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Biologist pulls doped bear from gulf

ALLIGATOR POINT — Adam Warwick watched with dread as the 375-pound black bear loped into the Gulf of Mexico.

Oh, no, he thought.

Normally, the animal would have no problem dog-paddling its way from this peninsular town to the mainland, where it could escape the meddling of state wildlife officers who were trying to remove it from under a stilt house.

But, moments before, officials shot the bear with a tranquilizer. The green dart stuck out of its rump as it bounded for the gulf.

They weren't expecting the bear to make a dash for the water.

Warwick, a biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, figured he had a few minutes before the bear stiffened, sank and drowned.

He took off his shirt and waded into the 4-foot-deep water, where barnacles and concrete blocks studded the floor.

Warwick swam about 25 yards out and positioned himself in front of the bear, which was starting to lose control of its legs. He splashed water at it, trying to startle it back to shore.

But that wasn't working.

The bear stood up on its back legs, as if to lunge. At more than 6 feet tall, the animal towered over the 5-foot-9 Warwick.

Then, with a great splash, the bear toppled backward.

• • •

Warwick, 31, is a soft-spoken Southerner. He grew up in the rolling hills of Knoxville, Tenn., and studied zoology at the University of Tennessee. He did master's work on bats. Then he found job at Tate's Hell, a wildlife area near Tallahassee.

His job wasn't supposed to include diplomacy between people and black bears, a threatened species in Florida. But the area is one of Florida's top places where the populations mix. Soon, he was trying to persuade waste management companies to buy bear-resistant garbage containers.

He gets calls from rattled residents — a bear's in the Dumpster, a bear's in a trash can, a bear's in the bird feeder.

About 80 percent of the animals' diet is vegetation like berries and nuts. But dining gets a whole lot easier around people. A bag of dog food is the caloric equivalent of 11,000 acorns.

Some residents in Warwick's area have begun to regard bears as nuisances. He tries to help them understand that they're lucky to share their habitat with bears. In his five years at Tate's Hell, Warwick has grown fond of the creatures. He admires their cleverness.

So on Tuesday, when he saw this bear thrashing in the water, Warwick couldn't let it become a casualty to the conflict between bears and people.

"It would be very hard for me to watch happen," Warwick said. "I knew there just really wasn't any other option."

• • •

He hugged the bear from behind, grabbing the scruff of its neck to keep its leaden head above water. Cutting his feet on barnacles, he walked across the crusty gulf floor.

The bear was heavy. Warwick used the animal's buoyancy to help him haul it to shore. The animal was awake but could barely move. The bear tried to help out with a little doped-up paddling of its own.

Warwick was on the swim team as a youth, but he'd never met a swimming challenge like this one.

"Everything I've learned about lifeguarding has been from Baywatch," he said.

He looked a little like a lifeguard, but the victim was twice the size of the rescuer.

By the time Warwick made it near shore, a resident had driven his backhoe up to the water's edge. They loaded the bear into the bucket, its tongue lolling out of his mouth.

The adrenaline of the moment gone, Warwick felt exhausted.

The next morning, Warwick and a colleague drove the bear about three hours east to the Osceola National Forest. The bear had become too comfortable around people, and this was its second relocation.

It previously was removed from an area near the Eglin Air Force base for a similar offense. It had been tagged W007.

Warwick and his colleagues hope that in a more isolated area, it'll stay out of trouble.

Biologist pulls doped bear from gulf 06/28/08 [Last modified: Friday, July 4, 2008 1:36pm]
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