At first, Richard Trinkle thought it was a Florida panther rummaging around in the woods behind Arlington Funeral Home on U.S. 19.
But when the creature lumbered across the six-lane highway Monday evening toward the Dunkin' Donuts where Trinkle was sitting outside drinking coffee, he realized it was a black bear, about 6 feet tall, almost as tall as he is.
"First they thought we were joking, but then they saw the prints," said Trinkle, who called the Sheriff's Office about the sighting. "He was close. He was no more than 30 yards away. I know a bear when I see it."
He is not the only one. Several other Dunkin' Donuts customers and nearby residents also saw the bear after it managed to cross U.S. 19 during an unusual break in traffic.
"It was funny. When he came across the road, there weren't any cars," Trinkle said.
The bear then disappeared west toward the woods. It reappeared nearby at Bay Point Apartments and Sundance Lakes Travel Resort Park, where several residents saw it.
Deputies arrived about 8:30 p.m. Monday to investigate the sighting and found about five paw marks in the sand in the empty lot next to Dunkin' Donuts, at 11409 U.S. 19. Deputies searched for the bear unsuccessfully and called the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission about 9:20 p.m. to report the sighting.
It is fairly unusual for a bear to wander around west Pasco County, said Sheriff's Office spokesman Jon Powers.
However, other less populated areas nearby, such as Hernando County, have significant black bear populations, said Lt. Rip Stalvey of the game commission. And they do sometimes wander into busy areas.
"We've had bears in downtown Orlando," he said.
The biggest black bear Stalvey has seen was 700 pounds. Bears grow bigger in Florida than in the North because they do not go into true hibernation. Bears are most active from late afternoon to early morning, taking it easy during the day.
If a bear seems to be causing a problem, do not approach it.
"If you just leave it alone, it'll go on its way and not bother you," Stalvey said.
Though there has never been a documented case of a bear attacking a person in Florida, Stalvey said, most people aren't thrilled to see bears wandering in their front yards. Apparently, the feeling is mutual.
"Typically," he said, "it scares the heck out of the bear."