National Geographic Daily News
Photo of a bear crossing sign.

A sign warns motorists near Orlando, Florida, of the possibility of bear crossings. Both the bear and human populations are increasing in the state.

Photograph by Philip Schermeister, National Geographic

Jennifer S. Holland

for National Geographic

Published April 15, 2014

Black bear attacks are on the rise in Florida, warn wildlife officials.

This week, a bear bit a woman's head and dragged her from her garage before she escaped—the second mauling since December. In the latest incident, the woman survived, but black bears in the area weren't so lucky.

On Monday officials killed four adult bears and one young bear captured nearby, believing one of them to be the attacker and calling all of them dangerously habituated to people.

Don't run. Don't play dead. Don't make eye contact. These are good rules to consider if you are suddenly face-to-face with a black bear in the woods, or in your garage.

For more, we talked to David Telesco, coordinator of the Bear Management Program for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FFWCC) and part of the team that created the Florida Black Bear Management Plan, about the growing problem of bear attacks on people and the causes of the animals' behavior.

With the black bear population in Florida expanding and growing—after the animals nearly disappeared in the 1970s—people are encountering them more and more, with bloody results. Is this a new trend?

We've had a boost in conflicts in Florida since the early 2000s, but it has definitely shot up in the last few years [more than 4,000 bear-related calls were made to the FFWCC in 2010]. That's because you have not just a bear population that's growing but a human one too, with high-density human populations next to high-density bear populations. The land that bears use is in high demand for housing developments. As that development occurs, it creates more opportunities for people and bears to interact. While attacks are fortunately rare, more interaction can lead to more of them. (See "Maulings by Bears: What's Behind the Recent Attacks?")

Map of black bear range in Florida showing urbanization from 1980 to 2010. 14 incidents of humans being injured by bear attacks are plotted.

How serious have the attacks been in the last decade?

The most recent two were serious, but most of them aren't—usually there are only minor injuries, scratches and bruises. About half of the 14 incidents where a bear has injured a person in Florida occurred because someone was intentionally interacting with a bear, hand-feeding it or hitting it with a stick or something. The good news is that, while there are increasingly more calls, the types of calls we are getting aren't changing—we aren't seeing more threats against humans and killings of other animals. The proportion of serious incidents is still relatively low.

Are the bears coming to suburbia because they don't have enough food in the wild anymore?

It's a common misconception that because bears are eating garbage, they must have run out of food. It isn't true that there isn't enough food in the woods. Yes, in the spring there is less food, but that's normal, and bears will eat greens and shoots during that time. But in reality, if you can get easy calories and then spend the rest of the day sleeping, why wouldn't you? That exposure to easy, high-calorie food brings them back regardless of what else there is to eat in the wild. If there's garbage available, they'll go get it.

Photo of a man holding a child watching a bear in their yard.
A man and his two-year-old daughter watch a black bear next to their house in Holly Hill, Florida. Increased development creates more opportunities for people and bears to interact.

Still, it seems that as bear habitat becomes more patchy, this problem will only increase—in part because food will actually be more scarce at some point.

Unlike deer, where overpopulation can result in damage to their habitat, bears will push other bears out of their range if food becomes scarce. The bears that are pushed out will then seek new habitat, but we'd rather them not choose housing developments. We work with counties and regions to maintain contiguous habitat for bears and other wildlife, although bears don't seem to mind walking through neighborhoods to get from one patch of forest to another.

Are bears naturally aggressive? Is it normal for them to attack people?

Absolutely not. A wild bear is normally shy; it should run away, not approach a person and huff and puff or attack. We shouldn't have situations in which people walking around a neighborhood are approached by four bears in one day. That's not natural; they are not social animals.

Other than by encroaching on their habitat, what have we done that's made them this way?

People feed wildlife—often unintentionally, but sometimes on purpose. It's because they love wildlife and want to see it, but the idea that "a fed bear is a dead bear" is really true. If an animal receives food enough so that it loses its fear of people, becomes used to people, not only does that increase the chance it will hurt someone but also that it will be hurt. Bears did not become this way without people's help.

Photo of a bear at a picnic table.
A black bear appears to be looking for a waiter at a backyard picnic table in Holly Hill, Florida. But "a fed bear is a dead bear," says David Telesco.

How many bears have been killed by officials as a result of these attacks?

Since 2009, 11 bears have been shot or euthanized after an encounter with people. But the main way humans directly kill bears in Florida is with traffic: Vehicles have killed more than a thousand animals in that same time period.

Have people in these situations been doing something that agitates or draws the bear at the time of the attacks?

Except for those harassing or feeding bears, victims haven't been doing anything "wrong"—in the recent incident, the woman simply walked out of her house. We tell people not to run but instead to back away slowly. She turned her back and the bear knocked her down. It isn't really anything she did that caused it. We aren't sure yet what the motivation was in this case, whether the bear was protecting her yearlings, herself, or food. We are investigating it now.

For future reference, what's more dangerous, being cornered by a bear or cornering a bear?

Definitely the latter. You do not want to leave a bear with no exit. A mother with a cub especially, but any bear. They do not like to be crowded. That can quickly lead to a bad situation.

Follow Jennifer Holland on Twitter.

Justin Waters
Justin Waters

The human population in Florida has doubled in the last 30 years, not to mention the urban sprawl.  We need to learn to build vertical not horizontal; thereby, creating less environmental impact. 

Anurudda Udeny Dayarathna
Anurudda Udeny Dayarathna

Apparently, both the bear population and the human population in the area has increased. The report says that the black bear population nearly disappeared in the 70's, therefore, the increase in their numbers is not a bad thing. People have encroached into the bears habitat, and therefore, incidents like the one reported can happen ! The authorities and the residents have to find ways to minimize these incidents. Shooting five bears for every mauling is not the way to go about it !

Linda Wells
Linda Wells

Did any of you not read that the bear population has mushroomed???  This story is pretty even handed but some people have just got to put their own spin on the info.  Make humans out to be the only problem.....could not possibly be that the bears figure in the equation as part of the problem. 

Cynthia Carlson
Cynthia Carlson

The issue is the runaway population of humans and our insatiable demand for resources. We are chewing through the Earth and leaving very little for other species to survive. It's past  time the dialogue of overpopulation and incessant consumerism begin.

Justin L.
Justin L.

So to sum up this story, it's not bears that are at the root of the problem, it's humans, as is typically the case.  

Lisa Hronec
Lisa Hronec

People keep building homes closer to animal habitats and then wonder why the animals enter their neighborhoods? Really? The animals are losing the land they require to survive. There should be areas allocated only for animals that do not allow building within a certain range. Of course, money is everything so land will be sold for development.

We need to stand up for the animals and keep lands protected with fences so they can't endanger themselves by interaction with humans.

Mark Mack
Mark Mack

Would it have been so much trouble to sedate and relocate them??

susan linville
susan linville

Makes me sick that the animals are always paying the price for human greed & stupidity...:(

D. Spicable
D. Spicable

the attacks are up cause the bears find floridians tasty

J. Griffin
J. Griffin

Last year officials in New York state killed a bear just because he returned to the same area twice. He had not even attacked or gotten close to anyone!  I think the were just too lazy and heartless to continue to relocate the bear. 

Phil Blank
Phil Blank

One media post said she was grabbed off the porch, another said, when it first hit the news, that she was grabbed close to the trash dumping area, so which is it?

Now to your question, the reason it is happening is the wildlife habitat has been taken by ifiot humans!

Animals, ALL of them still need to find food and eat!

Its the same with deer in Ohio, they are hungry and will eat what ever and where ever they find food.

Expecially when humans toss trash in unlocked containers animals can get into!

And that is why!

Do not blame the animals, we took their land from them AND theirr food sources!

So don't complain or cry when your are kicked or bit!

If you must kill ANY animals,  be sure you can eat them first!!

Ricky Dittmer
Ricky Dittmer

@Linda Wells  Sure, the bear population has increased.  But it is still and always will be a small fraction of the original territory.  Humans however, are encroaching into entirely new territory, the last areas suitable for bear habitat in Florida. 

Linda Wells
Linda Wells

@Lisa Hronec  Try looking at the map that goes with this story.  There are already huge areas set aside for forests and animal habitat.  The Ocala National Forest is not small.  We bought our property (10 acres) in 1975 and built a house.  We built a pond, left the low part of our property natural and in other ways enjoy nature.  We lived here for 35 years and never saw a bear.  3 years ago the neighborhood began to have bear problems.  We did not move into the bears neighborhood; they moved to ours.  The reason:  As the story says the bear population has grown--due to the conservation efforts of MAN--and the increase in the number of bears has caused more bear-human interaction.  And to be clear where we live is on the edge of an unincorporated small town (1,100 Pop) and it has not grown or expanded.

Justin L.
Justin L.

@Lisa Hronec  Perhaps it's not the animals but the humans that need to be fenced in to keep them from doing damage to others...

mike waller
mike waller

@Phil Blank   Ummm... God put humans over the animals, NOT the other way around.   I find it rather odd that you call the actions idiotic.  IF you live in a house, apartment, condo, etc. then you have taken over some animals habitat.  But again you have it wrong. Should we demo the housing so the bears can have their habitat back?  That would be idiotic.  This lady walked out of her house and the bear attacked her. What was so "idiotic" about that?  And please remember that most of these bears over the last decade have been killed by vehicles. Again, not so idiotic. 

Neil Singh
Neil Singh

@Cher Renke  they aren't 'true hibernators'. plus florida is kinda warmer than other parts of north america

Connie Barnett
Connie Barnett

Have you talked to God and he told you that humans are better and more deserving than the animals?! In my religious learnings, God teaches to love and RESPECT ALL LIVING THINGS. If development destroys the animal's entire habitat without regard to allow them to ALSO continue to flourish, then it is extemely wrong!! I wouldn't call it idiotic. I would call the human actions greedy and barbaric! Just because humans seem to have more intelligence, doesn't mean they use it. Humans that are one with the land and the animals are those who will survive. I live in the country and have animals. Coyotes visit quite often searching for "my food". I fire warning shots only to protect my animals and will continue to do only that. Animals killed by vehicles are STILL killed by humans, not the vehicle. And most of those humans just weren't paying attention. When I drive I don't just watch oncoming traffic. I constantly scan the sides of the road for animals who could be ready to cross. In my 40 years of driving I have never killed anything with my vehicle...not even a chipmunk. If God put something on earth that was now "over" humans, do you think you'd feel the same way or would you hope that they would want to "share" your space with you instead of just wiping you out?! Ponder hard about your answer.


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