By Stephen Hudak and Arelis R. Hernandez
Until last week, Florida black bears were mostly a source of awe and amusement to their suburban neighbors.
Sure, bear complaints were rising. The big lugs made repeated appearances in areas throughout Seminole County and other Central Florida communities, all of which made for fun Facebook posts and interesting coffee talk.
But no one had experienced a life-threatening injury because of a bear, and state wildlife experts regularly assured uneasy callers that the beasts would leave them alone if they just followed a few common-sense rules such as locking down their garbage.
All of that changed Dec. 2, when Susan Chalfant, a 54-year-old resident of Wingfield North near Wekiwa Springs State Park was mauled while walking her two small dogs on English Ivy Court. A spokeswoman for Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission called it the most serious documented bear attack in Florida history.
Since the attack, residents of neighborhoods where bears roam frequently have been expressing frustration and fear at their repeated encounters with the beasts, and some question whether the state agency is doing enough to protect them.
So does state Sen. David Simmons.
Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, whose district includes the area where the most bear complaints in Florida have been lodged during the past five years, said it's time for wildlife officials to reassess the state's bear-management strategies.
He pointed out that neighborhoods reporting human-bear conflicts are long-established residential communities and not new developments.
"It's not a case of humans encroaching on bears anymore," he said. "It's now a case of bears encroaching on humans."
Nick Wiley, executive director of the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, defended his agency's response as "pretty aggressive" but added that he's open to taking a different approach.
"It all connects back to bears seeing people as a source of food," Wiley said in an interview. "They love an easy meal.
"We are very aggressive, honestly, in euthanizing a bear. If it's lost its fear of people, not showing avoidance behavior, we're going to have to take it. We don't like doing that, but human safety comes first. People come first."
In the wake of the attack, the agency plans to hire more wildlife contractors to trap and relocate bears or catch and kill them. The state has contracts with 15 trappers in Florida, including just four in the northeast region, which includes Seminole, Orange, Lake and Volusia counties.
Just what other changes the agency might make remains unclear because, Wiley said, "we haven't digested things enough (since the mauling) to know what that might be at this point, but we're always looking for ways to do better."
Meanwhile, he said, state wildlife officers will continue to stress human behavioral changes.
"We're asking people to be our partner in this," Wiley said. "Are you willing to make a few sacrifices? Are you willing to have a bearproof garbage can? Keep your garbage locked up? Keep your pet food inside? Are you willing to do a few things to help make sure that a bear doesn't get in trouble or cause problems for you?"
People living in "bear central," though, are losing their patience. Some say they have made all the adjustments recommended by Wiley _ with little to show for it.
"I don't know what the answer is," said Barbara Savino, 65, who has called the agency's bear hotline more than half a dozen times since 2009. "But I'm fearful about going outside. I don't like living like that."
She said friends and family called to check on her after news of the bear attack broke.
"They wanted to make sure it wasn't me," she said. "It could have been."
Last month, just before bed, Savino stepped outside her home with her Maltese-Shih Tzu, Lola, to find four bears _ a mama and three cubs _ standing in the yard.
They apparently had been raiding a neighbor's trash. Her garbage was tucked in the garage. It was near midnight. Even so, Savino let off four blasts from an air horn that a state biologist had recommended she carry to scare off nosy bears.
One of the cubs scurried up a tree, but mama and the others were unmoved by the shrill noise, which brought neighbors outside. The bears just stared at her. Eventually, she said, they wandered off, walking slowly past a neighbor and his son, who were standing in the yard.
She has considered cutting down oaks and an orange tree because they might attract bears. She did not replace a bird feeder that bears destroyed.
"I'm sorry I feel this way, but I want them gone," said Savino, who has lived on a Longwood cul-de-sac for nearly 25 years. "Take the bears and do whatever you need to do."
Inga Bateman has considered it a privilege to live among the black bears that roam near her Longwood-area home _ even if it has meant making a few life adjustments. She doesn't leave pet or bird food out. She got rid of her blueberry bushes. She planted thorny rose bushes to keep the mammals at a safe distance.
Bateman loved telling friends the story about the bear that ate her children's stocking stuffers _ chocolate Santas _ one Christmas Eve when she accidentally left her van door open.
But after two frightening encounters with an aggressive bear in her Sweetwater Oaks subdivision in June and November, Bateman said her carefree attitude toward her furry neighbors has sharpened.
A bear charged Bateman twice while walking her dogs. In the most recent incident, she fought to shut her door as the bear tried to get inside her home. She hit it on the nose with the door handle.
After she closed the door, the bear started pounding on windows but eventually walked away. The paw prints are still on her plantation windows.
Bateman had to be hospitalized from the fright.
She had called 911, and deputies had forwarded the call to FWC, records show.
But no one came.
"I want them to take it more seriously," said Bateman, 56, who received a visit from FWC only after a woman was injured.
"They talk to you like you're an idiot. We've lived here for 25 years; I haven't had any problems before, and I know what it's like to live in bear country."
Wiley and other experts suspect the rapid uptick in complaints is directly related to an increase in the black bear population.
Wiley, who began working at the wildlife agency in 1988 and rose through the ranks to chief in 2009, said the state's bear population was once "really in trouble" but has rebounded through conservation efforts to "more natural levels," which helps explain the sudden spike in conflict reports.
The agency, which estimates the state bear population at more than 3,000 animals, will embark on a new bear survey next year because experts expect it's larger now.
"That population is exploding," said University of Florida wildlife professor Bill Giuliano, who was part of a biological-review group that helped persuade Wiley's agency to remove the black bear from the state's threatened list. His assessment is based on a spike in the number of bears killed on Florida roadways and in the number of bear-conflict complaints.
Florida's struggle with bears is not unique, said John Beecham, a research biologist who specializes in human-bear conflicts.
Wildlife biologists from New Jersey to Colorado, he said, have reported a jump in black bear complaints, including reports that the large animals wander during daylight hours in parks where children play and along walking paths to schools.
New Jersey is considering a law that would require the use of bear-resistant trash cans in "bear" neighborhoods and impose fines up to $1,000 for those who carelessly attract the animals. Bear hunting, which is not permitted in Florida, also is part of the management strategy in New Jersey, where hunters killed 287 bears in 2012.
Georgia has allowed hunting since the 1970s, limiting hunters to two harvested bears per season. But they said hunting has had a marginal effect on the state's growing black-bear population.
The answer to Central Florida's human-bear problem may be more complicated after the injuries to the Seminole County woman.
"I think we need to be looking for creative solutions on how to deal with these neighborhood bear situations," FWC's Wiley said. "Asking about bear hunts I don't think is the right question here."
(c)2013 The Orlando Sentinel