Photograph by Philip Schermeister, National Geographic

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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

Why Are Black Bear Attacks Up in Florida?

A woman was grabbed in her garage by a black bear, and officials kill five animals. An expert tells us why.

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?")

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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.

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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.

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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.

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