ORLANDO, Fla. — Dallas Smith thinks he has the answer to Central Florida’s black-bear threat, and he’s ready to lock and load it.
“I think the fear of God needs to be put back into them,” said Smith, 47, who wants state authorities to lift restrictions that prohibit bear-hunting in Florida, even on private property.
“I love bears. I just don’t like where they’re going.”
Smith’s solution is part of a growing debate among residents of the area’s most bear-beleaguered neighborhoods who are deeply troubled by Saturday night’s mauling of Terri Frana, the second victim of a serious bear attack in Seminole County since December.
One group wants state wildlife officers to stop killing the animals.
Another is ready for a bear hunt.
During the past six days, officers with the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission shot to death or darted and euthanized seven bears in the gated Carisbrooke neighborhood in Seminole County where Frana, 44, was bitten and clawed.
The animals, all weighing 200 pounds or more, were dangerously comfortable around people and driven by food they apparently have grown accustomed to finding in unsecured trash bins or backyard bird feeders, said Greg Workman, an FWC spokesman.
The agency also offered an unspecified reward for tips leading to the conviction of anyone illegally feeding bears.
“This is extremely tragic not only for Mrs. Frana, her neighborhood and the bears, but also for us,” said Mike Orlando, a wildlife biologist with FWC and a Florida black bear expert.
“We don’t want to kill bears. We just don’t have a choice.”
Orlando said the seven slain bears showed no fear of humans and, in several cases, casually approached a group of wildlife officers who were standing together in the roadway. Bears ought to run from people, especially if shooed away or hazed.
Despite FWC’s repeated explanations, critics assailed the agency on social media sites. A Twitter user mocked wildlife officers for yelling “bad bear” and killing animals that didn’t run away. “Don’t get too scientific on us, @MyFWC,” one critic tweeted.
Demonstrators held up signs at the intersection of International Parkway and Lake Mary Boulevard on Wednesday, protesting the killings and calling on FWC to capture and relocate the Carisbrooke bears to a less densely populated area.
“We don’t have a magic place where we can take a bear and there are no people around,” Orlando said.
He said the Carisbrooke bears behaved as if they were dependent on food provided by humans intentionally or unwittingly, a behavior that cannot be unlearned. Orlando said the bears, if moved, would be just as dangerous to people living on the outskirts of the Ocala National Forest as they are to residents of the gated community in Lake Mary.
FWC does not view hunting as an immediate solution either, though more pro-hunting voices have chimed in since Frana was attacked, Workman said.
“Obviously it’s a resource-management tool we have used with other wildlife so I don’t think we can rule it out from the future,” he said. “But right now, we’re not entertaining anything of that nature.”
The division of opinions was apparent at the first community meetings that FWC held after Susan Chalfant, 54, was mauled in December by a bear in Wingfield North, a gated Seminole County neighborhood near Longwood.
The wildlife agency distributed “comment cards” to several hundred participants who submitted views for FWC to factor into future management plans.
The cards asked: How do you feel about bears in Florida?
“Please control them by hunting permits or euthanasia. Their population has gotten out of hand ... We buy our property, maintain it, pay taxes on it and pay for damages incurred from bears,” one person wrote. “People are more important than bears.”
But many expressed their love for the “beautiful creatures.”
“I love the fact that we still have bears in spite of our continuing development. We are pushing the bears out of their natural habitat and encroaching on their lives,” another participant wrote. “Teach people how to live alongside our bears.”