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Can people and bears co-exist? Orlando suburbs test the question

Gated, guarded Wingfield North, outside Orlando in Longwood, is a collection of about a hundred houses with pillars and pools and new BMWs parked out front. Golden evening light gleams through the branches of regal oaks draped with Spanish moss. One of the selling points is its proximity to lush woods, coupled with a stated commitment to the preservation of such wild, natural beauty. Another selling point: privacy. It's set up to keep out — nuisances and intrusions, the uninvited, the unexpected. The residents of Wingfield North purchased not only an above average amount of stucco but also a perceived license to not be bothered.

"Is this a fire or medical emergency?" the Seminole County 911 dispatcher asked.

This was just after 8 at night the first Monday of December.

"Medical," the man answered. "A woman's been, I think — mauled by a bear. She's pleading for quick, quick help."

"Okay, and you said it was a bear, for sure?"

"She thinks it was a bear."

"And how old is she?"

"I can't tell. She's so bloody I can't tell."

"Is she awake?" the dispatcher asked.

"She's awake. My wife's with her, holding her …"

"Okay. Is the bleeding serious?"

"You know, her whole face, it's bloody. She's moaning in pain."

"Hurry," the man said. "Hurry."

An ambulance raced past the gate with the guard on the way in, then raced past the gate with the guard on the way out, whisking to Orlando Regional Medical Center 5-foot-7, blond-haired, blue-eyed, 54-year-old Susan Chalfant, bitten on the head, face and neck, the victim of the worst bear attack in the recorded history of Florida.

 

Black bears are Florida's largest native land mammal. Their range in the state used to be all of it. Their estimated population when Europeans arrived was more than 11,000.

Then forests were burned, cut and cleared, for turpentine, ranching and farming, and finally houses, more and more and bigger and bigger, and by the 1960s and '70s Florida had only 1,000 black bears.

Then 500.

Then 300.

In 1974, the state listed black bears, Ursus americanus floridanus, as a threatened species and made it illegal to hurt or kill them. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, 32 of the 41 states with black bears have a hunting season — but not Florida.

Now the estimated population is 3,000 — it hasn't been that high in almost a century — and that count is more than a decade old. The actual number is probably more and probably much more. The state's black bears were taken off the threatened list in 2012.

"We're very proud of that," said Mike Orlando, a bear expert with the wildlife commission.

The flip side of that success is a mathematical reality: There are more bears than there were, and more people, too, and they're all living in the same-sized space. Bear sightings are up. Reports of bears doing things they shouldn't be doing are up. Bears ripping off the bumpers of people's cars. Bears going into people's garages and eating frozen pizzas and Go-Gurts. Bears killing people's dogs. Bears tearing holes in screens of porches and lapping up the aromatic remnants of grilled steak dinners. Bears taking dips in pools.

Bear complaints to the wildlife commission have more than doubled in the past five years. This is true where bears live all over the state.

But the most bear-heavy area is Central Florida, including the suburbs of Orlando, clustered subdivisions with names that reflect what they replaced, or in some cases some of what's left, names with words like lakes, springs and woods. And the most bear-heavy ZIP code in this bear-heavy area is 32779. Longwood. Wingfield North.

The wildlife commission put out a new bear management plan a year and a half ago. One of the objectives: Maintain the bear population. Another: Maintain bear habitat. Another: Help people learn more about bears. Another: Reduce human-bear conflicts.

It's not easy. "Human-bear encounters," staffers wrote in the report, "will likely continue to increase in number and intensity …"

This is the context in which a bear in the bushes on the edge of English Ivy Court charged through the dark toward Chalfant and her two small dogs.

 

The first Seminole County sheriff's deputy to arrive saw Chalfant with her bloody face get loaded into the ambulance. He talked to the neighbors who had called 911. They said they see a bear every day around their house. The deputy passed the case to the state wildlife commission.

The investigator saw paw prints near the blood trail. He looked around at the terrain, noting the oak hammock, the big houses on big lots separated by plenty of space and plenty of plants, plus the nearness to "a wildlife sanctuary that is connected to thousands of acres of protected government lands." The details of his description were not dissimilar to the promotional language on wingfieldnorth.com, touting houses that are "ensconced on an acre or more and are nicely wooded with majestic oaks and pines," "winding sidewalks, three large ponds and conservation areas," the homeowners association striving "to preserve and enhance the semi-rural character, the low-density residential zoning, the quality of life ..." People and bears, it seemed, like the area for many of the same reasons.

The wildlife commission set up metal cages, baited them with carrot cake and doughnuts, and waited.

In the meantime, the investigator visited Chalfant at the hospital, where she was recovering from surgery but refused to let the state agency see the records of her treatment to learn more about the attack. She refused, too, to let her injuries be photographed, but the investigator described them as "deep, ragged lacerations" on her face and head.

Chalfant didn't let the investigator record her, either, but she did talk about the attack. She said the bear had rushed at her, then stopped short, "snarling and growling," focusing on her, not her dogs, 13 and 22 pounds, which were "barking and going crazy." The bear lunged at her and then backed away several times, she said. She faced the bear and raised her arms to make herself look bigger, brought her dogs in closer and tried to back away slowly toward her house. The bear circled her, knocked her to the ground. She got up. The bear knocked her down again, this time biting her face. She let go of her dogs to better fight the bear with her hands, poking at the eyes, but the bear kept biting her, shaking her. Then the bear stopped and left. She went to the neighbors' house. She had trouble, she said, getting them to open their door.

"That bear was trying to kill me," she told the investigator.

She then said she was too upset to continue the interview.

At Wingfield North, the traps lured six bears — an 80-pound juvenile, a 200-pound female, a 200-pound male, and a mother and two of her three cubs. Agency staffers killed the adult female because she "fit the description." They killed the adult male because he did, too. They didn't kill the mother because of the cubs. They sent DNA from the bears and DNA found in Chalfant's wounds to Canadian scientists. The state paid them $2,816.25 to look for a match. The scientists determined that the two bears that had been killed hadn't attacked Chalfant. The mother with the cubs was the match. They were taken to a non-public part of Busch Gardens in Tampa. The two cubs will be weaned and released in the spring in the Ocala National Forest. The mother will spend the rest of her life in captivity. The cub they didn't catch, a 65-pounder, got killed by a hit-and-run driver five days before Christmas, in the early evening, on the main road that runs parallel to English Ivy Court. The wildlife commission granted that its handling of the attack's aftermath could have been better — but, the executive director told an Orlando reporter, "people come first."

The agency concluded that the cause of the incident was "a highly protective mother bear with a diminished fear of humans due to a high level of interaction … a likely case of a mother defending her cubs." Mothers with cubs, bear experts say, get bolder the more time they spend around people. Dogs, too, can trigger unusually aggressive behavior.

But state Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, whose district includes Longwood, said this represented a pivotal shift. People, he explained to a reporter from the Orlando Sentinel, no longer were "encroaching" on bears. Now bears were "encroaching" on people.

Bears are kind of like people. They're curious and omnivorous and they pick paths of least resistance. Males are fiercer than females — even most mothers with cubs — but almost all bears could kill almost all the people they come across. They just choose not to. Why go to all that trouble when they can get what they want by standing on their hind legs and making menacing noises and swiping at the air with their claws? What they want is not to eat you. What they want is to eat what you haven't. Turns out stories about bears and people are almost always actually stories about garbage.

The home range of a male black bear is 60 square miles, according to Mike Orlando of the wildlife commission, and the home range of a female is about 12 square miles, largely because of cubs. Bears move for pretty much one reason. They go, Orlando said, "where they have found good food in the past."

"It's not that the bears are encroaching on people," bear expert John Beecham said from Idaho. "It's that people are attracting the bears. They're coming toward a food source. A major food source."

Still, Simmons said from his office in Tallahassee, "the bear that has come in and has been fed, we're kidding ourselves if we believe that bear is going to be rehabilitated. These bears that have gotten like that are recidivists. They're going to come back and do it again.

"That bear needs to be relocated."

Was Simmons suggesting the bears in his district that had used people's garbage as a food source — safe to say most of the bears in his district — needed to be relocated? To the Ocala National Forest? To somewhere else?

"I'm saying," he said, that "if in fact the bear has been a problem, breaking, threatening, is known to be eating food or breaking into people's houses — that bear needs to be relocated. Doing nothing is not a solution."

And a bear hunt would be a tough thing to make safe in the suburbs.

 

 

On the west side of Longwood, in a subdivision in Apopka called Emerald Cove, men, women and children gathered on a corner and eyed a bear in a tree. The bear, probably a couple hundred pounds, 15 or so feet up, situated in the thicker middle of a slim-trunked oak, surveyed the scene below — the concrete sidewalks, the trimmed strips of grass, a pool enclosure, the green plastic roof of a kids playhouse in a nearby back yard, the growing group of people getting closer and closer, looking up …

"No, we're not going to let you keep it as a pet," Megan Sutton told her daughter, Lauren, 7.

A local TV reporter walked toward the tree. He stood almost under the bear. He held up his phone and pointed for a snapshot for Twitter. The bear let loose a loud expulsion of air, like a huff or a sneeze, bear for "Go away." The tree shook. Leaves fluttered toward the ground.

"Close enough," the TV reporter said.

"I may be fat, but I can move for a big boy," announced Jason Esperas, 37, a resident of Emerald Cove. "Especially when there's a bear chasing me."

"How did it get here, in the middle of nowhere?" a woman named Suli Mateos asked aloud.

Cars whizzed by.

"Where did it come walking? Through where?" Mateos kept asking. "Because there's all these subdivisions here."

Some cars stopped to look at what all the other people were looking at, and then windows opened, and then out popped backs of phones with the tiny eyes of cameras.

Mateos was still talking.

"Are they going to come get it? Animal services or whatever?"

Not this bear. This bear was just lazing in a tree — in a discordant, suburban location, maybe, but still standard, nonthreatening bear behavior.

On the other side of Longwood, in a subdivision in Sanford called Sylvan Lake Reserve, Rudy Gevero walked his two small dogs. He and his wife moved from New York City to Lake Mary seven years ago, and they and their children, 4 and 1, moved here three months ago. Bears? Every once in a while, their Realtor had said, but they had seen bears almost every day. Including the first day. In their garage. Looking into the window of their son's bedroom.

"Surprise, surprise," Gevero said.

Living in New York, thinking about Florida, the Geveros pictured gators and snakes, but they've quickly gotten used to the bears. Other people in the neighborhood, from New York and Pennsylvania and Michigan and Massachusetts, by now are unperturbed. They see the bears in trees. They see them in the mornings and they see them in the evenings. They replace their bird feeders, and replace them, and replace them, until they don't anymore. When the weather gets cooler and the windows go open, their dogs smell them first. They hardly ever call Fish and Wildlife.

One night around 9, Gevero took out his recycling, and he saw a man out for a walk, and he said, "Hello," and the man said, "Watch out for the bear behind you."

In his back yard, a slight downward slope into the woods, the grass was specked with blots of berry-riddled bear scat. He showed three matted-down chutes in the brush. The bears, he said, use his property as an entrance to the subdivision. Maybe a fence? He pointed at his neighbor's fence, and the newer, less weathered planks, fixes from where bears had ripped holes. He has, Gevero admitted, plugged into Google the words "electric fence."

He does what he's supposed to do, though. He hasn't grilled outside since he moved here. "I broil my steaks," he said, "because of the bears." And he keeps his garbage in his garage, with the door closed, and he doesn't take it out until the morning of trash day, usually waiting till he hears the rumble of the truck.

But that can't just be a select few people. Real success is a possibility only if everybody is in this together.

And late the night before trash day at Sylvan Lake Reserve, a couple of garbage cans were already set up by the curb, unsecured. And by the early morning, before 6, the cans had been knocked over, their white bags torn open, scattering scraps from greasy sacks from Bojangles', McDonald's and Chick-fil-A. A white Chinese food carton. A Nature's Own bread bag.

Gevero dragged his trash to the end of his driveway. It was 6:25. He waited for the truck.

Two older men out for a walk shuffled by in the dark. One carried a golf club. Gevero said hello.

 

 

A man opened the door at Susan Chalfant's house a few hundred yards from the gate with the guard.

"No, thanks," he said, and shut the door.

Many calls were made to the residents of Wingfield North. Many messages were left with many people. Nobody called back. The president of the homeowners association didn't return calls asking why people weren't returning calls.

Two people in Wingfield North talked briefly.

The first is a friend of Gevero's wife. That's the only reason she found herself on the phone. She said she was busy, then said something about her kids and the bus, then said something about the HOA, but said to call back the next morning. She didn't pick up. Messages were left.

Sara Sampath-Kumar picked up, even if by accident.

Bears?

In Wingfield North?

"There's no more issues with the bears," she said.

She said she goes for walks every day, in the morning and in the evening. No more bears.

"I haven't seen them," she said.

"It's back to normal," she said.

"It's back to normal," she said again.

Photographer Melissa Lyttle and news researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8751. Follow @michaelkruse on Twitter.

Can people and bears co-exist? Orlando suburbs test the question 01/29/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 29, 2014 6:15pm]

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