You’re walking your dog or simply taking a stroll through your South Florida neighborhood. Out of nowhere, a black bear appears. What should you do?
Bear sightings are rare in South Florida. It happens only a few times a year.
But if a black bear roams your neighborhood, such as Saturday in Royal Palm Beach, experts say the first thing you should do is get to a safe place, and if the bear is posing a threat to people, property or livestock, call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission wildlife alert hotline at 888-404-3922.
Most likely, you’ll never encounter a bear in the wild or in your neighborhood. And that’s probably what the residents in Royal Palm Beach thought.
“We had one that occurred here in Cutler Bay, which is the first time I ever heard of one this far south, several months ago, and then it just kind of disappeared on its own,” said Ron Magill, Zoo Miami Goodwill ambassador/ communications director. “But it’s not a common sighting down here.”
Just in case, the FWC has recommendations on its website.
If you see a bear from a distance:
- Do not move toward the bear; if your presence changes the bear’s behavior, you are too close.
If you encounter a bear at close range:
- Remain standing upright.
- Back up slowly toward a secure area, and be sure you are leaving the bear a clear escape route.
- Avoid direct eye contact because bears and other animals may view this as aggressive behavior.
- Stop and hold your ground if your movement away seems to irritate instead of calm the bear.
The FWC says don’t:
- Make any sudden or abrupt movements.
- Run, because running can trigger a chase instinct and bears can sprint up to 35 mph.
- Play dead, because black bears eat things that play dead or are dead.
- Climb a tree, because black bears can climb 100 feet up a tree in 30 seconds.
- Approach or surprise a bear, especially one that may be injured.
The FWC says if a black bear attacks, you should “fight back aggressively because people have successfully fended off black bear attacks using rocks, sticks, or even their bare hands.”
As for what law enforcement should do if it encounters a bear, Arielle Callender, public information director for the FWC South Region, said Tuesday in an email:
“In almost all situations, we advise local law enforcement officers to keep people away from the bear and allow the bear to move through the area. If they have concerns about the bear’s location or behavior, we ask them to contact the FWC for assistance.
“The FWC offers a free training for local law enforcement officers on how to respond to bears, panthers, or coyotes. Since 2007, the FWC has trained over 2,500 personnel from 120 different entities in Florida, including local law enforcement, military security forces, and park rangers.”
Asked how often people or law enforcement shoot and kill black bears, Callender said, “This is not a common occurrence. While law enforcement personnel may assist FWC biologists with euthanizing an injured bear, we are aware of only seven incidents [including the incident this weekend] where a law enforcement officer shot and killed a bear for other reasons since the 1970s in Florida. We document an average of 15 incidents each year where a citizen illegally kills a black bear.”
Bears usually aren’t looking to harm people, experts say. The FWC’s website said it gets up to 6,000 bear-related calls each year across the state. It said it has documented only 15 cases in more than 50 years of people being seriously or moderately injured by bears.
The most recent black bear sightings in Broward County were in Fort Lauderdale (Oct. 4, 2021) and Weston (Jan. 26, 2021). The most recent bear sightings in Palm Beach County were in South Bay (March 17, 2021) and West Palm Beach (July 7, 2021). Those sightins are reported on the FWC website.
Also, there was a black bear sighting in Cutler Bay in July 2016 and a black bear sighting near Homestead in 2019. A video of a black bear chasing a family and its dog in Apopka gained popularity in April. There’s also a video of a bear roaming a neighborhood near Naples on Sunday.
Magill said it’s hard to blame law enforcement for shooting and killing the bear Saturday in Royal Palm Beach.
“Police officers, their No. 1 priority is the safety of people,” Magill said. “A police officer who might not know the natural behavior of any particular bear is going to err on the side of caution and that may result, unfortunately, in the removal of the bear.”
Two Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputies shot the bear after it climbed down a tree. For hours, the bear — estimated at 300 pounds — was being watched and kept in the tree by deputies and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers, according to a Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office news release, which said they were waiting for a bear trapper and /or tranquilizer.
The FWC, however, said in an email that it wasn’t the case.
“In this instance we were not waiting for a tranquilizer or trapper since FWC staff determined the best approach was to let the bear leave the area on its own,” Callender said.
Regardless, the Sheriff’s Office said it had little choice other than shooting the bear.
“It should be noted that the bear had NO place to roam safely!” the news release said. “The incident location and surrounding area are residential neighborhoods and fearing the bear would roam into the residential communities and/or impede traffic flow on the adjacent roadways PBSO was faced with making the decision to discharge their shotguns striking and killing the bear.”
Breaking News Alerts
as it happens
Get updates on developing stories as they happen with our free breaking news email alerts.
ZooMiami’s Magill said black bears usually don’t want encounters with humans.
“They’re not coming to attack people; they’re not coming to attack pets,” Magill said. “They’re not like coyotes, for instance, that will knowingly go after cats and dogs to kill them.”
Magill said humans must share some of the blame for bear intrusions.
“Here in Florida people haven’t learned quite well enough how to keep their garbage cans secure,” he said. “A lot of people still leave pet food out on their back porch for their pets. Things like this can attract these bears because they have an incredible sense of smell and they’re just coming to try to get a free meal.”
Magill said when he hasn’t had any issues encountering bears.
“I’ve not had any situation where a bear has charged me or attacked me,” he said. “On the contrary, anytime I’ve come across a bear in the wild I’ve just put my hands up high, try to make myself look as large as possible, speak firmly and slowly back up and the bear usually runs the other way .”
Chris Perkins can be reached at email@example.com.