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Injured bear sent packing by Florida wildlife officials

Somewhere out there is a Florida black bear that's just got to hate humans.

This bear has a hide full of birdshot pellets from an old encounter with a myopic duck hunter. It also has a freshly broken foreleg after a car ran into it on Florida's Turnpike.

This bear was rescued — then unrescued — by state wildlife officials. It was whisked off a veterinary examining table in Miami as a surgeon stood ready to fasten its fractures with plates. It was returned to the woods and prodded from its cage, and was last seen wandering off on three legs.

The bear is a young male. It weighs 200 pounds. There are about 2,400 bears like it left in Florida. The veterinarians who tried to help nicknamed it "Turnpike."

The surgeon wanted to operate. The state says wild bears heal best when left alone.

And the bear? Well, the bear can't be reached for comment.

• • •

State game officials often move heaven and earth to save injured wild animals, including bears. A year ago, an officer for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission actually rescued a full-grown bear drowning in the Gulf of Mexico by dragging it to shore by the scruff of its neck.

Two years ago, the commission's wildlife veterinarian rescued a mother bear and cub from a fire in Osceola National Forest and treated the mother's burns for a month at Walt Disney World.

Yet bear rescues are rare in Florida. Generally, state policy is to leave injured bears alone. They're known to suffer in captivity, like wild deer. But the state had never taken one right off a medical table.

The misbegotten rescue of Turnpike began around 11:30 p.m. Feb. 3, when Bob Freer got a call from Fish and Wildlife officers. He owns the Everglades Outpost Wildlife Refuge in Florida City. He rehabs injured wild animals — often big ones. Currently, he's nursing a tiger, a Florida black bear and a grizzly.

The wildlife officers asked if he could make room for a black bear hit by a car.

They soon showed up in a van with a tranquilized bear in the back. They also had with them an Animal Planet filmmaking crew.

Freer isn't a veterinarian, but he started cleaning the bear's superficial wounds. The worst was an open wound on the bear's right haunch about the size of a man's hand. He also felt the bear's limbs. When he felt the right foreleg, he was pretty sure it was broken.

He says he was subsequently called by a Fish and Wildlife official and told that rehabbing black bears violated state policy. Freer told the official, "Look, I know nothing about that. Your officers brought him here."

They had erred, the official said. They would soon come to repossess the bear.

Freer told the official an Animal Planet crew was documenting everything.

"They decided," Freer said, "to let the bear be X-rayed."

• • •

On Feb. 5, a muzzled Turnpike was carried into the Miami Veterinary Specialists clinic with a pink tranquilizer dart sticking in his back.

Waiting for him was Marc Wosar, a veterinary surgeon who has repaired fractures in wild wolves and bears.

Freer was also there, hoping the X-ray would show only a hairline fracture. He grimaced when he saw the X-ray.

It showed that Turnpike's right foreleg — the radius and ulna — had split in two. The upper pieces bent one way, the lower bent the other.

The X-ray also showed a fair amount of birdshot, evidence that a hunter had once drawn a bead on the bear.

Wosar's plan was to fasten the bones with two surgical plates. "It would have been quite an operation," he said. But by using an extra plate, he said the animal could walk on the leg right after surgery. It could even be released immediately into the wild.

He had performed similar operations on wolves and a black bear with good results.

"The anatomy of a bear is incredibly doglike," Wosar said. "It's basically the same physiology. There's not that much mystery."

The surgeon was ready to operate free of charge. "I wanted to remove all barriers."

But then he said he encountered the ultimate barrier: "A man with a badge and a gun."

Three hours after being carried into the clinic, Turnpike was carried out, still sedated, by wildlife officers. The bear was driven to Picayune Strand in the Big Cypress National Reserve and let go.

• • •

Mark Cunningham, wildlife veterinarian for the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, has heard from upset veterinarians ever since.

He's the same state vet who rescued a mother bear and cub from a forest fire on Mother's Day 2007. He arranged for the bears to be rehabbed at Disney's Animal Kingdom for a month before returning them to the wild.

But that was a different situation, he said. The mother bear couldn't walk on blistered paws. Turnpike could walk, could gather food, could induce its own state of semihibernation and could heal on its own.

Wosar agreed that the bear could have been released but strongly believes that the surgical plates would have enabled it to walk with less pain.

Cunningham said the state could have saved itself a lot of criticism by allowing Wosar to operate. "But I offer the fact that we didn't as proof we acted in the bear's best interests."

Sutures from the surgery, he said, would have put the bear at risk of infection. That risk was greater than turning the bear loose untreated.

Wosar said that failures from older veterinary techniques may account for the present policy. He thinks the state ought to consider the advances in veterinary medicine.

Is Turnpike out there suffering?

"I hesitate to say this because it sounds callous," Cunningham said, "but I've seen bears knock over a beehive, and sit there eating honey while the bees sting them all over their faces, even up their noses.

"They just seem to do better than in captivity."

John Barry can be reached at jbarry@sptimes.com. or (727) 892-2258.

Injured bear sent packing by Florida wildlife officials 02/17/09 [Last modified: Thursday, February 19, 2009 9:01am]

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