Grin and Bear It
They startle, entertain and provide a dose of frontier living in the midst of suburbia. Black bears aren’t going anywhere soon—and we can live with that.
By Gregory Miller
JENNY SUE RHOADES
It’s hard to tell FROM the fuzzy black blob in the photo, but the object lying below my bedroom window was a black bear—200 pounds of wild Yogi sleeping off whatever your smarter-than-the-average ursine wanderer
sleeps off on a drizzly morning.
I spotted him as I walked to the kitchen for breakfast, then forgot to put on my glasses and fumbled the focus on the old camera I had at the time. So my only evidence of this visit 10 years ago is a picture that seems to show a big pile of dirt.
My only excuse is that I was just so excited to see such a large wild creature up close. And when it comes to bears, aren’t we all?
Today, the chances of seeing a bear around Orlando are better than they were 10, 20 or even 40 years ago. Suburbanites who never thought they lived in bear country find these furry nomads hiding up a tree in the yard; sniffing around bird feeders and trash cans; or even darting across streets downtown.
And whenever bears linger in public, people come to look, often followed by TV trucks. Something about these quiet, loping critters grabs our attention—as though the zoo came to visit us, rather than the other way around.
Mike Orlando understands. An assistant bear management coordinator with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, he knows well that most people find black bears easy to love.
“Growing up, everyone gets a teddy bear,” he said. “They’re just floppy and cute and I think it just disarms you from all the fears.” Throw in those friendly, funny bears found in cartoons, Orlando suggests, and, “People are so willing to like bears.”
Of course, just because you love something doesn’t mean it’s always easy to live with.
Drive north of Orlando and you’re entering the habitat of the largest single group of black bears in Florida. Roughly 1,000 of them roam the woods, swamps and flatlands centered on the Ocala National Forest and wild areas along the St. Johns River. A few hundred of these bears live in the Wekiva River Basin, a landscape rich with the berries, acorns, insects and other wild delicacies they crave.
Among these several million acres of potential bear habitat, only a portion is protected conservation land. Bears, of course, can’t tell the difference. While looking for a snack or a new place to live, they blunder into our alien world of people, cars, homes, farms and urban sprawl. Spotting one may be fun, but a bear that hangs around humans can get into trouble.
In my neighborhood — The Springs outside Longwood — almost all the bears I see are just passing through. They typically leave no trace. My next–door neighbor Frank, however, had a run-in a few weeks ago with a big fellow who ransacked the family trash after the garage door was left open by mistake.
“Biggest bear I’ve ever seen,” said Frank, who was in the house at the time.
Garage encounters seem to be a recurring theme in Orlando’s bear country. An open door is a flashing invitation to a hungry Gentle Ben. A friend of mine in nearby Sabal Point once told me how a clever bruin wandered in, opened a freezer and gorged on a frozen pineapple upside-down cake.
The pudgy bear who visited Jenny Sue Rhoades’ home near Lake Brantley High School became an international media sensation last year when Rhoades photographed him in her hot tub. “Tubby,” as her husband dubbed him, ripped a pool screen, but Rhoades took it in stride.
Having grown up around black bears in Pennsylvania, she said people can afford to cut them a little slack if they’re posing no threat. After all, they were here first.
“My next-door neighbor once had the garage door open during the day and a bear walked right in the garage and dragged a 40-pound bag of dog food into the middle of the cul-de-sac and sat there eating it,” Rhoades said. “I think with all things in nature, we’ve got to share the planet.”
Such stories are remarkable—and not just because of the natural charisma of Ursus americanus floridanus. The real reason is that 40 years ago, the Florida black bear came close to extinction.
The Florida Black Bear Management Plan, approved this year by the fish and wildlife commission, says the bear population — perhaps 11,500 when the first Europeans arrived — had dipped as low as 300 by the early 1970s. Often treated as vermin, they could have disappeared. Instead, the end of bear hunting and the adoption of rules against molesting or feeding bears launched the comeback we see today.
“When we started paying attention,” FWC’s Orlando said, “that’s when the recovery started.”
As of this year, Florida bears are no longer considered a threatened species. The number of bears statewide is estimated at more than 3,000, despite millions of new residents over the past 30 years and shrinking habitat that promises to push people and bears even closer together in years ahead.
Already, Orlando spends much of his time mediating the contacts between people and bears. Bruins who develop a taste for garbage or who stalk neighborhoods in search of handouts or dog kibble are crossing a line that can force their relocation or worse — the animal equivalent of the death penalty.
Wildlife officers killed an average of 15 aggressive or otherwise misbehaving bears annually between 2007 and 2011, but a much bigger threat is simply straying into the paths of cars and trucks. State officials say 168 bears are known to have died as a result of traffic collisions in 2010 alone. Although we love them, our world can be hazardous to them.
The bear management plan, which collected these figures, calls for working with landowners and residents to minimize destructive encounters – often by getting people to simply block access to garbage and other food sources that lure bears into risky behavior. To stay alive, Florida bears can’t lose their natural caution around people, and people can’t treat them like overgrown pets.
Long term, wildlife officials hope to maintain healthy bear populations by involving the public in management decisions, preserving habitat where possible, and reconnecting isolated pockets of animals by establishing more wildlife corridors. Florida bears used to roam freely — perhaps they will again.
But that means people who have never seen a wild bear on their streets will have to co-exist with them. A few communities have rules to prevent bears from binging on garbage, pet food and bird seed, but more will need them.
“I understand the resistance,” Orlando said. If we’re going to have healthy ecosystems, however, “People need to jump on board with the idea of living with wildlife.”
So expect more encounters like the one this June involving a bear who took a walk on the really wild side and ended up in a tree near State Road 408 and Orange Blossom Trail. A wildlife officer shot the bear with a tranquilizer dart while some burly helpers stood below with a net. TV cameras watched the animal’s sleepy tumble — in clear focus, of course.
“This is riveting stuff,” anchorman Bob Frier told his viewers on Fox TV 35. “I don’t mind saying I’m actually enjoying this quite a bit.”
Why am I not surprised?