By Dr. Ruscena Wiederholt
Ubiquitous in nurseries, toy stores, and playrooms, stuffed bears have been a favorite of children for over a century. The origin of these cuddly, plush playthings is far from the infantile world — ironically rooted in hunting, bear hunting specifically.
In 1902, former President Theodore Roosevelt, an avid hunter, was on a bear hunting trip. When he failed to find any bears on the trip, his guides captured and tied a bear to a tree. Roosevelt found it unsportsmanlike for him to shoot it, forcing his hunting guides to kill the wounded animal instead. This act captured the public’s attention, and a political cartoon was drawn showing the president nobly refusing to kill a rather cute black bear. The cartoon inspired an inventor to make a stuffed toy bear, naming it “Teddy’s Bear,” and the rest is history.
Here in Florida, we have a unique version of that rather unfortunate inspiration for toys, the Florida black bear. A subspecies of the American black bear, they belong to a mammalian clan with an extensive array of talents. For instance, bears have an excellent sense of smell, seven times better than that of a bloodhound. Despite their appearance as lumbering hulks, black bears are excellent swimmers and can run up to 30 m.p.h. They are also very dexterous, opening screw-top jars, manipulating door latches, and successfully operating touch screen computers. Computer-literate bears? In case you’re wondering, this was part of a psychological experiment testing their numerical abilities, which turns out is much better than we thought.
Despite this impressive list of skills, the fate of the black bears in Florida was not such a rosy one. By the 1970s, less than 1000 adult bears survived hunting, habitat loss, and habitat degradation. At that time, they roamed across only 18% of their original range that stretched from the Florida Keys to the southern extents of Georgia and Alabama. Consequently, the State of Florida listed them as threatened. Over the last several decades, bans and stricter regulations on hunting, along with improved management and protection of their habitat, helped their numbers rebound. With over 4,000 bears in Florida in 2012, they were delisted.
The 1902 Washington Post political cartoon of Theodore Roosevelt that inspired the teddy bear name.
So that’s the end of our bear rebound story, right? Not quite, in 2015, the first Florida black bear hunt since 1994 was held. Public opposition to the hunt was fierce, with protests, lawsuits, and over 75% of public comments objecting to the hunt. The chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission unexpectedly resigned two months before the hunt. Despite widespread disapproval, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission went ahead with the hunt. However, it was shut down after only two days. At that time, nearly 300 bears had already been killed, including nursing females and juveniles. There have been no Florida bear hunts since.
Despite the public’s love of fictional bears and teddy bears, these real-life mammals still face many threats. A major threat to Florida black bears is collisions with cars, killing as many as 200 bears annually. Sea level rise and development may chip away at Florida black bear habitat in the future, and habitat fragmentation and human-bear conflicts are other risks. Despite the common portrayal of bears as aggressive, black bears are reclusive and shy. Nonetheless, attacks on humans can occur, albeit very rarely. Fortunately, there are simple ways to reduce human-bear conflicts. For instance, feeding bears is a bad idea, because it makes them lose their fear of humans and they may become a nuisance. It’s also illegal, and if feeding 400-pound animals doesn’t sound dangerous, it should. Storing trash in a secured area and using bear resistant trash cans are other way to discourage bears from coming to your neighborhood.
We’ve come a long way from excessive praise of bear hunters to having a more sympathetic attitude towards these remarkable mammals. Hopefully, the Florida black bear will thrive and continue to inspire our imaginations for generations to come. In South Florida, Everglades restoration projects like the 55,000-acre Picayune Strand restoration will help to improve habitat for black bear and other imperiled species like the Florida panther and the bald eagle.