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Florida bears eat too much and get lazy in winter, just like us

Instead of hibernation, Florida’s black bears go into a kind of persistent lethargy for the winter, much like the winter blues humans encounter.
The Florida black bear, photographed at Nature's Classroom, is on the move these days in search of food to fatten up for a period of light hibernation in the winter. [JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Tampa Bay Times (2013)]
Published Oct. 17

Who wouldn’t identify with Florida black bears right now? We see you, bears. We are you.

Their cousin bears in Canada and out west are getting fat and preparing to go to sleep before the big snowfall. Fat Bear Week is an internet tradition from Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska. People vote on their favorite chunky bear in a bracket system. This year’s winner was the glamorous, salmon-eating Holly.

Florida bears don’t have to worry about a tough winter. But still, they are on the move and eating 20,000 calories a day to pack on the pounds, crossing paths with nervous homeowners.

They’re stuffing their pie holes with berries and acorns and pilfered pizza crusts from garbage cans. Biologists say that even though the temperature rarely gets cold enough to freeze an ice cube, the bears will need a few months to withdraw and chill.

RELATED: Florida’s black bears are on the move and getting ready for winter

Instead of hibernation, Florida’s black bears go into a kind of persistent lethargy called torpor. It’s the biological equivalent of putting on sweatpants and streaming old episodes of Friends on Netflix.

Torpor is also a term human psychologists use to describe the winter blues that can send humans into weight gain, carbohydrate craving, hypersomnia, depression and inactivity. More women than men get Seasonal Affective Disorder. And female bears need torpor more than males.

In 2009, a Florida black bear was found standing on a picnic table in the backyard of a home in Holly Hill, a suburb not far from the Tiger Bay State Forest. The vast wooded area just west of Daytona Beach is home to a sizable bear population. [AP (2009)]

The ones who are pregnant right now are wolfing down acorns, berries and roots (80 percent of the fierce-looking animal’s diet is actually plant-based). They have to fatten up so they can save their energy in January. They use those sluggish early months to nurse the babies and avoid the dads that have been known to kill the cubs. Once the cubs get big enough to head out on their own by April or May, the mama bears can lose the added weight.

We turned to the state’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which is charged with protecting the bears, to explain all this. Most of the estimated 4,000 Florida bears live in wild areas like the Big Cypress National Preserve some 50 miles west of Miami or in the Ocala National Forest. They can smell a human a mile away and will stay clear, so that means few of us have actually encountered one.

Dave Telesco, who leads the commission’s Bear Management Program, said the sweatpants and Netflix analogy isn’t far off.

“Their heart rate drops and they don’t have to eat, they don’t have to drink and they don’t have to excrete waste,” Telesco said. “They can literally be still in one spot for months at a time. They can live off their fat.”

They go from a diet of 5,000 calories a day in summer to 20,000 in fall, he said, “because they are going through the same exact thing that their cousins up north are going through."

Florida black bears like fast food, too. In this 2010 photo, a black bear cub was discovered in the Ocala National Forest with a plastic jar stuck over its head. The bear was caught and the jar removed. [Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission]

Those garbage cans full of leftovers are tempting to a bear trying to fatten up. This is another way bears are a lot like us, Telesco said. They like fast food.

“People think they are in our garbage because there’s no food in the woods. Absolutely not," Telesco said. “It’s like fast food. Do I feel like picking up 1,000 acorns or do I want to just knock over a garbage can? We say they are smart enough to be lazy."

The bears are gorging themselves now and will start making dens in mid to late December, he said. They might take up a spot in a hollow tree “like a giant squirrel," but they are most likely to find an impenetrable thicket and make what looks like a big bird’s nest with twigs and branches.

The pregnant females will settle into a den first to prepare for the arrival of her cubs in January. Then come the females with cubs followed by the single gals. The males are last and can’t be trusted around the young. The bears will be sluggish but not deeply asleep during their period of torpor, nursing the young as needed, but moving very little.

In this 2014 photo, a black bear perches on a tree in Panama City in northwest Florida. [AP (2014)]

When they emerge in the spring, the bears don’t want to be seen. They have a sense of smell that’s seven times better than a bloodhound, Telesco said, and they are cowards.

“Believe it or not, they are very afraid. We’ve had house cats tree them before,” Telesco said. “That’s why we are able to live with them because they are afraid of us. They are okay as long as they don’t mess with us and we don’t mess with them."

A black bear and her cub sit in a tree near Hurlburt Field Air Force Base in northwest Florida in 2006. [DEVON RAVINE | Associated Press (2006)]

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