; they get a fair trial, maybe incarceration and a chance for parole. Homeless, hungry bears, be they aggressive or not, do not get a fair trial. They sometimes get the death penalty. Go figure . . . One day our future generations will probably stand in a museum just to see what a mighty Southern oak tree looks like and the wildlife it provided food and shelter for – all because of the greedy hand of man." (12/26/13)

Everybody has an opinion about the bears and some even offer solutions, but it is those solutions that have sparked much disagreement. At the same time there is great love for these beautiful animals there is also fear they are dangerous beasts waiting to strike at random moments. The rights of animals and the public safety factor they create can divide us into factions that shout from opposite sides of the street, but we must find a way to be safe and co-exist at the same time.

However, understand there will never be a one-hundred percent perfect solution anymore than there is a one-hundred percent perfect solution for humans interacting with each other. If there was, crime wouldn't exist.

One of the solutions some gun-toting Floridians will rely on is to hunt. Of course, hunting by its very nature is a killers paradise where man can aim a rifle at a four-legged prey and dispatch a bloodlust that reigns inside them.

To be truthful, this column abhors hunting and the wild west mentality that we somehow have the right as humans to destroy an animal's life. Yes we know that public safety is an issue, but a thin the herd mentality is no more than rounding up a group to kill be they innocent or not. The whole debate about whether any animal should be euthanized for reasons or than medical compassion is on a whole other level and will be fodder for another day.

The hunting issue or euthanasia of Florida black bears is front and center in today's column. When asked in a poll published by the Orlando Sentinel on December 13th, sixty-seven percent of responders voted NO to the question "Should animals that attack humans be euthanized?" Furthermore, in an Orlando Sentinel poll published on December 27th, again sixty-seven percent of responders voted NO this time to the question of "Should Florida allow hunters to kill black bears?" Sounds like the black bears have a majority of supporters; at least according to these polls.

One unique take on the hunting issue was offered in a December 15th letter to the Orlando Sentinel. The commenter felt a non-lethal "hunting" approach could be applied, as follows:

". . . Hunting them in proximity of neighborhoods would be out of the question. But, if one shoots a bear with a shotgun blast using a harmless but stinging projectile, the bear would think he or she was being hunted. This could be done by fish and game authorities or by authorized reputable hunters the way they do with problem alligators." This should keep bears in their sanctioned areas where they would self regulate their population with the food available. Having fine dining from garbage and break-ins of pantries artificially boosts their numbers, compared to foraging in the woods producing a continually growing problem."

What do you think of that solution? It's still hunting, but we guess some might actually think it an acceptable solution since the bears wouldn't be killed. That said, however, hunting of any kind seems unlikely given the sense of the people. Said Mike Orlando, bear-management program assistant coordinator with FWC, in Beth Kassab's November 30th Orlando Sentinel column, "Even though bears may be biologically sustainable, the public support for a hunt is overwhelmingly negative." After all, ". . . no one wants to see Yogi get shot."

Kassab believes in a more direct solution in which people". . . stop doing the things that attract bears in the first place." On their website FWC offers this advice to keep bears away:

  • Secure household garbage in a shed, garage or a wildlife-resistant container (like a bear-resistant container or caddy).
  • Put household garbage out on morning of pickup rather than the night before.
  • Secure commercial garbage in bear-resistant dumpsters.
  • Protect gardens, apiaries, compost and livestock with electric fencing.
  • Encourage your homeowners association or local government to institute ordinances on keeping foods that attract wildlife secure.
  • Feed pets indoors or bring in dishes after feeding.
  • Clean grills and store them in a locked, secure place.
  • Remove wildlife feeders or make them bear-resistant.
  • Pick ripe fruit from trees and remove fallen fruit from the ground - bears love fruit!
  • Screened enclosures ARE NOT SECURE and WILL NOT keep bears out.

FWC also says that people can ". . . purchase or build your own bear or wildlife resistant garbage containers or caddy. Making these changes around your home and encouraging your neighbors to do the same will discourage bears from associating your community with an easy food source. Remember - if your neighbors don't become bear smart, too, the bear can tear up their yard…before coming for yours. It is illegal to intentionally place food or garbage out that attracts bears and causes conflicts. Anything that attracts dogs, cats or raccoons will attract bears, too!"

If you see or suspect that someone is feeding or attracting bears, you can call FWC at their Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-3922.

Let's not kid ourselves and think this issue will magically resolve itself like the end to a Disney movie. Conflict between bears and people may continue, but with vigilance by people adhering to the tips offered they can at least be minimized. However, just like in the human world incidents may occur no matter how vigilant you may be. With that in mind, let's not encourage future conflict by creating the situations that force bears into more contact with people.

The State of Florida is in a selling mood and thinking only of dollars instead of common sense when making parcels available for sale that were conservation land. Even residents where the woman was mauled in ". . . Central Florida's 'bear country' . . . are fighting a state plan to sell off 27 acres of conservation land on the edge of the Wekiwa Springs State Park, a few miles from the site of the attack."

These residents recognize the pressure placed upon the bears when people encroach their dwindling habitat. Said Randall Turner, who organized a group opposed to the proposed sale, "We're moving into their area then we complain when they get into our garbage, damage our property and attack our pets."

The League of Women Voters is also fighting sale of the so-called "surplus conservation land." Chuck O'Neal, chairman of the League's Natural Resources Committee, said, "Though small, the parcels serve as wildlife corridors which, if developed, would force more bears into contact with people. It's only going to compound the problem."

Said William Giuliano, University of Florida wildlife-management professor and advisor to FWC, "The habitat issues are simply that we have developed in what was bear habitat. This has not been a problem for the past few decades because bear populations were low and the remaining undeveloped habitat provided enough space for bears to exist. But that's changed. Now that bear populations are again growing in much of Florida, they are in need of more space."

Could it be that just maybe the human species is the real problem here? We move in and wildlife are displaced. Then when they show up in our neighborhoods can we actually be surprised? We don't want to see either people or the bears hurt so we must find a way to co-exist. Selling off land deemed for conservation isn't the answer. Neither is "ready-fire-aim". We deserve to be safe, but so do the bears.

Citizens speak up and stop your state from selling the conservation land right out from under the bears and other wildlife that thrive on that land for their home. Moreover, we need to follow advice and stop doing the things attracting bears to our neighborhoods. There are no guarantees that future conflicts won't happen, but let's do what we can to help make both people and animals as safe as we can be.

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