TAMPA — Florida authorities have arrested nine people on animal cruelty and racketeering charges after a year-long investigation found they allegedly used and abused wild black bears to train and sell hunting dogs.
In videos posted to social media and obtained by law enforcement, large packs of dogs can be seen mauling bears that fall out of trees, in some cases egged on by bystanders. At least two black bears are confirmed dead, though authorities expect more as the investigation continues.
Attorney General Pam Bondi said the individuals arrested used the tactics to train hunting dogs in what she described as a lucrative, illegal business, though she added that some individuals took a "sick pleasure" in causing harm to the bears.
Bondi said the arrested referred to the organized bear attacks as "Sunday Funday" and gleefully shared the videos on social media and with each other.
"This is not hunting. This is not sport," Bondi said at Zoo Tampa at Lowry Park, home to several Florida black bears. "This is cruelty to animals."
The illegal operation spread across four counties — Baker, Flagler, Marion and Union — and took place on public and private lands. The defendants lured the black bears with drums of food and doughnuts, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Bondi said they used 55 gallons of peanut butter to attract bears to the training area.
The arrests come 11 months after the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission received a tip about the videos, many of which were posted publicly online to attract business. Other times, they used Snapchat, a social media application where messages are deleted soon after they are sent.
The Office of Statewide Prosecution obtained warrants for the social media accounts that posted videos of the bear attacks.
The operation led to the rescue of 53 dogs and the state is working with the Humane Society to find the dogs homes. In some instances, people may have thought they were sending their dogs to a legal training business, and the Humane Society was working to reunite them.
Those arrested: William Tyler Wood, 29, of Lake Butler; Dustin Reddish, 25, of Lake Butler; Haley Reddish, 25, of Lake Butler; Mark Lindsey, 26, of Moultrie, Ga.; Charles Luther Scarbrough II, 30, of Callahan; Hannah Weiner Scarbrough, 27, of Callahan; Christopher Elliot Haun, 42, of Ormond Beach; William Edward Landrum, 39, of Millboro, Va.; and Troy Travis Starling, 45, of Lake Butler.
The charges include felonies and misdemeanors for animal cruelty, illegal taking and baiting of black bears, and Florida Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act violations. The felony charges could lead to up to 30 years in prison for each person, Bondi said, and up to five years for each misdemeanor charge. Several individuals were arrested in other states, she said.
Bear hunting is illegal in Florida. In 2015, Florida Fish and Wildlife approved a week-long bear hunt, its first in 21 years, that was ended abruptly after two days. Hunters had killed 304 of the 321 bears allowed, and wildlife officials feared they might exceed the quota.
The hunt led to widespread criticism of the wildlife agency and the science it used to allow for the hunt. As a result, wildlife officials have not approved another bear hunt.
Earlier this year, the Florida bear population hit 4,000, according to the agency.
"As conservationists and ethical hunters, it is appalling to think about the callous disregard for common decency and our state's precious natural resources shown by these violations," Commission Executive Director Eric Sutton said in a statement. "There is no place in Florida for these heinous acts."