GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Florida wildlife officials are renewing warnings about how to prevent encounters with the state’s population of black bears – and how to survive such encounters when they happen.
Experts say bears are especially active at the start of fall as they start to pack on fat to hibernate even through Florida’s mild winter. The risk period involving bears extends through November.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission this week urged residents to follow six rules to say safe:
- Never feed or approach bears: It’s illegal in Florida to feed or leave food to intentionally attract bears, and fed bears can lose their fear of humans.
- Secure outside food or garbage: Use bear-resistant containers or store garbage containers in a sturdy shed or garage. Pick up fruit that falls from trees.
- Move or secure bird feeders: Only put enough food out for birds to finish eating before dark.
- Never leave pet food outside.
- Clean and store barbecue grills.
- Alert neighbors to any local bear activity.
Food left outside “can be enticing to a hungry bear preparing for the winter, potentially drawing them into conflict with people,” said Mike Orlando, the agency’s bear management program coordinator. He added, “If bears don’t find a food source in a neighborhood, they’ll move on.”
Black bears in Florida can be large, dangerous creatures. The wildlife agency said male bears usually weigh between 250 to 350 pounds, but the largest one on record weighed 760 pounds.
Stuart Peisner, 64, of Longwood, just north of Orlando, said he has had five encounters with bears in the past year. In October, he was walking his dog, Sable, at about 6 a.m. when a bear charged the pair of them. Peisner dropped the leash to let the dog run to safety as he dropped to his knees yelling at the bear.
“It was the absolute scariest thing that has happened to me,” he said in an interview.
Peisner’s experience was consistent with findings from the wildlife agency, which says 60% of encounters where bears hurt people in Florida also involved dogs.
“Dogs and bears are mortal enemies,” Peisner said, “Domestic dogs are descendants of wolves, and bears hate wolves.”
Bears have been sighted in urban areas, including Orlando, Ocala and Daytona Beach, the agency said. They have been seen in backyards and even outside of homes, sometimes caught on outside surveillance cameras.
The wildlife agency urged anyone who sees a bear to notify the agency’s nearest regional office. The public should also report anyone who hurts bears or intentionally feeds them. Residents are asked to call the wildlife agency’s alert hotline at 888-404-3922 if a bear is injured, orphaned or found dead.
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