Georgia Wilcox was first to see the bear cub known as Jarhead. Georgia lives in a double-wide in the Ocala National Forest outside of Umatilla. In the morning, before the bad heat arrives, she relaxes on her deck and looks for critters. She loves seeing deer and possums, raccoons and squirrels. She gets a kick out of watching the rattlers and coral snakes. She'd adopt them all if she could.
Once in while she sees a black bear, a special thrill. The day she spotted Jarhead she felt like crying. She heard something out by the clothesline: A mama bear was sniffing at the drying clothes while three cubs cavorted at her feet. Two looked adorably normal.
Georgia, 57, gasped. The last cub in line obviously had raided somebody's garbage. Somehow, and it must have taken some doing, the hungry little bear had jammed its head into a gallon jar for the last lick of mayonnaise or pickle juice. Now it wore the jar like a space helmet.
"How can it even breathe?" Georgia thought. "How can it eat and drink?"
Georgia, an Earth Mother with a long ponytail, knew the little bear was doomed unless she did something quickly.
Inside her home she got on the phone.
"Garbage kills bears," Mike Orlando says. He manages bears in the northeast part of the state for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. More and more he manages people who live near bears. In his territory, which stretches from Orlando to the Osceola National Forest near Jacksonville, bears often share the suburbs with raccoons. Except that raccoons never weigh 600 pounds.
"Don't feed bears," is the gospel he preaches to neighborhood groups, school principals and city council members in a dozen counties. "Don't feed them on purpose and don't feed them by accident by leaving your garbage out. It's natural to enjoy seeing bears. But you don't want to tame them into coming onto your property. It won't end well for bears. And it might not end well for you either."
About 11,000 bears roamed Florida when the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century. In 1973, the year Mike Orlando was born, the state was down to about 300 bears. Florida finally listed bears as "threatened" about four decades ago and seriously began protecting their habitat. It also slowed down the carnage on roads and banned bear hunting. The population rebounded. Now 3,000 bears try to survive from the Everglades to the Florida Panhandle. Mike Orlando's jurisdiction is home to about a third.
For the most part they live on public wilderness lands such as the Ocala National Forest. But bears, adventuresome creatures, have no problem exploring housing developments to hunt easy vittles. An odoriferous garbage can, percolating on the curb on an August night, is a delicatessen to a bear. In 1989, Floridians called the state wildlife agency to complain about chummy bears 86 times. Last year, they filed more than 3,000 complaints.
"Here's the typical scenario," Orlando says one morning as he drives a suburban road near the St. Johns River. "A bear shows up one night in a back yard. The home- owner, you know, is a little scared at first. But he's also kind of thrilled. Maybe he feeds the bear to keep it around. Maybe the bear just knocks over the garbage can and eats the leftovers. The bear comes back the next night for more. The homeowner takes a bunch of pictures. The homeowner tells his neighbors about his nightly bear. The neighbors come over and get their photographs. Maybe they start feeding the bears, too.
"When the bears first showed up, maybe they were small and cute. But as months go by they get bigger and bolder. Pretty soon bears are showing up during the day. They're waiting at the front door. They're hanging around the carport and the driveway and sleeping in the bushes. You can't let your kids go outside to play.
"One day we get a call. It's somebody from the neighborhood telling us, 'Come catch your bear.' "
In his talks to the public, Orlando tells people how to bear-proof their neighborhoods. He advises restaurants, state parks and schools to replace plastic garbage bins with steel. He encourages do-it-yourselfers to invent bear-resistant garbage cans. He lobbies city governments about making municipalities "bear safe."
Recently he coached North Florida law enforcement officials in the art of scaring bears out of suburbia.
Shout at them. Shoot blanks over their heads. Ignite fireworks. Wallop them with paintballs and beanbags.
"Teach bears to stay wild."
• • •
Georgia Wilcox, the first to see Jarhead, hadn't been feeding bears. She knows better. So do most of her neighbors along the dirt roads in the forest. They take their bird feeders inside at dark. They remember to bring in the cat food. Most of the time they store their garbage behind closed doors.
But not everyone is responsible. Some people leave out their trash. Some dump sofas, watermelon rinds and pickle jars — illegally — along the deserted forest roads. Garbage may be bonanza for hungry bears, but it also can be a deathtrap.
Mike Orlando sent a colleague, Cathy Connolly, to meet with Georgia to talk about Jarhead. The two women, animal lovers, hit it off.
"We'll be on the lookout," Cathy said. "If he shows up again, please call."
"That poor little bear with a jar on his head is going to die of thirst. You just got to catch him."
"I know it," Cathy said.
• • •
Bears are basically stomachs with legs. When Mike Orlando was courting his wife, Amy, a decade ago, they spent dates hunting for bear scat. Bears mostly eat nuts, berries and leaves. They'll eat any small animal they can catch. They will endure a thousand bee stings for a taste of honey. A rotten fish on a river bank? Yum. They'll race a vulture to the most rancid dead armadillo steaming on the pavement. One time Orlando found a spent shotgun shell in a bear-scat pile.
Florida has no shortage of year-round food, including garbage. That's why our state boasts some of the largest bears east of the Mississippi. In 1991, near Naples, a car hit and killed a 621-pound male bear. The driver survived but his car was totaled.
In Canada and in certain national parks in the United States, black bears attack and even kill hikers once in a while. For unknown reasons, the Florida breed of black bears is less aggressive. Only three attacks on humans have ever been reported — but all three happened in northeast Florida last year. All involved bears that had left nearby forests to feed in suburbia.
In Mount Dora, Mary E. Miller, 80, woke when she heard a commotion on her screened porch. At first she thought cats were fighting for the food she leaves out for Rusty, her tabby. Mrs. Miller padded across her mobile home, switched on the porch light and peeked out.
A large bear burst through the screen. Her two cubs jumped on a table and bawled for Mama. Mrs. Miller slammed the door. When she opened it again, the cubs were gone.
Mrs. Miller is a curious and fearless soul. She crept to the darkest section of the long porch and looked around. The two cubs, terrified, huddled in a corner. Mrs. Miller decided to hold open the back porch door for them.
When she opened it, Mama rushed in and bit her right thigh. Mrs. Miller fled inside and called police. At the hospital, doctors dressed her minor wounds and administered a tetanus shot. Back at the Dora Pines Trailer Park, state biologists baited a trap with a favorite bear treat, doughnuts from Publix. They caught Mama and euthanized her with a drug. Fortunately, the cubs were large enough to survive on their own. The next morning Mrs. Miller cleaned the cat food from the porch and vowed to feed Rusty inside.
In the gated community of Heathrow near Orlando, bears had been raiding garbage cans. Mike Orlando and colleagues initiated a "store-your-garbage-can inside" campaign to minimize bear encounters. Not everyone paid attention.
One night David Amsler, 34, heard his garbage can falling over. "Raccoons," he thought. He grabbed a golf club, slipped out the back door and prepared to frighten the brazen raccoons. A startled bear bowled him over as it fled.
Years ago, Orlando routinely caught nuisance bears and moved them. Sometimes he still does — unless the bear has hurt someone or has completely lost its fear of humans. In a doughnut-baited trap that resembles a culvert, he caught Amsler's bear and euthanized it.
In a Seminole County neighborhood known as the Springs, Ernest Stamm, 49, opened his front door and was slapped across the face by a burly bear. Later, Stamm pleaded no contest to the charge of feeding bears, a misdemeanor in Florida. Orlando caught and euthanized the bear.
• • •
Not everybody in Steffanie Stimpson's Longwood neighborhood — which is around the corner from a Walgreens and a Chuck E. Cheese and a few minutes from bear-friendly Wekiva Springs State Park — secures their garbage. So the neighborhood suffers from chronic bear problems.
One night a few months ago, Stimpson, 28, cooked a chicken dinner for herself and her 7-year-old daughter, Isabella. After Isabella nodded off, Steffanie settled down on the couch to watch television.
She'd left her front door ajar for her year-old dachshund, Sophie.
The door creaked open a few inches.
"Sophie?" called Steffanie. But Sophie wasn't outside. She was at Steffanie's feet.
In the glow of the television, Steffanie watched the door creak open a little wider.
Steffanie marched across the room and flung open the door. The head of an enormous bear was only inches from her feet. Maybe it had smelled the chicken dinner. Maybe it had smelled her. Steffanie slammed the door, screamed and telephoned her dad next door.
Her dad, Dan Stimpson, is a chef. He's 52, a Florida boy who has lived in the neighborhood for four decades. Until last year, he says, he never saw a bear. Now he takes precautions, including scrubbing the barbecue grill every time he cooks a steak. Still the bears ramble through his neighborhood. He sprinted into his daughter's yard with a flashlight.
The bear was gone. In the flashlight beam Chef Dan saw that something heavy had crushed a chain-link fence upon entering the yard. Escaping the yard, that same something had barreled like a Mini Cooper through a 7-foot wood fence.
"Holy smoke!" Chef Dan said to his daughter. "How big was that bear?"
Three nights later the bear was lured into a doughnut-baited trap by a state wildlife biologist. The bear that tried to enter Steffanie Stimpson's house in the suburbs turned out to be a 590-pound male.
Steffanie was relieved that Sophie, her 2-pound dachshund, avoided becoming an appetizer.
• • •
Rose West was next to spot Jarhead. She lives just down the dirt road from Georgia Wilcox. Rose saw the cub on the deck next to her mobile home. Jarhead was with his Mama, whose butt brushed up against the sliding glass doors.
Rose, 20, lives in the forest with her boyfriend, Billy LeBree. They are used to bears. One night an enormous male bear chewed through their pig pen and killed a prized 90-pound Yorkshire. Another bear ate their chickens. Rose resented losing her livestock. But seeing that tiny, starving bear with a jar on its head took a bite out of her heart.
After she saw Jarhead, Rose got on the phone.
Cathy Connolly arrived in a Chevy Blazer towing a culvert trap baited with doughnuts.
"First we're going to catch Mama bear," Cathy explained to Rose. "Then we'll tranquilize her and let her sleep in the trap. We'll open the culvert trap door again. The cubs will go in to be with their Mama. Then we'll be able to get the jar off that poor little cub's head."
A few minutes later Mike Orlando showed up, followed by another biologist, Brian Scheick. They set a second trap and waited in the 100-degree heat for the rest of the afternoon. "We know this little bear has gone at least two days without food and water," Scheick said.
"It's very sad," Orlando said. "This bear is the poster child for why bears and human garbage can't mix."
They caught no bears that day. Or the day after.
They were pessimistic about Jarhead's chances.
• • •
Born in Cape Coral, Orlando was one of those adventure-crazed boys who are a vanishing species today. His dad was a fishing guide who taught him how to reel in giant tarpon. After graduating with a biology degree from the University of Florida, he served in the Peace Corps in Africa. Eventually he decided to go for his master's at the University of Kentucky. His project was studying Florida bears.
Everything about them fascinates him. He has a stuffed bear — it was killed on a Florida road — standing on hind legs in his office. In his truck he keeps the skull of another roadkill bear he can use for a natural history show-and-tell. "They hear well and have pretty good eyesight," he says. "But their sense of smell is amazing. They can smell something good to eat miles away."
One time, after he had advised a beekeeper to protect hives behind an electric fence, guilt set in. To make himself feel better he took the next opportunity to touch an electrified fence. "It was a pretty good jolt," Orlando says. "But it wasn't going to kill a bear."
In Pennsylvania, where bear hunting is still allowed, he completed his ursine education by eating one. "Not bad at all. Maybe a little greasy." For the record, he says he is neither pro-bear hunting or anti-bear hunting. It's possible hunting might be allowed in Florida to control the bear population in the future. If it happens, he says he can live with it.
He is a burly and bearded guy whose curiosity and sense of humor make him seem younger than 36. He likes Lady Gaga. He dabbles in Facebook. He tries to eat healthy, but is a guilty regular at McDonald's. He knows how to sweet-talk the baker at Publix into donating yesterday's stale doughnuts to catch today's bears.
Bears have woofed at him. They have popped their jaws in a "back off" warning. Teeth bared, they have charged him — only to stop at the last instant. "It's important you don't run from a bear," he says. "They have a chase reflex. Look down. Talk to them gently. Retreat." He has been bitten twice and has been scratched more times than he can remember.
One night, in Daytona Beach, only blocks from the ocean, he sat in his Chevy pickup and watched a bear in a tree only a few feet from a packed biker bar. Perhaps the bear smelled food. Perhaps it was thirsty. Orlando had no appetite for an encounter with an inebriated biker, much less dozens of them. He stepped reluctantly onto the sidewalk.
"What are you doing here?" a biker asked, then followed Orlando's gaze into the tree.
"BEAR!" yelled the biker. Other bikers spilled out of the bar like warm Guinness.
"We'll catch your bear for you, mister!" cried a biker. Before Orlando could stop them, several began shimmying up the tree and scaring the bear into the higher branches.
Anxious bears sometimes lose control of their bladders.
It relieved itself all over the bikers, who fell out of the tree like soggy acorns.
"The bear pee made the bikers smell better," Orlando reported later.
• • •
Jarhead was still at large after five days. Orlando couldn't believe the little fellow was still breathing. Yet neighbors in the small forest community had seen him with his siblings and his mother.
As his siblings nursed, Jarhead could only watch. One woman saw the cubs tear berries from a bush. As the siblings ate the fallen fruit, the starving little bear pushed the morsels frantically along the ground with the jar on its head.
A scientist for more than half his life, Orlando has learned to detach from his emotions. But the thought of Jarhead made him want to weep.
Orlando and his team set out doughnut-baited culvert traps all over the woods. Then they scoured the forest and the sand roads until midnight hoping they would encounter the bears. Maybe he could get a tranquilizer dart into Mama. The cubs wouldn't abandon her and he could catch Jarhead.
Cathy Connolly and her husband, Mike, slept in their Blazer next to one of the traps. Mosquitoes whined around their ears.
• • •
On Day Six, as Orlando drove into the forest, he saw Jarhead and his mother for the first time. His heart rose into his throat. He grabbed his dart rifle and hid behind a bush. Mama was 35 yards away. She started ambling in the opposite direction. He fired and missed. At midnight he told his wife: "Well, that's it. I had my chance and I blew it." He tossed and turned until dawn.
On Day Eight, he had another opportunity. Mama and cubs were standing on the road ahead. Orlando began crawling along the shoulder with his dart rifle.
Suddenly, a pickup truck pulled up next to him.
"What are you shooting at, mister?'' asked the driver.
The bears fled.
• • •
Every time his cell phone rang, Orlando braced himself for the news that someone had seen Mama with only two cubs. It rang at 5:05 on a Wednesday afternoon.
"Mama is in my back yard," Rose West reported. "With all three cubs.''
Orlando was three minutes away at the time. He drove like a lunatic down the sand road. He jumped from the truck, snatched his gun and hissed at neighbors to go inside. Cathy arrived next. She sneaked along the road and positioned herself to block an escape route. Next, biologist Brian Scheick pulled up in his truck and came running.
Mama smelled them. She and her cubs began moving toward a field.
Hitting the dirt, Orlando crawled on his elbows like an infantryman. At the edge of the field, Mama stood sniffing the air, trying to figure out the threat. At her feet the oblivious cubs, including poor Jarhead, played with Spanish moss. Orlando lay frozen behind a grapevine thicket, his heart pounding.
Mama ambled in his direction. Stopped. Sniffed again. She stepped even closer. She was only a few feet away now, on the other side of the thicket. Orlando flicked off the gun's safety and held his breath. Suddenly, she stepped through a gap in the thicket into the open. Orlando pulled the trigger. The dart flew into her buttocks. She jumped, yowled and ran for the woods.
The dart contained a radio transmitter. It was beeping now. Wherever Mama went to sleep, they would find her.
But that could wait. Orlando wanted to catch Jarhead. The little bear and his siblings were looking at him. They wanted to follow their mother but they were afraid to run past.
"HAAAAA!" Orlando yelled, waving his arms.
The first two cubs flew past him.
Jarhead, his vision impaired, bolted into a fence. Scheick grabbed the hind legs. Orlando held the cub by the jar and got scratched. The little bear may have been weak and hungry, but it was 15 pounds of clawed fury. The two biologists couldn't hold him.
Brian dived — for an instant his body floated parallel to the ground — and nabbed the cub by its back legs. As Orlando held the jar in a headlock, Cathy threw a towel around him. Maybe the little bear would calm down.
They returned with their prize to the truck. Now it was Cathy's turn to hold the back legs while Orlando gripped the front legs. Brian tried to slide the plastic jar off the cub's head. It wouldn't budge. Brian made a careful slit in the plastic with his pocket knife, allowing Mike to get his hand into the jar. Mike held down the ears while Brian slid the jar off.
The little bear had endured enough. It sank sharp teeth into Mike Orlando's hand and wrapped four paws around his arm as if it were a tree branch. First Orlando yowled like a bear cub. Then he slung the little bear in the bushes. A wild banshee, Jarhead vanished into the forest.
• • •
As they caught their breath, the biologists stared in wonder at the plastic jar. They counted three puncture holes, probably made by Mama in her effort to free the cub. The holes apparently allowed Jarhead to breathe. But what did it drink? Condensation, perhaps? What did it eat? Nothing.
Yet given its feisty behavior, Jarhead seemed to be in no immediate danger.
Now Orlando turned on a special radio. It picked up the signal from the transmitter dart stuck in Mama's butt. Holding the radio, Orlando and his team tracked the signal into the woods and found Mama in a deep sleep.
She was pretty heavy, about 150 pounds. The biologists recruited neighborhood men to help them drag Mama out of the forest. They left her asleep in the nearest culvert trap with the door open and tiptoed away.
It didn't take long, about a half-hour. One by one her cubs joined their slumbering mother in the trap. As she slept, Jarhead suckled at her breast. He was going to make it. When Mama woke up, they'd set them free.
• • •
Everybody on the bear team was exhausted. Everybody wanted to go home and sleep for a couple of days. But that had to wait.
They climbed into Orlando's truck and drove down Forest Road 8. Orlando turned left onto a deep sand trail. He passed four mobile homes and then made a right, stopping at a double-wide parked in a clearing.
Georgia Wilcox heard the truck coming. She looked out the window.
"Oh, no!" she thought. "They're here to tell me Jarhead is dead.''
Georgia was scared to go outside. But she forced herself to open the door.
Georgia saw the smiles. She broke into tears.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8727.