CHINSEGUT NATURE CENTER, Brooksville — On an internship during his undergrad years at the University of Florida, Mike Orlando found himself chest-deep in a swamp, the air as thick and hot as gumbo, sweating, swatting mosquitoes, dodging snakes and Lord knows what else, his flesh torn up from briars, all while trying to fish out a collar lost by a black bear — whose preferred territory is not where humans are meant to be.
What the heck am I doing? he thought. Is this what I really want to do for the rest of my life?
But then, later, it happened: He touched a bear for the first time. "Intoxicating," he said, remembering. It wasn't one of those soul-to-soul, animal-to-human tear-jerky moments. It was chaotic: There was a very cross black bear that decided to go for a free snack and ended up caught in a humane trap, snared to a tree. So his job was to shoot a dart in the bear's rump to make it go to sleep and then he had literally minutes to do everything needed — samples, measurements, checkups, collar, tag — and then the bear was awake and not too happy. And then the bear was off, back in the woods, out of sight.
"Oh," Orlando sighed, sitting on a shady bench at Chinsegut Nature Center in Brooksville recently, "bears are brilliant."
Orlando is now 31 — tanned with dark hair and bright green eyes — and a bear biologist and program coordinator with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. He was at Chinsegut and in downtown Brooksville doing seminars on how to live with bears.
And, yes, there are bears in Florida. Orlando gets that question all the time from surprised residents. There are about 2,000 black bears living in the state now, and as the bear population gets healthier and increases, it clashes with the also-increasing human population and development. There are about 20 bears in the Chassahowitzka and Weeki Wachee ecological areas and bears have been sighted in the Withlacoochee area of Pasco County.
Most bears live up in the Ocala National Forest, which is why Orlando lives nearby in Deland, with his wife and son.
After graduating from the University of Florida, Orlando joined the Peace Corps and was working with animals in Africa. But fate seemed to want him back here — and with bears.
The funding was cut for his Africa program and he went back to Florida, where he got a call from a former professor. Another professor at the University of Kentucky was doing a large project on the bear population in the Chassahowitzka area and had called, looking for someone excellent who had bear experience.
The Florida professor recommended Orlando and, before he knew it, he was a master's student at Kentucky, but spending most of his time with Florida black bears. From then on, he hasn't strayed.
But Orlando also does not humanize bears, as many of us are inclined to do. As a scientist, Orlando says, you lose your objectivity when you name the animal you're studying and get emotional about it.
But you can respect it and fight for it, and Orlando certainly does that. Orlando is still out in Florida forests and swamps, checking on bears. But now most of his duty is educating the public and trying to work with cities and agencies across the state. One of his Hernando sessions was to train volunteers to canvass neighborhoods, training others on how to coexist with bears.
Florida's black bears are not aggressive and normally run from humans. But they can be food-conditioned quickly. This can be unintentional, with people not securing their garbage, leaving pet food outside or having bird feeders. Orlando said there is a neighborhood in Citrus County with a bear that was noshing on seed from bird feeders. Residents won't take their feeders down — but they want the bear gone. The problem is that it's very hard to relocate bears. They can have a huge homing range, meaning, once they're dropped off 100 miles away, they can manage to find their way back to a food source.
This usually means crossing roads — and possible death for the bear. Cars are the No. 1 killer of black bears in Florida. Where Orlando lives, he sees this often. He picks up the bodies, puts them in the back of his truck and takes them home. He does research on the bodies before disposing of them.
So, Orlando says, Floridians have to change, just a bit, for the benefit of bears and society. Take up food dishes of outdoor pets, instead of having a free feed. Purchase bear-proof garbage cans with twist-off lids or create an electronic fence around your garbage area. Orlando said this can be done for less than $100.
And never feed a bear on purpose. Orlando said so many people see a bear in their backyard and then grab a hot dog, hand-feed the bear, take some photos and call the neighbors.
"But that bear will be back on your porch at the same time the next day," Orlando said. "Sitting there, with his face pressed up against your window, waiting for his hot dog."
It sounds adorable. But, you have created a situation that always ends up badly for the bear — which is no longer afraid of people and might go cruising around the area, expecting hot dogs from other people. There could be a neighbor who gets scared and shoots and kills the bear. The bear could get hit by a car while roaming. The bear could get brazen, break a window and go searching for more food inside a house.
"That is not tolerated," Orlando said. Any bear in Florida that enters a dwelling is killed, without question. This happens.
While growing up in the Cape Coral area of Florida, Orlando was that kid who always was outdoors — and he had to touch whatever he saw. If he saw a snake, he had to feel it. And he got bitten a lot. He's been bitten by a bear only once, as he held a needle in a bear's tongue to reverse its anesthetic. The bear woke up and chomped down on his hand. "I'd do the same thing, though," Orlando said, "if I woke up and somebody was holding my tongue."
So he understands — "believe me, I do" — the urge to connect with wildlife; that just seeing a bear is not enough. We want to connect with it, touch it, feed it, but we have to fight that pull because in the end, it hurts the bear and our good intentions.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4609.