The Florida bear hunt through a Times photographer's lens
I consider myself a night owl. I typically go to bed when the sun comes up, but for this assignment I needed to literally flip my schedule to be at a location over 2 hours from my Brandon home. Little did I know this day would keep me up for over 24 hours straight.
I knew this story was going to be not only an historic event for the state of Florida, but an extremely controversial one. Protests, court hearings and every attempt to stop the hunt happened before the first shot was taken.
Although I tried to sleep a few hours, I was unsuccessful, so I started to prepare my gear and pack other necessities for the assignment. Hitting the road at 2:00am on a clear, cool night I went through several scenarios in my head about the assignment. How will our press access be? How many bears, if any will we be able to see.
(All photos by Luis Santana, Times Staff Photographer)
I arrived at the gate of Rock Springs Run Wildlife Management Area and found a line of hunters nearly a ¼ mile long. Officers with the FWC checked the hunter’s permits before being allowed to proceed through the gates of the preserve. After being given the all clear hunters were permitted to enter and begin staking out their locations at 5:00am.
Members of the press and general public were allowed to come into the preserve starting at 8am.
Because of the limited space near the check-in station members of the press were parked about ¼ mile from the FWC check-in station. So I parked my car and loaded up a variety of lenses and gear not knowing exactly what I would need. The gear I brought with me were 2 camera bodies, 70-200mm, 17-40, 300mm lenses, a flash unit, and a GoPro4.
While walking to my the press area I kept my eyes peeled! According to the signs posted all over the preserve I was in Bear Country. I thought to myself, how cool would it be to see an actual live bear in the wild! I would shoot it with a camera and not a gun.
When Times reporter Craig Pittman and I got to the check-in station we spoke with members of the Florida Wildlife Commission to get an idea of what would happen when a bear is brought into their station. We were told that the hunters’ permits would be checked, questions would be asked as to when and where the bear was killed and several measurements would be taken. Biologists with the FWC planned to take hair for DNA and teeth for age analysis. Knowing this information ahead of time helped me plan for the type of photos I would be looking for.
The first kill of the day was not a bear, but a deer. I used that opportunity to test my camera angles and settings. Shortly after the deer, we all got what we were all waiting for. A Florida black bear.
Our plan to stay back from a distance lasted only about 45 seconds before we realized that the handful of “bear monitors” did not care about getting too close to the hunters and FWC officials. They immediately rushed towards the back of the pickup truck with their point and shoot cameras and ipads while taking photos of the freshly killed bear.
The group was there to monitor and document killed bears for their organization.
Because of this, we all had no choice but to crowd around the hunters to get our photos and video.
Getting face to face with a recently killed bear was an experience most people have never had, myself included. I have never been hunting before so the only animal I’ve seen dead was road kill. I had to escape the brief shock of the sight of a bloody dead bear and start documenting this story.
I began photographing not only the overall scene, but also the scientific data collection being done by the FWC biologists.
After hours waiting for our first bear, they just kept coming. At times, several cars lined up to be checked in - some with deer, but most with bears.
As you could imagine photographing dead bears is not something for the squeamish, lots of blood. Especially from those that had been field dressed, blood was everywhere. I knew that bloody photos of bears would not make it into the paper so I searched around for other detail shots that would tell the story without making people lose their lunch.
This particular photo stuck out to me, it was a large red trash can that said “GUTS ONLY - No Trash.” I knew that we probably wouldn’t use the photo but it was something interesting so I shot it anyways.
I decided to start focusing on the science and looked at the FWC biologists recording data from the bears. I made this next photo, one of very few that did not include a dead bear. It is not an amazing photo but it was interesting to see how much data the biologist were collecting. This data would help them understand more about the current population of Florida black bears. After the data was collected, the biologist released the bear to the hunter with a blue zip tie signifying that the bear’s data had been recorded.
By mid morning 7 bears had already come through the station, some hunters even brought along a wheelbarrow, presumably to transport the bear from the woods to their truck.
One of the challenges I had photographing the bears was its color. An all black bear in the back of a black truck didn’t really look like much. The only color contrast was the nose, but since the bear was shot usually through the lungs blood dripped out of the bears nose making the photo pretty graphic. I kneeled down to take the photo above to get a different angle. When I got up I realized my pants felt a little wet, looking down I realized I kneeled down in a small puddle of bear blood. A stain I have not been able to remove from those jeans.
One of the largest bears (above) to come through the station was nearly 500lbs. This big guy appeared to have been through many fights, his teeth were worn down and in bad shape, his nose was split in half. Biologist suggested that he may have been either hit by a car or in a very severe fight with another bear.
Inside the bear’s mouth was a piece of moss, possibly his last meal as a live bear.
A hunter came through the station visibly angry, he shouted to photographers and threatened that if we took his photo he would take our cameras. FWC officers told him that we were allowed to photograph anything in this check-in station.
When FWC biologists pulled off the hunter’s tarp it revealed a tiny bear, gutted and filled with a large bag of ice. The sight of that bear made a few of the bear observers gasp in shock and they shouted that the bear was much smaller than the allowed 100lbs minimum weight.
It was later determined that although the bear weighed in at 76lbs, it was field dressed and biologists determined the internal organs that were removed would put the bear at just enough to be the legal limit.
By this time I have shot many bears and wanted to begin filing some photos. I setup my laptop on a nearby picnic table and began sorting through my photos when Craig Pittman asked if I got a photo of a local hunter named Richard Sajko. Since a local hunter would be important to our coverage, I pushed in a memory card into my camera and went to talk with Richard before he left.
Richard was a nice guy, very talkative and passionate, but respectful about the bears and hunting in general. Most of the hunters declined talking to reporters because of the controversial nature of the hunt. Richard talked with me and other reporters at length and even described how he shot his bear.
Richard had two bears in the bed of his truck, one was his and the other was his friends.
Then after chatting about his thoughts on the bear hunt, Richard hopped in the back of his truck and posed for a photo for a friend. Everything lined up nicely. The clouds, the bears, camo, and with the help of some fill flash I made the shot that ended up being used on the front page of the Sunday Tampa Bay Times.