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Land O'Lakes woman comes face-to-face with a 250-pound bear

LAND O'LAKES — The French doors rattled, and Betty Will felt terror.

Something lurked in the wilderness outside her bedroom window. Her heart pounded. She sobbed to the 911 operator that somebody was breaking into her home.

She summoned the courage to peer outside, figuring she might provide a good description of the burglar to police. She crouched low to the ground.

"When I pulled the blind back,'' she said, "I was looking into the face of a bear."

Will is a 57-year-old media specialist at St. Anthony Catholic School in nearby San Antonio. She lives in Suncoast Lakes, a new development next to the Suncoast Parkway at State Road 52. It sits adjacent to the vast Starkey Wilderness, so homeowners are used to seeing wildlife — deer, boar, raccoons.

But a bear?

"People really didn't believe me," she said. "Apparently there are no bears in Pasco County."

The 250-pound, full-grown black bear that showed up in Betty Will's backyard on July 11 likely came from the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, about 40 miles northwest — or 20 miles as the bear crawls, according to state wildlife biologist Breanne Strepina. She said it may have left the refuge after a fight with a bigger bear, judging from claw marks on its snout.

In the nearly 30 years the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has kept records, the local office has received only 27 reported sightings of the threatened species in Hernando and Pasco counties. The Gulf Coast Conservancy, a nonprofit land trust that opened a bear sighting hotline in 1995 for people along the Nature Coast, said it has logged nearly 200 sightings. Sadly, some of the bear sightings were on U.S. 19, a busy highway east of the refuge that foraging creatures cross.

After Will spotted the bear in her yard, it disappeared. But for a week, it continued to scrounge for food in the neighborhood. Residents complained it was dumping their garbage and eating their birdseed. They called the wildlife commission to have it removed.

On July 17, the bear experts asked Will if they could set up a trap in her backyard. They promised the animal would be returned to Chassahowitzka unharmed.

Fearing the bear would be killed if it stayed in the neighborhood, Will consented.

The trappers put their bait — doughnuts and bacon — in a long metal tube with air holes and a sliding trap door. That evening, 35 neighbors and strangers surrounded the windows facing Will's backyard armed with cameras.

The bear passed her bedroom window first, then the sliding glass doors in her living room. When it saw the trap, it raised on its hind legs, as if to intimidate the peculiar looking contraption.

Then it scurried off into the woods.

The neighbors left, disappointed, but Will kept watch.

This rogue could not have made its way to the yard of anyone more appreciative of bears. Will describes herself as a bear freak. As a girl, she would sit on the porch of her grandparents' Fayetteville, Texas, farm, hoping to spot one. On a family vacation to Canada, her priority was a bear-watching excursion. Growing up, her two daughters knew bear-themed books and stuffed animals were a sure-win gift.

Around 10 p.m., there was a loud pop, like cannon fire, when the trap door fell.

Trappers sedated the animal. Will asked if she could look at the bear up close before they took it away. They flipped up a long thin door on the side of the trap. Will peered into its wet eyes and said she felt peace.

Will didn't want to talk to the Times about the details that ended her 34-year marriage, but she confided that she struggled to reinvent herself after the divorce. She had left the house she and her husband built for their retirement and moved to this new subdivision a half-hour north of Tampa. But in the four months living alone for the first time in her life, she had felt uneasy.

Then came the visitor in the night.

"When that bear came, it was God telling me that this is where I belonged," she said, choking back tears. "It was almost like a sign for me."

She has heard bears bring good luck. Since the encounter, one daughter has found work after losing her job.

The other just announced that Will is about to be a grandmother.

Helen Anne Travis can be reached at htravis@sptimes.com or (813) 435-7312

CLARIFICATION: The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has logged 27 bear sightings in approximately 30 years in Hernando and Pasco counties. These were calls reported to the local Fish and Wildlife office. The Gulf Coast Conservancy, a nonprofit land trust that opened a bear sighting hotline in 1995 for people along the Nature Coast, said it has logged nearly 200 sightings. Earlier versions of this article used in print and online did not include the sightings logged by the Gulf Coast Conservancy.

Land O'Lakes woman comes face-to-face with a 250-pound bear 08/14/09 [Last modified: Friday, September 4, 2009 3:12pm]
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