Nuts! Bears, lured by acorns, move into Heathrow

Article Courtesy of The Orlando Sentinel

By Stephen Hudak

Published November 12, 2014

Michelle Teagarden loves bears but now, she insists, it's time for them to go.

"They're getting worse and worse and worse, and there are many, many more of them," said Teagarden, a longtime resident of Heathrow, where she and some neighbors want the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission to take a more aggressive approach with eight bears that have moved into the gated community.

"When there's an accident, it will be too late," she said.


State wildlife officials, who have visited the neighborhood in Seminole County to look into residents' concerns, believe Teagarden and her neighbors on Lakeworth Circle in Heathrow have been mostly bear-smart, locking up trash and following agency suggestions intended to keep bears in the woods.

So what's the problem?

"Look down," Mike Orlando said when his fellow FWC officers asked him the same question.


Streets, sidewalks and lawns in the community were coated with a nutty layer of acorns, a staple of the Florida black bear's diet.

"Those oak trees are just pumping out tons and tons, and the bears know it," said Orlando, the agency's bear expert in Central Florida.

The abundance of bears has forced residents to make changes.

Teagarden now walks her small dog, Archie, before nightfall to avoid a surprise run-in with bears.

Jeremy Allen took his 4-year-old son to trick-or-treat in another neighborhood because the boy, dressed as a pirate, saw a real bear when they opened the door on Halloween. Allen said he shouldn't have to worry about bears if he wants to exercise, cook out or sit on the porch with a glass of wine. 

Neighbor John Simes built "unwelcome mats" by pounding flathead nails into plywood squares and burying them in backyard mulch to discourage the animals from traipsing through his azalea bushes and scaling his oaks to shake loose acorns. The nail heads, if stepped on, deliver pain but not serious injury.

It appeared to be working until Thursday, when his wife looked up from weeding the garden to discover a big bear sitting 10 feet away, staring at her.

"It was just looking at her, maybe out of curiosity, but it wasn't the least bit frightened," said Simes, who has lived in Heathrow for 17 years, but only recently came face-to-face with bears. "This is becoming a very frequent occurrence here and they do seem to be losing their fear of human beings, which is a major concern to me."

He said the animals are so comfortable he saw cubs sliding down the neighbor's backyard play set and frolicking on a see-saw.

"They enjoy it here. There seems to be lots of food and people try not to bother them," Simes said of the bears. "But...they are starting to take control of our lives. We're starting to feel a little bit trapped here in the neighborhood."

Florida bears are most active until mid-December, fattening up for winter by gorging on anything that fits in their mouths.

Nuisance complaints to the state's bear hotline underscore that fact, especially in Lake, Orange, Seminole and Volusia counties. Reports from those Central Florida counties spiked from 304 complaints in September to 549 calls last month as bears often wandered into neighborhoods in search of a meal.

More than 40 calls came from a zip code that includes Lakeworth Circle.
FWC usually responded by mailing an informational packet that offered tips for "Living with Florida Black Bears," but some residents want more.

"We get it: Don't leave your trash out, get an airhorn [to scare bears away], don't walk outside all covered in honey," said Eddie Selover, who shot a video of a large bear in front of his house last week and posted it to his Facebook page.

"It wouldn't be a question if there were a pack of tigers or lions out there. They'd be getting rid of them because, obviously, what else would you do? You wouldn't tell people how to live with lions. To me, a bear that size is as dangerous."

A Heathrow resident for 10 years, Selover wants the state to find a way to "thin the herd" in his neighborhood by whatever means necessary.

While many people still view bears as curious, cute and cuddly animals, the perception for others changed dramatically over the last 12 months because of two maulings in Seminole County. A 54-year-old woman was attacked in December while walking her dogs and a 44-year-old mom was bitten and clawed in April in her driveway.

FWC responded to those maulings by trapping and euthanizing bears considered to be "food-conditioned" and dangerous.

The agency, concerned about increasing human-bear conflicts, added staff and launched two important bear projects this year a science-based population estimate of the species and a pilot study using GPS technology to track the movements of bears living close to Central Florida neighborhoods.

Conflicts between the species usually are caused by people who lure the beast from the woods by providing them food often unwittingly but sometimes intentionally, which is against the law. Wildlife agents investigating nuisance complaints often find that people left their garbage or pet food out.

That isn't the case in Heathrow, where the homeowners association is considering new rules that may require some residents to use bear-resistant trash containers.

Wildlife officers put a trap in Heathrow last week after a beagle was injured in a tangle with a bear. But even before that, FWC thought it was time to "break up the party," Orlando said. The agency intends to relocate rather than euthanize the bears it catches believing the animals are acting as bears.

"We're giving them the benefit of the doubt for the moment," he said.